“Protect Mueller” protests pop up across the country

Thousands of protesters assembled across the country on Thursday night to show support for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

The protests sprang up in reaction to a shakeup at the Department of Justice that has thrown the future of that investigation into doubt. On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions abruptly resigned, at the request of President Donald Trump. The president then moved to appoint Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, who will now oversee the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Whitaker, formerly Sessions’s chief of staff, is considered a Trump loyalist. He’s also expressed skepticism about the Mueller investigation, and publicly mused about ways to curtail its reach.

Trump’s decision to appoint Whitaker and pass over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — the No. 2 person at the DOJ, who previously headed up the Mueller investigation — has raised fears that the president is finally moving to stymie an investigation he’s long opposed.

In response, about 100,000 people turned out across the country, with protests popping up in approximately 900 cities nationwide, according to organizers. Progressive groups mobilized the “rapid response” rallies just one day after Sessions’s resignation.

Crowds gathered in Times Square in New York City at 5 pm local time, with thousands marching downtown to Union Square. They chanted “Nobody is Above the Law,” and brandished signs and banners that demanded “Hands Off Mueller.”

There were similar protests in cities from Washington, DC, to Seattle. Smaller towns and cities also held rallies that sometimes consisted of just a few people on a street corner.

“I attended because I care about the rule of law and this nonpartisan process,” an employee at the Department of Homeland Security who attended the Washington, DC protest told Vox. “Over 30 people have been indicted or made plea deals. This is no witch hunt. I wish I could take it as a foregone conclusion that the shuffle of AG’s was benign; I do not. Robert Mueller’s investigation strengthens America. It must continue.”

Since the Whitaker announcement, Democratic lawmakers, including Democratic state attorneys general, have demanded that Whitaker recuse himself from the Mueller investigation because of his past remarks, and leave Rosenstein in place. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have said the Mueller investigation should continue unimpeded.

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ) said Thursday that he and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons (CT) will demand a vote on a bill to protect Mueller — though there’s no guarantee that even if it goes to the vote it will pass the Senate, let alone the GOP-controlled House.

There are also rumblings over potential challenges to Whitaker’s appointment. Both conservative and liberal lawyers have suggested Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general is unconstitutional because he’s not Senate-confirmed, among other legal pitfalls.

Whitaker remains in place, and in power, for now. But the backlash is intensifying.

Alexia Underwood contributed reporting to this story.

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