Retiring Federal Prosecutor Goes Public With Harsh Criticism Of AG William Barr
Phil Halpern worked as a prosecutor at the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s office for 36 years, serving six presidents and 19 different attorneys general.
His high-profile cases have included the corruption cases of former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, former CIA Executive Director Kyle Dusty Foggo and Mexican billionaire Jose Susumo Azano Matsura. Most recently, he led the team that successfully prosecuted former 50th District Congressman Duncan Hunter Jr. and his wife, Margaret Hunter, for misusing campaign funds.
But Halpern quit his job late last month because of what he called U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr’s “politicization” of the Justice Department. The 67-year-old Halpern sat down with KPBS reporter Amita Sharma to talk about the Justice Department during Donald Trump’s presidency and how next month’s election will shape its future.
What follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You wrote in an op-ed piece that Attorney General William Barr’s resentment toward-rule-of law prosecutors became tough to ignore over the last year. What did you mean by that?
What I meant by rule of law is that every single prosecutor in the Department of Justice is sworn to follow the laws of the United States. That’s the very fundamental bedrock of our democracy. When we have an attorney general, the head prosecutor, who thinks it’s more important to follow the dictates of a president than it is to follow the laws of the United States, we have a problem.
Q: Tell me specifically, why did you decide to leave the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego?
I was hoping when (Barr) selectively quoted from the Mueller report, it was a mistake. He wasn’t trying to mislead the American people. However, it became clear when I saw what happened in the (Paul) Manafort case, the (Michael) Flynn case, the (Roger) Stone case, the imposition of the president’s will through him in the normal course of justice, this became too much. And it just continued from there. There were countless instances that career prosecutors got very upset about.
Whether it was trying to stop Michael Cohen from publishing a book or attempting to represent (first lady) Melania Trump's interest in a book against his wife. These are all problematic. It also took the form of trying to prevent the president's tax returns from being public.
That had nothing to do with what Trump did in office, but that he filed years before. Attorney General Barr was working as Donald Trump's personal lawyer, as opposed to the lawyer for the people of the United States, which is his job. The individuals in the Department of Justice recognize that.
There was also Barr’s selective use of his power to denounce left-wing protesters in Portland, but his complete silence in the face of right-wing protesters in Michigan. And in fact, it’s worse than that. When the president tweeted his ire at the Michigan governor (Gretchen Whitmer), Bill Barr doubled down and followed up with a statement saying that her public health orders was the worst intrusion of civil liberties since slavery. That’s simply nonsense and it’s offensive. And it’s offensive to every single employee who believes in the rule of law.
This is outrageous. He's acting as the president's consigliere, his mafia attorney.
The better question is almost why did I stay as long as I did? And I stayed because I thought it was imperative to complete the prosecution of Duncan Hunter and his wife. President Trump made it clear in an early tweet that he was upset with the attorney general for indicting both Duncan Hunter and (Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Collins of New York), two of his ardent supporters in Congress. Given that, I was very, very concerned that there would be meddling from the Department of Justice if I left, therefore I stayed so I could complete that prosecution. Then it was only a matter of time of tying up loose ends.
Q: Was there a moment for you, a turning point when you said to yourself, “That’s it, I’m out of here?”
There were so many turning points. It was a long slide and in fact, I had to fight to stay in the department and remain working for him and the reason I did so was two-fold, one it was because of the Hunter prosecution, which is important, and the other part was loyalty to the people I was working with. These people are dedicated to making sure the rule of law is followed. They’re dedicated to making sure that politicians are held accountable, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats and I felt solidarity with these people.
Q: Some might say Barr’s predecessor, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions acted more egregiously when he went along with a Trump Administration plan in 2018 to prosecute all undocumented immigrants even if children had to be separated from their parents. And many of these children ended up in cages, in detention. Did you think about leaving the Justice Department then?
I want to make it clear that I found that policy reprehensible and I wanted nothing to do with it. However, everybody needs to know this: elections have consequences. That was a policy that Trump put in place when elected and it was a policy that the entire government had and it was a broad policy in terms of how we wanted to treat immigration. But yet I recognized that broad policies are within the purview of the government. In that regard, I found it distasteful but I felt like what I was doing — political corruption work — was important. The reason we don’t have Jeff Sessions today is he wouldn’t do Trump’s bidding.
