Unflappable, tough-talking U.S. Attorney John Huber admittedly had a case of the jitters when he had to face the Washington media in the White House briefing room.
The Department of Justice summoned him to the nation’s capital on short notice to hold a news conference on immigration. The DOJ at the time was having trouble getting any of its own messages out because wherever Attorney General Jeff Sessions went, the press just wanted to talk about the Russia investigation.
Huber spent a day prepping to talk from a Utah perspective about proposed federal laws aimed at making stiffer penalties for deported immigrants who return illegally to commit crimes.
“I was freaking out,” he said.
As then-deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders escorted him to the small theater in the West Wing of the White House, he heard the clicking of cameras in the room packed with reporters. As he took the podium, he told himself to pretend he was in Salt Lake City, to pretend they were Utah media.
Now, Utah reporters are no slouches, but they are not the Washington press corps, famed for testy exchanges with presidential press secretaries over the years. But they had no idea who Huber was, which might have been part of DOJ’s strategy to get its message out.
Huber survived the press conference. The other thing he told himself that day in June 2017 was to soak it all in because he would never “find myself at the center of the power of the universe” again.
It was one of several pinch-me moments for a kid from Magna, Utah, a working-class town west of Salt Lake City with a reputation for foul-tasting water. He still lives across the street from the elementary school he attended and the home he grew up in is just down the block.
Huber’s tenure as U.S. attorney in Utah will come to an end Sunday after serving under three presidents, albeit only a few weeks with President Joe Biden. He is the rare U.S. attorney to be appointed by both a Democratic and Republican president. Huber figures that in this age, he might be the last one.
Biden this month asked Huber and U.S. attorneys across the country to submit their resignations — as President Donald Trump did four years ago — so he can replace them with his own appointees.
“I’ve worked for three presidents now, two of whom have fired me. That’s not a great batting average,” Huber said with a laugh.
On the “vanity” wall in his 19th floor corner office on Main Street with sweeping views of the Salt Lake Valley, he has pictures of himself with Biden, Trump and Barack Obama, who first appointed him in 2015. (Local law firms question how the government scored such sweet office space, but Huber insists the feds won the bid fair and square.)
Biden, who was vice president at the time of the photo with Huber, signed it, “John, you’re the best.”
“I kind of wish I could send that to him,” Huber said.
Huber, 53, would like to stay on the job, but it isn’t in the cards this time. All it took when he resigned under Trump was a phone call to Sessions — a voicemail, actually — from now-retired Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to keep him employed four years ago.
It was Hatch’s considerable clout in Washington that got Huber, a Republican with no political connections, appointed during the Obama administration. His only tie to Hatch was the letter the senator sent him when he became an Eagle Scout.
Huber was more of a company man working as a line prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a dozen years under several bosses when the top job opened up.
Having come highly recommended by former Utah U.S. Attorney Paul Warner and the late federal Judge Dee Benson — both of whom had the political connections Huber lacked — he met with Hatch in his Salt Lake City office.
Huber’s exchange with Hatch went something like this:
“So, I imagine you’re a Democrat,” the senator said.
“No sir, I’m not,” Huber replied.
“You’re a Republican?” Hatch asked.
“Yes sir, I am,” Huber answered.
“Why are you a Republican? That’s not going to help you,” Hatch said. “Do you have any Democrat friends?”
When Huber affirmed that he did, Hatch said, “Well, you better have some. You better make some new Democrat friends, too.”
Huber’s final interview came with then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in Bobby Kennedy’s old office — the one with BB gun holes in the wood paneling courtesy of the one-time attorney general’s children — in the DOJ building that now bears his name.
“It was very intimidating,” said Huber, adding that waiting for Holder made him nervous and uncomfortable.
Holder walked in with a couple of staff members and flipped through a stack of papers, ostensibly about Huber.
“Well John, I can see you’re eminently qualified for this position but I don’t know how Sen. Hatch gets these things done,” Holder said.
Huber didn’t know whether to take it as a compliment or what.
“I inferred that OK, here’s a white male Mormon conservative registered Republican and he’s about to be nominated by President Obama. How does that happen?” he said.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took 14 months from the time Huber met with Hatch until the Senate confirmed him. Huber suspects replacing him will again be a low priority in a Democratic administration.
Hatch said he pushed for Huber’s nomination because he knew he would serve justice well.
“As John concludes his tenure, all I can say is he did not disappoint. Our communities are stronger, our streets are safer, and our freedoms are more secure because of John Huber,” he said.
Having worked in Democratic and Republican administrations, including as an adviser to attorneys general Loretta Lynch, William Barr and Sessions, Huber has a unique perspective on what goes on behind the curtain. He said it would surprise people to know that the vast majority of the conversations are the same.
