For more than three decades, San Diego-based federal prosecutor Phil Halpern stayed away from politics and the public eye, unless, of course, it was to answer press questions following the successful conviction of a high profile defendant like former Congressman Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA).
But this week, the Ronald Reagan-era appointee announced he was frustrated, disgusted and resigning, and he wrote about why in an op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Halpern declared he could no longer work for U.S. Attorney General William Barr, due in part to his “slavish obedience” to President Donald Trump's political will. He also accused Barr of selectively meddling in prosecutions involving friends of the president, and advancing the president's political talking points including casting unsubstantiated doubt on the integrity of mail-in voting.
They way Halpern sees it, Barr acted like no other Attorney General ever has, or should.
But despite his seemingly long list of reasons, Halpern said his decision to resign was anything but easy.
‘It was an exceedingly difficult decision for me to make,” he told NBC 7’s Mark Mullen. “It's a sad day for me when I feel it's necessary to speak out against the Attorney General of the United States. I've spent almost my entire career in the department and I cherish the work it does on almost a daily basis.
Halpern walked the halls of the Department of Justice for 36 years. He served under 19 Attorney Generals and six presidents from both side of the aisle. Every Attorney General is a political appointee, so what made Barr different?
“Well, let me first say that I check any party allegiance at the door. Every single career prosecutor does. I don't care if the Attorney General is a Democrat or Republican or an Independent, but something's different right now and I think a lot of people understand that. When we look at this administration, from General Kelly, to General Mattis to John Bolton to Jeff Sessions. Donald Trump -- this president has made it crystal clear that there is simply no place in his administration for anyone, and I mean anyone, who places loyal service to their country over blind obedience to him. And that was troubling to me. These are the demands of a dictator, not a patriot, and unfortunately, it's all too clear that this Attorney General Bill Barr has chosen typically to play the lap dog and follow the president's lead.”
“The Attorney General of the United States has the right, and perhaps the duty, to weigh in on cases when he sees there’s a miscarriage of justice,” Halpern continued. “The problem here is the cases he was weighing in on was done selectively via Donald Trump’s tweets or Donald Trump’s statements, and when the Attorney General of the United States forgets he’s supposed to be representing the people of the united states and not the president, we have a real problem.”
Halpern’s resignation comes just weeks before the general election, but as he stated in his op-ed, it could’ve come sooner. Instead he chose to see the Duncan D. Hunter corruption case all the way through and defend the adjudication process from meddling or tampering.
Did he make that decision by following his gut? Was it fear that kept him on board through the trial?
“Let me make it clear. I had complete confidence in the team that was handling that case,” Halpern said. ‘They clearly could have tried that case without me. What I was concerned about was interference. From Washington or from the local office. Like every case, we have pushback. I’m not sure that this pushback was deliberately political, but it bothered me and it’s one of the reasons I decided to stay on the case. I’ve been around a long time and this clearly was a case that I wasn’t going to allow anyone to meddle with.
Halpern says there are still wonderful, dedicated prosecutors across the nation working to do the right thing.
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to NBC 7’s request for comment on this story.