The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion James Comey: Justice is supposed to be blind. Bill Barr can’t see that.

Attorney General William P. Barr at the Justice Department on Jan. 13. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Afp Via Getty Images)

James B. Comey is a former director of the FBI and former deputy attorney general.

Recent events have prompted a lot of talk about the Justice Department and threats to its credibility. Many alumni of the department believe the president and attorney general are doing grievous damage to an essential American institution.

Other people might not understand what we are so worried about. They might not know this institution and appreciate the gravity of the threat.

What is the Justice Department? Most people — even those who work there — don’t fully know, because it is such a large and complex organization. Only the attorney general and deputy attorney general can really see the whole thing. Because I was lucky enough to hold one of those jobs, let me tell you what I saw.

The Justice Department is 113,000 people trying to do good in every part of this country and around the world. They are:

  • Special agents and deputy marshals, thousands of them, right now risking their lives to protect others.
  • Career prosecutors who will be up late tonight working on a summation to explain to a jury tomorrow why a gangster, fraudster or sexual predator is guilty.
  • Paralegals who spent the long weekend organizing the exhibits to be shown to that jury because the prosecutors keep mixing them up.
  • Civil lawyers trying court cases against lavishly funded law firms and private entities, struggling to find enough three-ring notebooks to put their papers in and laughing when they hear people speak of the “awesome resources of the federal government” as they jealously eye the fancy supplies on the opposing law firm’s courtroom table.
  • Employees on Indian reservations, in embassies abroad, in crime labs, at crime scenes and in small hotel rooms interviewing protected witnesses.
  • Thousands and thousands of secretaries, document clerks, custodians and support people who never get thanked enough.

That’s the Justice Department.

It is a hugely diverse collection of people who all depend on the same thing — an amazing gift they received on joining the department. It is a gift they might not have noticed until the first time they stood up and identified themselves as a Justice employee and said something — whether in a courtroom, a conference room or at a cookout — and found that total strangers believed what they said next.

They were believed because, when they spoke, they weren’t seen as Republicans or Democrats. They were seen as something separate and apart in American life — a group of people trying to do the right thing.

That gift, which makes possible so much of the good they accomplish, is a reservoir of trust and credibility, a reservoir built for them, and filled one drop at a time, by those who went before — most of whom they never knew. They were people who made sacrifices and kept promises to contribute to that reservoir. They were people who made mistakes, and admitted them. They were people who made hard calls without regard to politics or privilege, who sought the facts and applied them to the law.

The obligation of all Justice employees is to protect that reservoir, to pass it to those who follow, who will likely never meet or know them.

The problem with reservoirs is that it takes tremendous time and effort to fill them, but one hole in a dam can drain them quickly. The protection of that reservoir requires vigilance, an unerring commitment to truth and a recognition that the actions of one may affect the priceless gift that benefits all.

If Justice Department employees are no longer seen as something separate in American life, we are all less safe. If jurors, judges, victims, witnesses, cops and sheriffs come to see them as part of a political tribe, and so trust them less, something essential is lost.

Now, one person, Attorney General William P. Barr, threatens the reservoir of trust. From the beginning, this attorney general has echoed the president, aping his dishonest characterizations of the department’s work and appearing to respond to President Trump’s self-interested demands for new investigations and prosecutions. And the water began draining. Last week, it started gushing out when the attorney general intervened in a case involving one of the president’s friends to overrule the sentencing recommendation of career prosecutors.

I have heard Barr say he doesn’t care about his legacy. Maybe not, but he should care about the reservoir. The people of Justice depend upon it. He should care enough about them — and the rest of us — to protect this vital American asset. The reputation of the Justice Department is more important than any of us, even an angry, vindictive president.

Read more:

Ruth Marcus: William Barr has energetically played the role of presidential wingman

Dana Milbank: Bill Barr learns that Trump is a crafty badger

Hugh Hewitt: Bill Barr and clients who tweet

Greg Sargent: Barr’s ABC News interview is deeply damning. Here’s what must come next.

Jennifer Rubin: What to do with an attorney general who disdains justice