In two separate letters released on Wednesday, nearly 2,000 lawyers and more than two dozen advocacy groups demanded that lawmakers and the Justice Department do everything in their power to ensure that the Trump administration does not undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
In an open letter signed by more than 1,600 attorneys from across the country, DOJ officials and lawmakers were urged to affirm that "no person is above the law, including the President of the United States," and to protect the country from President Donald Trump's "outrageous attempt to undermine the investigation" into his 2016 campaign.
The lawyers' demands were bolstered by a letter sent to all 535 members (pdf) of the House and Senate by 29 national organizations and ethics experts, outlining why Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker must be forced to recuse himself from Mueller's probe and decrying the precarious position into which Trump threw the investigation and the country when he appointed Whitaker last week.
"A generation ago, President Richard Nixon assaulted the rule of law by firing a prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. But his attack on our democracy was thwarted by dedicated public servants...So must it be in our time." —1,600 lawyers in letter to lawmakers
"Mr. Whitaker is unfit for his new job and must recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation," wrote the groups and experts, which included Indivisible, Common Cause, and former White House ethics lawyers Norm Eisen and Richard Painter. "We call on you to take all necessary steps to help ensure that Mr. Whitaker is removed from overseeing the Mueller investigation. Furthermore, the Mueller investigation must be protected from any interference and allowed to proceed to its full and appropriate conclusion."
Whitaker was named as Jeff Sessions' successor last Wednesday after Sessions was forced to resign from his attorney general position, following months of clashes with the president. Sessions's decision to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller's probe was a frequent subject of Trump's vitriol, as the president appeared to believe the attorney general's job was to defend him—not the U.S. Constitution and the nation.
With Sessions out at the Justice Department, oversight of the investigation is now in Whitaker's hands rather than Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's—intensifying fears among progressives that he could help Trump to undermine the inquiry.
Noting Whitaker's well-documented hostility toward the investigation, the lawyers wrote, "President Trump's removal of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is clearly a maneuver to obstruct or end Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible illegal activities by his campaign."
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In their letter, the 29 groups and experts—noting that Whitaker had previously been described in the press as "the 'eyes and ears' of the White House" in the DOJ—detailed some of Whitaker's attacks on the probe:
In August 2017 Whitaker identified himself with the position that the Mueller investigation is a "lynch mob." Whitaker retweeted a Philadelphia Inquirer article titled "Note to Trump’s lawyer: Do not cooperate with Mueller lynch mob." Whitaker said , in retweeting the article, "Worth a read." Mr. Whitaker also denied there was any evidence that Russia intervened in the 2016 election five months after the intelligence community issued a report concluding that Russia president Vladimir Putin had ordered a campaign to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.
Those statements and more, both letters argued, amount to an "irreparable" and "profound" conflict of interest and give lawmakers plenty of reason to demand that Whitaker recuse himself from overseeing the investigation.
In addition to demanding that elected officials call for Whitaker's recusal, the 29 groups made a point of asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to put partisanship aside and allow the Senate to vote on legislation introduced earlier this year to protect the Mueller inquiry.
"We reject Senator McConnell's unfounded speculation that the investigation is safe from interference and that therefore there is no need for this bipartisan legislation," the groups wrote. "We call on Senator McConnell not to partner with President Trump in his efforts to undermine and potentially kill the Mueller investigation."
The 1,600 attorneys pointed to historical precedent in their demand that McConnell and others defend the Constitution and the nation instead of allowing Trump to thwart Mueller's work.
"A generation ago, President Richard Nixon assaulted the rule of law by firing a prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal," wrote the attorneys in their letter. "But his attack on our democracy was thwarted by dedicated public servants, independent and impartial courts, aggressive bipartisan congressional oversight, and an overwhelming public outcry, led in no small part by lawyers from every branch of our profession. So must it be in our time. This is our challenge and responsibility."