Dozens of people gathered outside the Howard Baker, Jr. U.S. Courthouse in downtown Knoxville Thursday as part of a broader protest happening across the nation in the wake of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' firing.
The protest was called 'Nobody is Above the Law' and was organized by moveon.org. Protesters in hundreds of cities organized at 5 p.m. local time to call for acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker to recuse himself from supervision of the Mueller investigation.
The protest said it believes Whitaker "has publicly outlined strategies to stifle the investigation and cannot be allowed to remain in charge of it."
According to NBC News, there is no legal mechanism to force Whitaker's recusal.
"Based on what Mr. Whitaker has said in the past about the Mueller investigation, his assumption of responsibility over the investigation certainly raises the appearance of impropriety," said Mary McCord, who headed the Justice Department's National Security Division under President Obama from 2016 to 2017. "I would hope that, at a minimum, he would consult with ethics experts at the Department before assuming that responsibility."
Instead of turning to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to become the acting attorney general, President Donald Trump placed Whitaker in that role.
Rosenstein, a career public servant, had been supervising the Mueller investigation because Sessions had been recused, due to his prominent role in the Trump presidential campaign. With Sessions gone, the acting attorney general retains the role of overseeing Mueller – approving budgets, and signing off on new investigative steps or indictments.
It is believed the acting attorney general would have to approve the politically fraught move of issuing a subpoena for the president's testimony — unless Mueller has already secured one with Rosenstein's OK.
A former Justice Department official told NBC News it is up to Whitaker to seek the advice of ethics officials in the Office of Government Ethics or the Justice Department's ethics office.
"It's incumbent upon the person," the official said. "There is no ethics policeman wandering around the Department."