Justice Is Everybody’s Business: The Acting Attorney General
On November 7th, just one day after the midterm elections, Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at the request of President Trump. Matthew Whitaker, who previously served as Sessions’ Chief of Staff, was selected by Trump to assume the role of Acting Attorney General. To say that the decision was unpopular would be an understatement.
Animosity between Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions began in March of 2017 when Mr. Sessions recused himself from taking any part in investigations looking into the Trump campaign and collusion with Russia. This occurred after it became publicly known (after telling Congress under oath that he had not communicated with the Russians during the campaign) that Mr. Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while acting as one of the Trump campaign’s chief advisors. The president was reportedly furious about Mr. Sessions’ recusal. That fury was only compounded after the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who received the authority to oversee the investigations that Sessions had recused himself from. Mueller’s probe has since resulted in over 30 criminal charges and five guilty pleas, and the president himself is under investigation for obstruction of justice.
Concern regarding. Whitaker’s assignment as Acting Attorney General stems from comments he has made in the past in relation to President Trump and the Mueller investigation, the authority over which has been ceded to Whitaker from Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. Whitaker has characterized the Special Counsel’s investigation as “political”, even going as far as to say that Mueller’s appointment was “[A]n effort by Jim Comey to get this put in place and have somebody that he's very familiar with in Mueller conducting investigations. So I think it smells a little fishy.” Whitaker said as much despite the fact that Robert Mueller was named Special Counsel after President Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James Comey. Whitaker has also questioned some of the inquiries undertaken by Mueller relating to Trump associates, particularly Paul Manafort, expressing skepticism as to whether such investigations are within the scope of the Special Counsel. The letter in which Rod Rosenstein appointed. Mueller (which Whitaker has referenced but appears to not have read) states that the Special Counsel is authorized to investigate any matters that “may arise directly from the investigation.” This insinuates that prosecution of any criminal activities discovered through the work of the Special Counsel’s office is permitted. Whitaker’s statements have led to a widespread impression that he is incapable of impartially executing the duties of Attorney General (even temporarily), particularly when it comes to overseeing the Mueller investigation.
Thousands of Americans from Times Square to Texas mobilized to take part in protests on the evening of November 8th in support of Robert Mueller’s investigation following Whitaker’s appointment. Here in Chapel Hill, around two hundred people assembled in front of the Orange County - Chapel Hill visitor center. The crowd of men, women, and children marched down Franklin Street towards campus, holding signs largely expressing disdain for Whitaker’s appointment and concern for the preservation of the Special Counsel’s investigation. Patrons of Franklin Street’s many eateries and shops watched from inside as the lengthy procession ambled along while the demonstrators chanted in unison. Some passersby took out their cell phones and captured the moment for social media, others showed their support through a few honks of their horns.
The group of protestors crossed Franklin Street in front of the post office and stopped there, coming together to continue their cries of objection and call and response chants. One demonstrator, Carolina student Sina Shahnizadeh, organized Chapel Hill’s chapter of the nationwide protest. Shahnizadeh told me that he became involved after he saw a push for sign-ups on Reddit for organizing rapid response protests in reaction to acts by the president that appear to threaten Mueller’s investigation. Asked what he hoped for the protests to accomplish, Shahnizadeh responded, “I hope to get the nation and the administration’s attention, that what they’re doing is not okay, and that the country is behind Mueller and the investigation, and just democracy and justice in general.”
Although there have been no known actions taken by Whitaker so far to affect the Mueller investigation, Shahnizadeh is confident that any such move by the acting Attorney General would be met with public disapproval. He says the organization will be ready: “We’ll stay active, and in case anything does happen, like if Mueller does get fired or Rosenstein gets fired, we’ll probably be back out here. We’ll keep pushing on in case something does happen.”
After gathering around the American flag hanging in front of the post office, those attending the protest marched back to the initial rallying point. As people began to disperse, the uniting principle that brought everyone together that night lingered: that our country is a nation of laws, and no one, not even those who govern us, is above the law. Great unrest has been sown across the country, and rightly so, as a man who has publicly expressed explicit bias towards the Special Counsel’s investigation now has the ability to severely limit its scope, or even fire the individual at the reigns. As former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said in 1962, “Justice, in short, is everybody’s business -- and the breakdown of justice is everybody’s business too.” The outpouring of expression exhibited on November 8th demonstrates that over fifty years later, the sentiment behind these words continues to be embodied by Americans across the country.