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Hundreds rallied in downtown Santa Rosa late Thursday, protesting perceived threats to the federal corruption probe by special counsel Robert Mueller in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ ouster and his replacement by an outspoken critic of the inquiry.

Chanting for the “rule of law” and the incarceration of President Donald Trump, up to 400 people staked out positions on four corners of First Street and Santa Rosa Avenue. They waved signs and American flags and cheered as scores of motorists leaned on their horns in apparent support.

The 5 p.m. demonstration was called on short notice but has long been planned in expectation that Mueller’s work would be put in jeopardy at some point by the Trump administration, organizers said.

The Santa Rosa gathering and hundreds like it across the nation were triggered by Sessions’ forced resignation Wednesday and his replacement by interim successor Matt Whitaker, who will now oversee an investigation he has criticized publicly — even spelling out how it could be starved of funding and brought to a halt without being formally aborted.

Protesters, some wearing breathing masks due to the heavy smoke from the Camp fire in Butte County, demanded that Whitaker recuse himself from supervising those investigating Russian election interference and related matters and follow the example of Sessions, who declined to oversee the probe because he played a part in Trump’s campaign.

“We are making it clear that any interference with the Mueller investigation will get a loud response,” said Holly Neal, 60, of Rohnert Park. “We are not going to roll over.”

Whitaker has “a clear conflict of interest,” said local protester Ehren Werner, that should disqualify him from any involvement in the investigation.

“This may be a first step toward ending it,” said Werner, 35, of Santa Rosa. “This kind of thing is not acceptable in a functioning republic.”

Thursday’s “Nobody Is Above the Law” demonstrations were coordinated largely by MoveOn.org, a politically progressive organization touting millions of adherents across all 50 states. The organization said Trump had “crossed a red line” by threatening the investigation’s independence and created the setting for a potential constitutional crisis.

One of those who answered the call, Terra Groah, 23, of Santa Rosa, found hope in Tuesday’s election results returning future control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Democrats. But Groah said the Justice Department situation required people to voice their concern now.

“A lot of us are tired of being angry and not being able to do anything about it,” Groah said.

Many who attended found comfort in the knowledge that people around the United States were responding just as they were, hitting the streets in their own communities and lifting their voices in unison.

“It’s wonderful to be part of,” said Janet Landman, 71, of Santa Rosa.

John Nash, 51, of Santa Rosa said he was encouraged enough by the outpouring of resistance that he thought it could make an impact on the president and his decisions going forward. Putting Whitaker in charge of the Russia probe “is just wrong on several levels,” Nash said.

He brought his son, Sean Nash, to the rally to reinforce the importance of political action, though it’s clearly a message the 13-year-old had heard before.

“We definitely need Mueller. Just resist,” he said. “You can’t just sit and wait for things to change.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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