Though the emphasis might shift, he said going from Obama to Trump was “deja vu” and the DOJ’s core focus on national security, violent crime, drug trafficking, civil rights and fraud didn’t change. He said he worked with good people in both parties and that there was little difference between the two experiences.
“I don’t know that I’ll be a great talking head on a cable news bomb throwing episode because that’s not who I am, and because that’s not what my experience is,” he said.
Perhaps the most high-profile, politically explosive assignment Huber had during his time involved former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Clinton Foundation, former FBI Director James Comey’s leaking of memos and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuses. Huber spent most of his time on the emails, securing help from eight other U.S. attorney offices.
Sessions quietly tasked Huber at the behest of House Republicans with taking a fresh look at Clinton’s use of a private email server after the DOJ ended its investigation without any charges. Huber said he didn’t feel pressure in the assignment but the project was under extraordinary political scrutiny.
“I think it’s fair to say I was the designated spear catcher for the Department of Justice with that political scrutiny and those attacks that happened. I became the focal point of that,” he said, insisting the examination was sincere, not a “trick of mirrors.
In the end, the DOJ did not bring a case against Clinton for mishandling classified emails.
Going into the assignment, Huber said Sessions told him no matter what he did, it would not come out good for him.
Indeed, Huber’s conclusion drew a nasty Twitter rebuke from Trump, who called him a “garbage disposal unit” for ending the investigation without charges.
Huber said the most satisfying part of his job was making a positive impact on the quality of life in Utah, whether that was putting a drug trafficker or fraudster or violent criminal behind bars. He pointed to a project that significantly reduced violent crime in central Ogden, where he started his career in the Weber County Attorney’s Office.
“Of that 20% plus reduction, who was not raped? Who was not assaulted? Who did not die of an overdose? Who didn’t get their house hit in a drive-by shooting? Those did not happen because of our concerted efforts, and that feels good,” he said.
As a prosecutor, Huber focused a lot of his attention on what he calls “extremist” cases. He said it’s not acceptable for someone to decide to break the law to make a point.
He convicted former San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman for an ATV protest ride in southeastern Utah that damaged public lands. He also sent Tim DeChristopher to prison for bidding on parcels of land he couldn’t afford and driving up prices in an attempt to derail oil and gas drilling in the remote Utah wilderness.
Lyman, whom he called a “right winger,” and DeChristopher, a “left winger,” are two sides of the same coin, Huber said.
“Lawlessness and a selfish decision to exit the law to impose your view of the world on us, those cases motivate me. Wherever you are on the political spectrum doesn’t matter,” he said.
Trump pardoned Lyman, now a Republican state legislator, on his way out of door in January.
Huber called it a “strange” and “surreal” day as a U.S. attorney, noting three of the 15 pardons issued were cases he had worked on.
“I thought, ‘Well, what does that say about me?’” Huber said, acknowledging the president has the prerogative to pardon people.
A sign in Huber’s office reads, “Be the hammer, not the nail.” He has former University of Utah football coach Ron McBride to thank for that.
A linebacker once flattened Huber when he decided to rest for a play during practice at the U. McBride, then the offensive line coach, stood over the dazed freshman yelling, “Huber, be the hammer, not the nail.”
Huber still keeps in touch with McBride. When Sessions came to Salt Lake City in 2018, McBride called wanting to meet the then-attorney general. Huber introduced the two, and found them to be very much alike in their ability to motivate people.
At one point, Sessions asked McBride what kind of ball player Huber was.
“McBride was awesome. He looks over at me. He smiles. He looks back at Sessions and goes, ‘Johnny, he’s a good boy,’” Huber said.
Huber gave up his dream to play football at the University of Utah — his dad played for the Utes — after his freshman season and found he had all kinds of time to study. His grades improved and he eventually found his way to the law school. He met his wife, Lori, there. She gave up her family law practice after the birth of the second of their two daughters.
The Hubers will soon be empty nesters. The oldest daughter recently married and attends the U. with her husband. The younger one is deciding among the Coast Guard, West Point and the Naval Academy after she graduates from Cyprus High School this spring.
Huber plans to join a local law firm but practice for clients around the country in both civil and criminal cases.
Over the next couple of days, he’ll box up the photos, certificates and the M&Ms dispenser in his office. He cleared some space in his house to store the stuff until he finds a new landing spot.
He still wonders how someone without a pedigree was able to rub shoulders with some of the leaders of the free world. Despite what’s going on in the country, only in America could a “guy like me” have that chance, he said.
“America is still the land of opportunity,” Huber said. “You know, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you work hard, you put yourself in a position, good things can happen. America is still like that.”