‘All we want is a fair investigation’ — Utahns rally against Trump’s firing of A.G. Jeff Sessions and what it could mean for FBI probe into Russian collusion

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protestors gather at the Federal Building, to demand protection for the Mueller investigation, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.

Midway through a rally in downtown Salt Lake City, the few hundred in attendance belted out a half-ironic chant, inspired by the rhetoric of the president they stood in the cold to protest:

“Lock him up,” they said. “Lock him up.”

Gregg Schultz took the microphone.

“No, no, no,” he said through a small speaker. “We don’t lock people up until they’re convicted. We don’t do that. We aren’t locking anyone up. All we want is a fair investigation.”

The correction underscored why Schultz and the other organizers of the bipartisan group Salt Lake Indivisible had called the Thursday afternoon protest. Group members and many who showed up wanted to send a message to President Donald Trump in the wake of his firing of ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, a critic of the FBI probe into possible collusion between the president’s campaign and Russia in the 2016 election, as the acting attorney general.

Attendees worry what the appointment means for the future of the investigation and whether it will continue unimpeded.

Their message was simple, echoed several times over by speakers and on the signs attendees carried: No one is above the law.

They called for Congress to pass legislation to protect Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, for Whitaker to recuse himself and for Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, to again oversee the investigation.

The rally — one of many similar demonstrations across the country on Thursday — came together in about a day, and organizers said they were impressed with the turnout of at least 200. The event, held in front of the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building, included short speeches from Salt Lake Indivisible organizers Joanne Slotnik, Jamie Carter and Schultz, outgoing Utah State Sen. Jim Dabakis and cameo appearances from Utah Sen.-elect Mitt Romney and Utah Rep. John Curtis, who both released statements on the matter through email.

First, though, was former Utah Appellate Court Judge Fred Voros. The eight-year appeals court judge warned protesters of the consequences of a lawless society.

“You may have been endowed by your creator with certain inalienable rights,” he said, “but without the rule of law, you have no way to enforce them. You are not free.”

Voros said the U.S. has a president who may have broken the law, who has fired the director of the FBI, fired the attorney general and named someone to the job in the interim who has characterized the FBI investigation he would now oversee as a “witch hunt” and a “lynch mob.”

Trump did that, Voros said, “because he does not believe in the rule of law, or at least does not believe that it applies to him.”

Organizers also read emails they had received from Romney and Curtis, both Republicans, who said they support the group’s bipartisan message of protecting the FBI investigation’s independence.

“As Jeff Sessions leaves the Department of Justice, I understand your concerns for what this may mean fo the special counsel’s investigation. As Americans we deserve a government that gives us confidence in our elected leaders, including president of the United States, when they are accused of malfeasance,” Curtis said in an email. “I echo many of the sentiments of my colleagues in Congress by saying in order to protect the integrity of our government, it is imperative that the Mueller investigation proceed void of outside influence.”

Before the rally began, a small group of protesters manned a street corner with protest signs — some proclaiming “#RESIST” and “TRUMP IS NOT ABOVE THE LAW” — facing motorists stopped at the red light on State Street in front of the federal building. Merrilee Murray was one of them, holding a small sign that read, “F Trump.” Many of those who passed by honked in support or gave a thumbs-up. One person, she said, flipped her off.

Murray said she was shocked when she learned Trump had fired Sessions and appointed Whitaker. She said she was no fan of Sessions, “but he was maintaining the rule of law” and doing his job independent of the president, primarily by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. She’s worried what will happen with Whitaker in charge.

“Congress won’t do anything [about Trump]. Mueller was everything,” she said, “and now he’s threatened.”

Moments before the rally began, a man walked by the protest and noticed a sign saying, “Which do you choose? Democracy or Donald Trump”

“Seriously,” he said, “Can it not be both?”

The woman holding the sign, Karen Curtin, told The Salt Lake Tribune afterward, that no, it can’t be.

She said the Trump administration had more in common with a combination of oligarchy and a cult of personality than democracy, and that the appointment of Whitaker was the latest Trump decision that she said doesn’t appear to be fostering a government ruled by the will of the people. Another example, she said, is Trump’s recent declaration that he’d end birthright citizenship with an executive order, seemingly violating the 14th Amendment.

The bipartisan group is planning another rally for Saturday. They called out politicians — both newly elected and those already in office — in both Utah’s federal and state delegations to attend.

“To Mr. Romney, who has over the years made a lot of statements about bringing the country together, this is low hanging fruit,” Schultz said, “And you are invited, formally, to our event Saturday, to stand up for the rule of law in our state.”

The group hasn’t released more specific details about the rally.