The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Justice's Criminal Division.
Brian Benczkowski, a Republican lawyer who once served as a staff director of the committee for former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was advanced in an 11-9 party-line vote and will soon head to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote.
Benczkowski admitted earlier this year that he worked for Russia's Alfa Bank during his time as a partner at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. He also ran the Trump transition team at the Justice Department.
The New York Times first reported that Benczkowski represented the bank, one of Russia's largest with ties to President Vladimir Putin. The FBI investigated the bank last year after it was mentioned in a dossier containing unproven allegations about the Trump campaign and possible collusion with Russia, but it ultimately concluded there was no wrongdoing or misconduct.
Benczkowski also downplayed his role in the Trump campaign during his confirmation hearing.
"I played no role in the campaign. I had no title. I didn't advise the campaign, I didn't communicate with the campaign in any meaningful way, I didn't give any money, I didn't raise any money. I served as the head of the DOJ transition, which is a separate entity from the campaign. But I want to be clear, I played no role in the Trump campaign," Benczkowski told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in July.
Benczkowski pledged independence if confirmed, and said he would recuse himself for at least two years from any Justice Department matter that overlapped with his work on Alfa Bank.
"I would be recused from any matter involving Alfa Bank for the first two years of my tenure in the department if I'm fortunate enough to be confirmed," he said in July. "With respect to this particular matter, this investigation that we conducted for Alfa Bank, if the subject matter of that investigation in some way comes before me in the criminal division at any point in my tenure I want to be clear, I will recuse from that completely."
Feinstein voted against Benczkowski on Thursday, and said she was worried that he has never been a federal prosecutor.
"I'm concerned that he doesn't have the qualifications or independence needed to lead this important branch of government," she said.
As the head of the Criminal Division, Benczkowski could sit in on meetings with special counsel Robert Mueller on his team's ongoing Russia probe, something that irked Democrats on the panel.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said the Justice Department never fully answered a letter from him asking if Benczkowski will have access to such meetings, and said he was worried that as head of the criminal division that he would become "a backchannel source of information from this Special Counsel investigation to the recused Attorney General."
"The only apparent qualification he brings to this job is his close political relationship with" Sessions, Whitehouse said. This year, Sessions recused himself from the Justice Department's Russia probe because of his interactions with Russian officials during his time as a senator and advisor to the Trump campaign, which paved the way for a special counsel.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, shot down that idea because of what he said a lack of evidence "that something bad is happening."