So, it bothered me. But at the time, I waited and I said as long as I personally would have nothing to do with it, I could do more good on the inside. I was, what I think Donald Trump would refer to derisively, as the deep state. I want you to know that’s a term that the career people in the department of justice and every other agency now wear with pride.
Q: Several federal prosecutors have quit the justice department under Barr, including the four who worked on the Roger Stone case. Why did you go public with your criticism of Barr?
Well, I'm towards the end of my career and I had less to lose. It was still a serious decision. It was something that troubled me greatly. I love the Department of Justice. I've made my entire career there. Its people are some of the best you could find anywhere. And in many ways, going against the Department of Justice is seen as an attack. Now, I want to make it clear, I went against the attorney general and the leadership of the Department of Justice, not the department. But no prosecutor wants to walk that narrow line, especially if they ever want to work again in the Department of Justice. I also felt, because I weighed being silent, that silence is really the enemy of democracy. Unless people speak up, we won't have a democracy.
Q: How widely shared are your views about Barr in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego?
One simple word: widely. I have to tell you one of the best things that’s come from this, because obviously some people are upset at me. But that’s balanced by the hundreds of emails, text messages, phone calls from people telling me they’re happy with what I did. They’re proud of me that I gave them a voice. And because of that, I am forever grateful.
Q: What have been the consequences for U.S. attorneys offices across the country of having Attorney General Barr at the helm?
The consequences have to do with morale. Somebody says, "who's your boss?" If you have to say Bill Barr, you're not going to hold your head up high when people see how he's politicizing the Department of Justice.
Q: The U.S Attorney in San Diego, Bob Brewer — your former boss — sent out a press release this week, designating prosecutor Chris Tenorio as the Southern District’s election officer and the goal is to deter election fraud and discrimination at the polls. What’s your take on this move?
I have nothing bad to say about Bob Brewer in doing something like this. The fact of the matter is, Chris Tenorio has been our election fraud coordinator for years and years. He's a loyal public servant. He's a great guy. He's going to do a good job. My problem is not with that. My problem is with the Department of Justice and Bill Barr for the first time since I can remember in decades, changing our policies to say that he is going to attempt to bring charges regarding election fraud before the election. That's very, very dangerous.
Now, the reason that's so dangerous is because Bill Barr is likely, at the president's command, to bring those charges selectively. We already saw the statements by the president regarding the Pennsylvania so-called election fraud, where supposedly some military ballots were not being counted. That's selective and that should never be done. We need to learn the lesson by what James Comey did years ago. Longstanding department policy is, "You do not bring charges on cases until you indict somebody."
It's so critical for our democracy that the people understand that the Department of Justice is not going to weigh in to help one side or the other. That can't be done.
Q: What’s your prediction for the Justice Department if President Trump wins the election next month?
I can't believe I'm saying this, because if you had asked me the same question a year ago, maybe even six months ago, I'd say, "Don't worry, Amita, we have a strong democracy. We don't have anything to worry about in this country. We have the courts, we have the press. We're going to be fine."
I can't say that now. If Bill Barr is put in charge of the Justice Department and Donald Trump of this country for another four years, I think our democracy is at risk. I think this country could slip into tyranny. It would be a disaster. This is a scary time. We can’t have a puppet attorney general. We can’t have a demonized press. We can’t have immigrants who are made to feel like scapegoats. A president who asks for his political opponents to be indicted and jailed is a dictator. This is reprehensible. People can’t lose track of this. Donald Trump does so many things that are outlandish, that people simply say, "It’s just Donald being Donald." No democracy can have the president ask for the jailing of his political opponents. If we do, we’re gonna be more like Russia or Turkey than we’re going to be like the United States.
Q: And if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election next month, what happens at the Justice Department?
Well, it's simple. We’ll have an attorney general installed who follows the rule of law. We know what type of person Joe Biden is because we've seen that in eight years as vice president. We're going to have the people of the United States be represented by the attorney general. And we're going to have an attorney general who is not a lapdog of the president.