“Democratic backsliding–does anybody know what that is?” posed Councilman Kristerfer Burnett to a crowd of at least 200 people downtown on Thursday night. “It’s the gradual deterioration of democratic institutions and practices, and erosion of free and fair elections, of free speech, of free association, of the rule of law. That’s what we’re seeing happening.”
The crowd had gathered there on the lawn between the War Memorial Building and City Hall to hear Burnett and other elected officials and civil rights advocates speak out against a change afoot in the U.S. Justice Department.
One day earlier, President Donald Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general of the United States. Formerly Sessions’ chief of staff, Whitaker has openly criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling and potential collusion between the country and the president in the 2016 election.
Trump’s appointment of Whitaker as overseer of the probe has Democrats and Republicans alike worried that he’s trying to quash the investigation before Democrats take control of the House in January.
The crowd and the speakers downtown were energized, running on liberal momentum from Tuesday’s midterm election that saw Democrats overtake the House of representatives, guaranteeing a divided Congress for the final two years of President Donald Trump’s first term.
“Over the last couple years, I fell like our democracy, our country has been sliding on loose gravel, close to the precipice,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, who was re-elected to a sixth term representing Maryland in Congress this week. “But on Tuesday night, America found its footing. Now, it’s still a long hard path back to the America we believe in, and we want to see, but we had an important victory the other night.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, who’s likely to resume his post as chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in January, headlined the roster of politicians speaking at the event, part of a wave similar protests taking place across the country on Thursday at 5 p.m. to demand that Whitaker recuse himself from the investigation.
Cummings brought some breaking news to the crowd–that Whitaker’s associates said this afternoon that the acting attorney general won’t abide that demand. “Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a choice,” the Baltimore congressman said defiantly. “He must recuse himself.”
The White House has said Whitaker will oversee the probe, which has thus far led to criminal charges (and subsequent guilty pleas) for seven Trump associates, with others pending, since it began in May 2017. Activists are calling for Whitaker to recuse himself in light of his very vocal criticism of the investigation last year, including in an op-ed he penned for CNN in which he called for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to limit its scope to keep it from looking like “a political fishing expedition.”
Whitaker–who some analysts are arguing actually isn’t eligible to be appointed–has also defended Trump from concerns about the potential conflict of interest of him owning a hotel on leased federal land in Washington D.C., shared an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in August 2017 titled, “Note to Trump’s lawyer: Do not cooperate with Mueller lynch mob,” and has otherwise criticized the Mueller probe numerous times on political talk shows.
At the protest, Steve Hollaway, of Mount. Vernon, said appointment of the Iowan prosecutor and GOP politician as acting attorney general amounts to “an act of obstruction in itself.”
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “I’m not surprised that he fired Sessions–I figured he would he would after the election—but you’d think he’d put somebody more legitimate in there, not a CNN talking head who’s been talking about how this is a bad investigation.”
The turmoil at the helm of the Justice Department was enough to convince some to attend the gathering as their first protest.
Justin, a city resident who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons, said this was the first demonstration he’s taken part in. “I think a lot of people have decided that this is where a line is drawn,” he said, later adding, “This kind of feels like the last chance to really do something about it before it goes off the rails completely.”
Community organizer Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, leader of the People’s Power Assembly, celebrated the motley crowd before him, which included both regular protesters and newbies (some of whom expressed confusion or remained mum when activist Duane “Shorty” Davis shouted “mic check”).
“Today we are black, we are white, we are different, we are the same, and we are coming together today to say that a people united will never, ever be defeated,” Witherspoon said to applause. “We’re sending a call to Washington to tell this president that he is indeed not above the law.”
Some prosecutors around the country are also protesting Whitaker’s involvement. A coalition of 18 attorneys general, including Maryland’s own Brian Frosh, today submitted a letter to the acting attorney general calling on him to recuse himself, citing his past comments criticizing the probe.
“An Attorney General’s highest responsibility is to uphold the law and ensure public confidence in the impartial administration of justice by leading an empowered and independent Department,” they wrote. “We hope you share that goal.”
This story has been updated.
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