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Assistant U.S. Attorney On Why He's Leaving DOJ After More Than 30 Years


Philip Halpern has had enough. He spent 36 years as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice based in San Diego winning high-profile cases, including corruption prosecutions against members of Congress. Now he says Attorney General William Barr has turned his back on the rule of law. He is just the latest career prosecutor to resign with a public letter warning that the Justice Department is becoming politicized. And Philip Halpern joins us now from San Diego. Welcome.

PHILIP HALPERN: Well, thank you for having me. But I have to tell you at the outset it's a very sad day for me when I feel it's necessary to speak out against the attorney general of the United States.

SHAPIRO: Well, let me ask, why this attorney general? - because you have served under 19 AGs and six presidents. They've had wildly different agendas and ideologies ranging from John Ashcroft on one end to Eric Holder on the other. In your mind, what makes Bill Barr different?

HALPERN: Well, let me tell you, as a career federal prosecutor, I checked my political allegiance at the door long ago. I've spent almost my entire career, as you say, in the department. I cherish the work that it does on a daily basis. And frankly, Barr has served previously before and loyally before. The fact of the matter is it probably comes down to the person he's working for.

It's become apparent to me, from General Kelly to General Mattis to John Bolton to Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump has made it crystal clear that there's simply no place in his administration for anyone who places loyal service to their country over blind obedience to him. And that's troubling to me because these are the actions of a dictator and not a patriot. And unfortunately, it's become all too clear that Bill Barr has chosen typically to play the lapdog and follow this president's lead.

SHAPIRO: And your list of concerns stretches back more than a year. You mentioned the release of the Mueller report in April of 2019, clemency for Roger Stone, early release of Paul Manafort, clearing protesters from Lafayette Square. With this long list of things that have offended you, why didn't you resign at any of those earlier moments?

HALPERN: It's certainly something that crossed my mind. Unfortunately, I had a difficult decision to make. During the last year, I've been responsible for overseeing the prosecution of Congressman Duncan Hunter, one of Trump's earliest supporters in Congress. And given the state of the Department of Justice now, I felt it was imperative that I continue working there to ensure that there was no meddling with that case.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. is just three weeks out from a general election. There could be a new attorney general in January. What made you decide it was not worth waiting it out?

HALPERN: Well, the fact of the matter is it was a continual onslaught of things that hasn't stopped to this day. You've mentioned a number of them, but they continue to go on last week and this week, the latest being this suing of Melania Trump's best friend, previously trying to block Michael Cohen's book and the latest, which I think was commented on by Vice President Biden last night in a very measured way - calls by the president to indict Biden and Obama. This is intolerable. I'm not sure people understand the extent that this augurs, you know, a new and darker future, tyranny rather than a democracy. And I just felt that it had been too much.

SHAPIRO: Were you hoping that, with the timing of your resignation and the public nature of it, that it would have a political impact? I mean, it's hard to ignore the fact that this is coming just a couple of weeks before an election.

HALPERN: I've got to tell you, I'm shocked. I felt, for a number of reasons, I had to say something. I truly believe that silence is the enemy of democracy. And I just didn't see, you know, prosecutors regularly stepping up and protesting. What we all talk about - well, not all of us, but many, many people talk about all across the Department of Justice as being problematic. But I never thought this would be picked up more than just a local article in the newspaper.

SHAPIRO: Several other career prosecutors, as you mentioned, have left the department with public statements under Attorney General Barr. The lawyers prosecuting Roger Stone quit as a group. A prosecutor investigating the origins of the Russia investigation quit last month. Do you think these departures are having an impact on Barr?

HALPERN: I can only hope so. As I said, I didn't think that this would probably even come to Barr's attention, but I hope it does. And frankly, Trump's latest calls to indict Biden and Obama in the so-called Durham investigation - it's my hope that that, even for Bill Barr, is a hurdle that he will not cross.

SHAPIRO: How much of this is fixable? If Joe Biden wins the election and a new attorney general takes office in January, can the damage be undone?

HALPERN: That's a difficult question. I think much of the damage can be done by simply appointing an independent attorney general, frankly - Republican or Democrat. It doesn't matter to me. It just has to be an independent attorney general who remembers the mission statement of the Department of Justice is to enforce the laws and defend the United States, not the president of the United States. However, in our society, we have a lot of other problems. We need to make sure that this constant assault on the press is stopped because only with the free press, you know, can our democracy flourish. We have to stop demonizing, you know, immigrants and different people for democracy to flourish. I'm an optimist, and I really hope that this will come to pass.

SHAPIRO: Philip Halpern was a federal prosecutor for 36 years in San Diego. Thank you for speaking with us.

HALPERN: Ari, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And we reached out to the attorney general's office. They declined to comment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.