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ST. PETERSBURG — Rallies were staged across the Tampa Bay area on Thursday to support special counsel Robert Mueller, whose investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election may be in jeopardy.
President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday. Last year Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Mueller probe, which has been a constant source of anger from the president. The president then appointed Sessions' chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, to run the Justice Department on an interim basis.
Mueller, who had reported to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, now reports to the interim attorney general. Whitaker, however, has made comments skeptical of the Mueller probe. Critics fear he will move to limit the investigation, or attempt to end it alltogether.
That fear sparked rallies across the country in support of Mueller, including in downtown St. Petersburg. Several hundred people gathered in South Straub Park. It was an older crowd, and many held signs deriding Trump or supporting Mueller.
"Donald Trump, you will not keep us from knowing the truth, whatever the truth is," said rally organizer Andrea Hildebran Smith of the activist group Floridians Against Corruption and Treason. "We are a democracy, we are all equal under the law."
Many in the crowd wore shirts supporting Democrat gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who trailed Republican Ron DeSantis in the vote totals but closed the gap enough to trigger an automatic recount. The news that Gillum had met the threshold for an automatic recount generated heavy applause.
Rallies were also organized in Dunedin, Tarpon Springs and at Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa. They were aimed at protesting the ouster of Sessions, whose recusal allowed Mueller to operate unimpeded, and as a warning that Whitaker should not interfere with the investigation.
"We're here because Trump replaced Sessions and installed someone who will do his bidding, who has voiced his hostility to the Bob Mueller investigation," said Mary Melancon, 75, of Tampa. "That cannot stand."
Sarah McKenna, 39, a loan processor in St. Petersburg, echoed that fear.
"I'm concerned that Whitaker is going to try to find a way to sabotage the investigation," she said.
Whitaker, whose first full day as acting Attorney General was Thursday, has not taken any action regarding the Russia probe.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman told the crowd that firing Sessions already amounted to the "biggest constitutional crisis we have seen since Watergate."
The mayor, who has gotten into it with the president on Twitter, added: "It is a shocking abuse of power."