With one hand, John Matthews pounded his chest to fight back the tears. With the other, he held a sign reading "Protect Mueller."
"I've been angry with how things are progressing in this country," the 74-year-old combat veteran said. "I haven't been this scared since Vietnam."
Dozens came out to the federal courthouse in Missoula on Thursday for a demonstration demanding the protection of the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into potential coordination between Russia and President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.
Indivisible Montana sounded the call for the local demonstration Thursday after MoveOn, a national progressive policy group, coordinated the event, dubbed "Nobody is Above the Law."
Similar rallies were held across the country. Organizers say the naming of acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is a "deliberate attempt to obstruct the special counsel's investigation."
Trump asked Wednesday for the resignation of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who angered the president when he recused himself in 2017 from the Russia probe. Trump then replaced Sessions with Whitaker, his chief of staff. Whitaker has criticized Mueller's probe.
Congressional Democrats have already called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation.
A protest in New York City drew several hundred people. The protesters gathered in Times Square on Thursday night and chanted slogans including "Hands off Mueller" and "Nobody's above the law" before marching downtown. They held signs saying "Truth Must Triumph" and "Repeal, Replace Trump."
Crowds also turned out in Chicago; Greensboro, North Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee, and many other places.
In Missoula, Colleen Mattson said she believes Trump is worried about what Mueller's investigation could produce. She mentioned Montana's independent streak in politics in saying that Thursday's demonstration was less about red and blue parties and more about ensuring the integrity of the investigation.
Not unlike the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, in which President Richard Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, several were concerned Trump's request that Sessions resign would lead to the appointment of an attorney general who would fire Mueller.
"Tomorrow we could see Mueller fired," Bruce Russell Sr. said. "That's not how Democracy works. That's who a tyranny operates."
The small mass chanted and waved signs to passing traffic after 5 p.m.
"Tiny Hands Off," one sign read.
"Let Bob do his job," they chanted together.
"I can't believe we're here," Matthews said.
In Polson, five demonstrators stood at the intersection of Main Street and Second Avenue, drawing honks with their homemade signs. "We think this is the tipping point," local resident Vic Davis said of Trump firing Sessions. He foresaw a constitutional crisis and the rise of "the United States of Donald."
Around 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Davis was joined on the chilly street corner by Sheila Bell, Lake County Democratic Central Committee Secretary; Carolyn Beecher, its former chair; Susan Evans, former House District 12 candidate, and local resident Wilma Gauthier.
They said that at one point, their group had totaled 12, and that their reception had been overwhelmingly positive, with drivers honking, some pedestrians thanking them in person and one even giving them trail mix. But they had also gotten a spray of diesel fumes from one driver, and a head-shake from another.
Hardly deterred, Beecher said that "it's very threatening to the core of our democracy when Trump holds himself above the law," echoing points made elsewhere in Montana and around the country.
Bell had taken some heart from the Democrats' re-taking of the House on Tuesday. "We can't wait until January for them to do something about Trump," she said.
Missoulian reporter Patrick Reilly contributed to this story.