A crowd of about 100 protesters gathered Nov. 8 outside the U.S. Federal District Courthouse in Richmond to express their collective discontent with the firing of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“If you look through history at other countries, when their leaders decide that they can choose their own judges and prosecutors that is a slippery slide to dictatorship,” said protest host and VCU Ph.D. candidate Adam Blakeney. “We have had presidents in the past — [Richard] Nixon comes to mind — that tried to select their own investigators, and look how that turned out.”
Many fear President Donald Trump’s decision to fire Sessions is an attempt to obstruct U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, given that Matthew Whitaker — serving as acting U.S. attorney general since Sessions’ resignation — has been openly critical of the investigation. On Aug. 6, 2017, Whitaker wrote an op-ed titled “Mueller’s investigation of Trump is going too far.” Whitaker suggested Mueller may be looking into Trump’s finances that have nothing to do with the 2016 election, and that “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”
In February 2017, Sessions recused himself from Mueller’s Russia investigation. Sessions’ resignation came at Trump’s request less than 24 hours after the midterm elections. His dismissal triggered protests across the country — demands that Whitaker recuse himself from the investigation as Sessions did to ensure the investigation’s credibility and Mueller’s place as overseer.
Blakeney said it was important that Richmonders showed solidarity with the rest of the protesters around the country.
Protesters carried signs with demands such as “Whitaker must recuse” and statements like “the president is not above the law.” Drivers honked their horns in solidarity as they passed. Throughout the two-hour long event, the crowd’s energy remained high. Protesters also came from neighboring areas, including College of William & Mary law student Megan Tholen.
“This transcends [political parties],” Tholen said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican, independent or Democrat; it is an American issue. If either side tried this, it is a threat to the Constitution — it is a threat to the American people — and we need to make our voices heard.”
Protester Michael Grabow said he hopes both U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi keep up pressure on Whitaker to recuse himself from the Russian investigation.
“I just hope that Mueller’s investigation is unimpeded until completion,” Grabow said.
Patience Armstrong, who led some of the chants at the protest, said she fears the country is becoming an oligarchy.
“We’ve got people who are making millions off of being in government instead of being servants to the nation — which is what we elect them to do,” Armstrong said.
Among local community leaders present was Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El who said he wanted to show his support for the Constitution and rule of law.
“We are in a real moment of crisis for our democracy,” Knopf said. “Firing Sessions and replacing him with Whitaker is essentially an attempt by the president to escape the eye — and ramifications — of the law. The American people can not stand idly by while our democracy is ripped away from us.”