“No one is above the law — Trump is not above the law!”
The phrase echoed down East Main Street in Riverhead outside Congressman Lee Zeldin’s (R-Shirely) office, as about 40 protesters expressed frustrations with President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Matthew Whitaker as U.S. attorney general.
The protest Saturday followed the nationwide “Nobody is Above the Law” rallies three days earlier after the president ousted Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Mr. Whitaker previously criticized the special counsel’s probe into Russia’s tampering in the 2016 election. Protesters said they felt his involvement will undermine the investigation led by Robert Mueller.
“This is just one of truly countless assaults by the president on our constitutional structure, but it is one that is incredibly dangerous,” said Ulysses Smith, an anti-corruption lawyer who helped organize the event, said to the group. “It puts into jeopardy our ability to know the truth about one of the external threats to our democracy. It sets a dangerous precedent for our leadership to come.”
During his speech, Mr. Smith said there are several laws that Mr. Trump has passed that can be reversed, but the repercussions of appointing Mr. Whitaker cannot be undone.
“A lot of these things will have a long-term, corrosive effect on how we do politics and how we govern ourselves,” he said.
Thursday’s national protest brought nearly 300 people outside Mr. Zeldin’s Patchogue office. Peter Takacs of Riverhead said he attended both protests to advocate for Mr. Mueller.
“The president is throwing all kinds of roadblocks in the way, and we’re afraid that his new henchman in the Department of Justice is going to restrict [Mr. Mueller],” he said.
The protests were initiated in part by MoveOn, a social welfare organization which, according to its website, “primarily focuses on non-partisan education and advocacy on important national issues.”
Mr. Smith said he’s registered to work as a MoveOn host in years prior. This year, he helped organize the Riverhead protest and contribute ideas to their national protest.
“It’s a fairly democratic process,” he said. “The way that it’s set up, I’ve had discussions with people about what the red line should be — for a long time it was all about the firing of Robert Mueller, then it was [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein’s position. The red line that was crossed, we decided, was replacing Rosenstein with Whitaker.”
Mr. Rosenstein had been overseeing the special counsel and would have been next in line to replace Mr. Sessions.
Steve McCormack, an ESL adjunct at Suffolk County Community College, said he chose to protest on his lunch break in part because he was disappointed with the local results of the election. But the issues go beyond a local level, he said.
“Nationally, I think, the country is waking up and realizing that we have someone in the White House that’s a Russian asset,” Mr. McCormack said. “It’s not just the Russian collusion. It’s his entire attitude.”
Louise Stalzer of Hampton Bays, who said she rarely protests, took the megaphone from Mr. Smith and addressed the crowd of protesters: “We need to be heard by Congress.”
She later said there’s no open dialogue between Americans and Congress.
“No one is hearing from anybody in Congress,” she said. “We have to have our voices heard.”
Mary Anne Lieberman of Hampton Bays, a friend of Ms. Stalzer, said she was obligated to protest since she couldn’t attend Thursday’s event.
“Riverhead has a lot of issues that are going to impact people in the area. So we need to speak up,” Ms. Lieberman said.
Maxine Kleedorfer, a representative from Indivisible North Fork — an activist group based in Riverhead — said Americans need to protest the Trump administration to keep political power in check.
“If we’re not here protesting, making sure Trump isn’t above the law — then he isn’t,” she said.
Mr. Smith said the decision to protest outside Mr. Zeldin’s office is also about the balance of power. This issue, he said, goes beyond political preference.
“In our Constitutional system, the principal check on the power of executive branch is Congress,” he said. “Congressman Zeldin has been unsupportive of efforts to protect this investigation to find out if the Russians have interfered with our election … When we’re talking about defending our democracy and the rule of law, that needs to be nonpartisan.”
Top photo caption: Protestors in Riverhead Saturday demonstrated outside the office of Congressman Lee Zeldin. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)