The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Trump-style justice becomes the norm, nobody is safe

Attorney General William P. Barr at the White House on Aug. 4. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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

President Trump hasn’t accomplished much, but, with an assist from Attorney General William P. Barr, he is leaving a legacy of damage to a vital American institution at the heart of the rule of law.

The Justice Department was damaged when the attorney general and the president lied to the American people about the work of the special counsel investigating the president.

They damaged it again when the attorney general intervened in a case involving the president’s friend Roger Stone to overrule the sentencing recommendation of career prosecutors.

And they damaged it again when the attorney general tried to drop a case in which the president’s ally Michael Flynn had already pleaded guilty, twice.

And again when the attorney general marched across a smoke-filled square that he had ordered cleared of protesters exercising their rights as Americans, all so the president could stand in front of a church and hold up the Bible as a political prop.

If we are to be a healthy nation, the damage must be repaired.

America has always depended on the truth.

The justice system in the United States is built upon the idea that the truth is a real thing and it must be spoken, by everybody. And that we all play by the same rules. It matters that judges and prosecutors don’t treat you differently because of who you are, what you look like, or who you know. Lady Justice wears a blindfold so all Americans get fair treatment.

“The rule of law depends upon the evenhanded administration of justice,” says the department’s own manual.

“Evenhanded” means you get a fair shake whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or neither. That means it shouldn’t matter whether Trump likes you or not. That means the chief prosecutor in this country — the attorney general of the United States — is not the president’s personal attorney. He and his institution have obligations to all of us, equally.

Justice’s blindfold must be restored. We have done it before, after Watergate, the last time the Justice Department was this damaged. And it will be easier this time, because a commitment to nonpartisan law enforcement — instilled in the 46 years since Richard M. Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford set out to restore the Justice Department — still lives in the hearts of the thousands of career agents and prosecutors.

The facts and the law — not loyalty to Trump, or wealth, or race — must be the only thing that matters. And no matter our politics, we should see it the same way.

I know that many Republicans don’t like what they see with the erosion of truth-telling and evenhanded law enforcement, but some tell themselves they don’t need to worry because their team holds the field. That’s dangerously shortsighted.

Because if Trump-style justice becomes our tradition, nobody is safe. If lying is rewarded, if the Justice Department starts deciding who to prosecute based on politics, all Americans are at risk, because eventually your party will be out of power, which means the people in power will be coming for you. That’s not America.

It is not America when the president calls people who cooperate with the Justice Department “rats” and praises those who obstruct justice and lie to protect him.

It’s not America when the president takes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side over the United States intelligence community.

Nor when he routinely lies about the people of the FBI, and smears former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a true American patriot who literally bled for this nation in Vietnam and then devoted his life to serving our country.

November’s election shouldn’t be about political tribe. When it comes to our core values, there is no “them.” There is only us. And one of our most sacred values is that the truth exists, that it must be sought and spoken. That it is our center, our touchstone. The founders created a system designed to have the best chance of finding the truth. It depends upon oaths and promises, solemn commitments to be honest.

Trump’s presidency represents a continuing frontal assault on the truth — on the very idea that “truth” exists. This president lies so often that we risk becoming numb to falsehoods. And in numbness there is danger — we could give up on the truth. And then America is lost.

We have lots of policy differences in this country, but those are for another day.

Because we need a president who will reflect the core values of honesty and decency that are the lifeblood of our nation and its institutions.

We need a president who will appoint an attorney general not because he needs a personal defense lawyer but because American justice needs a guardian.

We need a president who has devoted his life to serving others through the rule of law.

We need to elect Joe Biden.

Read more:

Katrina vanden Heuvel: How Trump betrays the working people who elected him

Paul Waldman: It’s official: Trump is the GOP. And the GOP is Trump.

Catherine Rampell: The GOP isn’t even pretending to stand for anything anymore

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The Republicans are a one-man party

David Byler: The forecast wars are here. Here’s how to navigate them.