WASHINGTON — A coalition of progressive groups descended on the sidewalk outside the Department of Justice Thursday to demand the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the wake of reports that he had had conversations with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 election. Sessions had said during a Senate confirmation hearing, “I did not have communications with the Russians.”
The protest was first called by MoveOn.org but quickly drew the support of a broad array of groups, including some better known for research and writing than for street activism, such as the Center for American Progress Action Fund, as well as members of the Progressive Caucus in Congress. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) sent an email urging members in the region to attend. Leaders of both the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the DNC were personally damaged by the public release of emails, published through WikiLeaks, in hacks that U.S. intelligence said were the result of Russian cyberattacks. Trump repeatedly ridiculed the DNC officials along with CAP’s founder and Hillary Clinton’s then-campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Ben Wikler, Washington director for MoveOn.org, called on “Jeff Sessions to step down immediately and for his successor to appoint an independent special counsel, an independent prosecutor to investigate the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.”
“The Trump administration has a staff infection,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who sits on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees. “Every day we learn about another high-ranking Trump official who has been entangled with the highest levels of the Russian government. … If perjury is against the law for Democrats, perjury is against the law for Republicans,” he said.
“There is a new development that calls into question the integrity of our electoral system and casts suspicion over the 2016 election,” said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who has been calling since December for a special counsel or independent investigation of Russian interference in the election. “Last time I checked, Republicans impeached people for lying. We are past the point of refusal. The attorney general is our top law enforcement officer. And that position cannot be held by someone who lied under oath or misled Congress. …
“The American people need to know that their democracy is intact. That can only happen when they have faith that these matters are being investigated and that the head of the Department of Justice has been honest with the Congress and the American people,” she said.
Michele Jawando, vice president of the CAP Action Fund, stood in front of the sign reading “Department of Justice” and led a chant of “Jeff Sessions must resign!”
“The words on this building say the Department of Justice, not the Department of Lies!” she said.
So long as the Russian election interference question remains active, she said, “we can’t go forward with Supreme Court hearings. We can’t go forward with budgets. We can’t go forward with business as usual here in the United States, until there is an independent bipartisan commission that gets to the bottom of these lies and these ties to Russians.”
Several other members of the Progressive Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives spoke, as did individuals from VoteVets, Common Cause, and People for the American Way. The assembled, who numbered between 100 and 200, were periodically led in chants from the microphone. Meanwhile the chant of “Lock him up!” kept bubbling up on its own from the back of the crowd.
In the protest speeches, Sessions became a kind of lodestar for some of the key areas of conflict that the activists have with the Trump administration: the end of bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts, a focus on voter fraud instead of voting rights, the reversal of measures to rein in police violence, the rollback of efforts to secure trans rights, and the temporary ban on entry for refugees and individuals from several majority-Muslim countries. It was a reflection of Sessions’ — and the Justice Department’s — emerging central role in enacting an agenda diametrically opposed to the ones that liberals pursued in tandem with the agency for the past eight years.
It’s also why Sessions’ nomination was so vociferously opposed on the left, and why in the end he drew only one Democratic senator’s vote, that of Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Amid the latest firestorm, Democratic leaders in Congress quickly turned on him and demanded his resignation Thursday morning, and the crescendo of calls for him to step aside is unlikely to be dampened by his promise that afternoon to recuse himself from any investigations involving the 2016 election.
“He wants to make every bad law worse,” Wikler said at one point, leading the rally in chants of “Just say nyet!” and “Do svidaniya [goodbye], Jeff Sessions!”
“I did not think six months ago that I would be chanting in Russian outside the Department of Justice,” he deadpanned.
As for the coming together of groups at the rally, “I’m delighted to see the DNC leaning into the resistance movement,” Wikler said after it had concluded.
Jawando explained the CAP presence there as a sign of her group’s evolution and growth in a post-Obama world. “At the Center for American Progress, you know, we were founded on ideas — recognizing that there was a gap in proactive progressive ideas — and so we spent a lot of great years … working hand in hand with [the Obama] administration and members of Congress,” she told Yahoo News after the rally. “But what we recognize is now we’re in a different world. We are in a time of resistance.
“We recognize that the fight is not just on ideas now. It’s one-on-one. It’s direct combat, and we’re ready to go.”