We have a new contender In the stiff competition to be the worst Trump appointee.
It’s Brian Benczkowski, confirmed last week to a pivotal position as assistant attorney general. He has almost no relevant experience for the job, unless you count passing the bar.
What he does have, as former staffer and close friend of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is the president’s ear from his prior spot on his transition team as well as ties to Russia’s Alfa Bank at a time when Russia’s assumed Most Favored Nation status in the White House.
It was his representation of Alfa Bank that made his nomination one of the most hard fought of the administration. In early 2017, with the transition over, Benczkowski returned to his private law practice. He said yes to representing Alfa Bank as it fought charges that it had suspicious contact with a Trump Organization server. He also sued BuzzFeed on Alfa’s behalf for printing the Steele Dossier.
In June 2017, Trump nominated Benczkowski to head Justice’s Criminal Division. Rather than disclose his work for Alfa, Benczkowski kept it secret. When Democrats on Judiciary discovered that Alfa was a client in an FBI confidential file and confronted him. Benczkowski said he wasn’t being secretive but had been abiding by a clause in his contract which the client subsequently waived.
Once that was out in the open, Benczkowski agreed to recuse himself from matters involving the Kremlin institution of choice for billionaires close to Vladimir Putin. But he would not agree to recuse himself from matters involving its parent company, Alfa Group Consortium, which is like saying I’m giving up crack but not cocaine.
Alfa Group is owned largely by billionaires Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven, and German Khan, all on the Treasury Department’s potential sanctions list as “senior foreign officials and oligarchs in the Russian Federation, as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime.” A son-in-law of Khan, Alex Van der Zwaan, pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and went to prison.
It’s curious why Benczkowski would get the plum appointment to head Justice’s Criminal Division when his prior government jobs have been far more political than legal. Even among Trump appointees with no relevant experience Benczkowski stands out. The Criminal Division is home to 700 criminal prosecutors, the cream of the crop of American lawyers, who take on the government’s most sensitive and complex cases from public corruption to organized crime to money laundering. What use could a boss who’s not been in a courtroom unless it’s to serve on a jury, be? It’s unlikely he could land a job as a prosecutor yet he’s now running a battalion of them.
His appeal could be to an audience of one. The Alfa Bank connection is not a flaw, but a draw, for a Russophile president who trusts Putin more than his intelligence chiefs, pounds on Attorney General Sessions for recusing himself from the Russian investigation, and wakes up many mornings threatening to shut it down. When Sen. Dick Durbin and other Democrats on Judiciary got wind of his conflict, they sent a letter to Trump asking him to withdraw the nomination.
Trump did not and Benczkowski, emboldened, wouldn’t agree to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. The vote was held for a year and then brought up on one of the busiest weeks of the year when all eyes were on the Supreme Court nomination and Helsinki. Benczkowski got through on a party line vote 51-48 with only Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, which Trump won by more than 40 points, voting with Republicans.
That puts Benczkowski in the perfect position to meddle, noted former U.S. Attorney and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse before casting his “no” vote, with “supervisory control over Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation and the Southern District of New York criminal investigation.” That means he can do what the recused Sessions can’t do, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wouldn’t do, and what Trump so desperately wants someone to do: serve as a back channel from the Mueller probe to him and his lawyers.
Two House Congressional committees have been trying to do that for the last year. Last week, Republicans Rep. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan filed five articles of impeachment against Rosenstein which they’ve tabled temporarily in favor of contempt proceedings, if he doesn’t cough up the Mueller’s files they want.
This all gives Benczkowski a good chance of challenging the current frontrunner for worst-appointee held by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He just earned his 11th internal investigation this week for standing to profit from development of a mini-Disneyland around a park in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana. Zinke recently gave a speech in which he apologized for not moving faster to do Trump’s bidding, blaming it on the resistance of 30 percent of his employees who were not “loyal to the flag.” Which flag would that be?
You’d hope it’s not Trump’s (yes there is one) but the one Zinke has raised (and lowered) when he’s not at his desk by a compliant staffer, and the one Benczkowski sees flying over the Justice Department when he goes to work in the morning. It’s the one that flies over all of us. We’ll be watching to see which one Benczkowski salutes.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.