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Why Trump's choice to lead the DOJ's criminal division is so controversial

Brian Benczkowski's nomination to lead the Department of Justice's criminal division isn't generating big headlines. That's a shame, because it should be.
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

When it comes to controversial nominations, much of the political world is understandably focused on Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, but the Senate is scheduled to vote today on a very different nominee that also deserves attention.

Senate Democrats are pushing back against President Trump's nominee for assistant attorney general, citing concerns over his past work for a Russian bank.A number of Democrats issued statements on Tuesday raising red flags about the nomination of Brian Benczkowski to lead the Department of Justice's criminal division. They cited his lack of prosecutorial experience, as well as his ties to a Russian bank.

Brian Benczkowski, a former aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions before the Alabama Republican became attorney general, probably isn't a household name, and the fight over his nomination hasn't exactly captured the political world's attention, but if you watch The Rachel Maddow Show, you know why his nomination matter.

And if you don't, it's time to get up to speed.

Leading the Justice Department's criminal division is an important and high-profile job, which involves overseeing hundreds of federal prosecutors as well as all federal criminal prosecutions at the DOJ.

Which is why Benczkowski was a curious choice for Donald Trump to make: Benczkowski has never prosecuted a criminal case. He's never prosecuted a civil case. He's never even filed a motion in a federal court.

So what is Benczkowski's experience?

Well, he was part of Trump's transition team, at which point he asked for a job in the Justice Department. But first, he went back to private practice, where took on the task of representing a Russian bank called Alfa Bank, which had a bit of a public-relations problem after it was featured prominently in the Steele dossier on Trump's alleged connections with Russia.

Alfa Bank commissioned an investigation to clear up its mess, and Benczkowski helped take the lead in the effort.

And once that was done, the president decided he shouldn't just get some low-profile job at the Justice Department; Benczkowski should lead the DOJ's criminal division, despite his lack of relevant experience.

Yesterday, Benczkowski received unanimous support from Senate Republicans (and West Virginia's Joe Manchin) to advance his nomination, and the final confirmation vote is scheduled for this afternoon.

If he's confirmed, as appears likely, Benczkowski will, among other things, be in a line of succession to oversee Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation if Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein ever gets fired or quits -- and Benczkowski hasn't committed to recusing himself from matters related to the probe into the Russia scandal.

Watch this space.

Update:  The Senate confirmed Benczkowski this afternoon on a 51-48 vote. Despite the controversy, Republicans were again unanimous in their support for the nominee, while every Democrat except Manchin voted against him.