More than 300 demonstrators flooded Portland’s Monument Square on Thursday evening to protest President Trump’s decision to oust Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replace him with Matthew Whitaker, a presidential loyalist who has openly criticized special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether anyone in Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election.

Demonstrators characterized Trump as a dictator who must be held in check by Congress.

“Among other things, this wave election in Maine was a massive repudiation of the authoritarianism of Donald Trump,” said Dini Merz, one of the leaders of Mainers for Accountable Leadership. “Even in victory, we know that a constitutional crisis looms as Trump gets ready to fire (Rod) Rosenstein and Mueller. Once woken, we will never go back to sleep and we intend to be out here flooding the streets to protect the Mueller investigation and our democracy from the Russians.”

Portland’s demonstration was one of several hundred across the state, the nation and worldwide. Marie Follayttar Smith, executive director of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, said rallies were also held in Bangor, Brunswick, Augusta, Lewiston, Belfast, Kittery and Rockland.

Follayattar said the Portland protest exceeded her expectations.

“I was very surprised. I was expecting 60, maybe 80 people. I had no clue there would be this many people,” Follayattar said.

The protests were organized by MoveOn.org, a group that says it advocates for social justice and political progress.

Marilyn Sarelas and Jim White of Portland display signs to drivers on Congress Street during Thursday’s protest at Monument Square. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Dozens of protesters gathered Thursday on the steps of the State House in Augusta. Augusta protesters challenged the legality of Whitaker’s appointment by Trump.

“It’s an obstruction of justice to appoint someone who has been very vocal about his disdain for the Mueller investigation and we think we can’t stand by and let this stand,” said Jessica Gorton of Readfield.

The Augusta protest brought out newly elected Kennebec County District Attorney Megan Maloney, who accused Trump of “sidestepping the law” in an apparent attempt to halt the investigation.

“When you no longer have Sessions as the attorney general and you have a new attorney general, Robert Mueller has a new boss,” Maloney said, speaking into a megaphone. “And that is a problem for all of us.”

Paul Brassard of Old Orchard Beach holds a sign during Thursday’s protest in Monument Square. “I’ve had enough,” Brassard said of President Trump’s decision to ask for Jeff Sessions’ resignation. “Something has to be done. The president is not the king, and that’s how he’s acting.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

The crowd in Portland was clearly angry with Trump. Many held signs which read: “Protect the Mueller Investigation, Nobody is Above the Law,” “Impeach Treason,” “For Democracy Sake Protect the Investigation,” and “I support Mueller turning con men into convicts.”

Sen. Angus King said Thursday that Congress should pass legislation to protect the Mueller probe.

“The fact (Trump) passed over Rosenstein to appoint someone else who has been critical (of the probe) certainly raises concerns,” King said during a stop in Oakland.

Whitaker has indicated to associates that he has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special counsel probe. Those close to him have also said he would not approve any request to subpoena the president.

More than 100 people gather at Monument Square on Thursday evening to protest the ouster of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the impact it could have on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Even after he arrived at the Justice Department, Whitaker expressed frustration about the length of Mueller’s probe and doubts about the scope of his authority.

While Whitaker is now Mueller’s supervisor, it was not clear Thursday whether that meant Rosenstein would step aside. Justice Department officials said that under normal circumstances, the deputy attorney general would likely play an active, hands-on role in overseeing such a high-profile probe.

Protesters in Portland said Trump’s actions have put democracy and democratic values in peril.

Kathleen Samuelian of Cape Elizabeth held a sign that read: “Save the United States, Protect Mueller.”

“We are in the lowest of the low times,” Samuelian said. “We have to get rid of Trump.”

“Our democracy is at stake. I feel the United States has become an autocracy,” said Roberta Zuckerman of South Portland.

When asked what was at stake in the Mueller investigation, Joanne Sheaffer of South Portland said that the rule of law is at risk.

“I feel he (Trump) is the bully in the china shop and we are the china,” Sheaffer said.

Several people were invited to speak during the protest, which lasted about 40 minutes. Though the demonstration was peaceful, the crowd often burst into chants.

“No one is above the law,” the crowd roared several times after being urged on by guest speaker the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill of Moral Movement Maine.

Emily Qualey of Portland stands on a traffic bollard at the edge of Monument Square on Thursday during the protest supporting the integrity of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“We’re here because we love our country and our democracy and our democracy is at risk,” Ewing-Merrill said. Americans can longer stand by and be passive as the Trump administration tries to control the outcome of the Mueller investigation, he said.

Another speaker, Jackie McNeil, said the United States is in “crisis” because of Trump’s actions. She said the “resistance” needs to be ready to react if Trump fires Mueller.

“A would-be dictator has risen to power and has challenged our values,” McNeil said, as the crowd started to applaud. “We must resist not because we hate the president, it’s because no president should have unfettered powers.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Sam Shepard and Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Meg Robbins contributed to this report.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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