Robert Mueller Could Be Donald Trump’s Worst Nightmare

Meticulous, details-oriented, and hard-charging, the former FBI director appointed to run the Russia investigation is a classic G-Man.

<> on December 14, 2011 in Washington, DC.
<> on December 14, 2011 in Washington, DC.

When news first broke on Wednesday that former FBI Director Robert Mueller had been appointed special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election, President Donald Trump at first put on a brave face. “A thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” Trump said in a statement.

By Thursday morning, that semblance of decorum was gone. “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” Trump declared on Twitter. At an afternoon press conference alongside Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Trump said the selection of a special counsel “divides the country.”

If Trump fears the outcome of the investigation, Mueller’s appointment represents the clearest indication yet that the allegations of scandal that have plagued his first months in the White House are not going away.

Known as a hard-charging, details-oriented prosecutor, Mueller has an independent streak that put him at odds with the George W. Bush administration when he was FBI director, and a determination that helped prevent the bureau’s dismantling in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Mueller’s selection to lead an independent Russia inquiry represents a potential headache for the Trump administration, which has dismissed the investigation as “fake news.” While Trump has insisted his aides did not conspire with Russian agents, he admitted firing FBI Director James Comey in part because of his investigation into Russian meddling.

Though Mueller, 73, will still report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, his appointment as special counsel will provide him with a measure of independence to conduct the investigation. That’s especially important in the wake of reports that Trump urged Comey to stop investigating Mike Flynn, the disgraced national security adviser fired by Trump after a few weeks in office for lying about his contacts with Russians.

In announcing the appointment of Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has come under intense criticism for providing the legal fig leaf for Comey’s firing, said “the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”

And Mueller lives for this type of work. After serving as head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division during the George H.W. Bush administration, Mueller took a lucrative partnership at a prestigious Boston law firm, but quickly gave it up to become a homicide prosecutor in Washington, D.C. at the height of the crack-fueled murder epidemic in the nation’s capital.

“I’ve always loved investigations,” Mueller told author Garrett Graff in a revealing 2008 profile that ran under the headline “The Ultimate G-Man.”

He’ll get his chance now. As special prosecutor, he’ll have subpoena powers, the ability to convene grand juries, and file criminal charges. As a seasoned, hands-on investigator, Mueller can be expected to work closely with the FBI investigators working the case. Mueller will still report to Rosenstein, who has the power to fire him for “for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause.”

Rosenstein can block investigatory moves, but must tell Congress if he does so. Trump does not have the ability to fire Mueller directly, but could in theory lean on Rosenstein to do so — a move that would cause huge backlash. When President Richard Nixon attempted a similar maneuver to get rid of the special prosecutor investigating Watergate, it helped hasten the end of his presidency.

As Mueller drives the investigation, he will be expected to work with the congressional committees carrying out parallel investigation of Russian meddling. They are reliant on the FBI and the intelligence community to supply the raw material for their investigations.

Mueller is nothing if not demanding, qualities the former Marine — he won a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry as a platoon leader in the Vietnam War — will likely bring to his latest assignment after decades of public service.

What was he like to work for? “Oh God,” said one former senior FBI official, who requested anonymity to candidly assess his former boss. “He was very harsh, very regimented — strong, demanding, wanted details.”

Mueller’s intensity and propensity for long hours are legendary. On the Monday after George W. Bush’s inauguration, one of Mueller’s Justice Department deputies arrived to work and found a note on his chair: “It’s 0700. Where are you?”

At the FBI, he imposed exacting standards for preparation and detail and didn’t flinch at forcing underperforming subordinates into retirement or simply transferring them elsewhere. A man with an old-school sensibility, Mueller required dark suits and white shirts of his subordinates. A colored shirt at a meeting would draw a cutting remark from the imposing director. Former colleagues have said he would make an excellent drill instructor. 

“There were those that loved Mueller and those that didn’t, but everybody respected him,” said the former FBI official.  

But for all his intensity, Mueller also bred an intense loyalty and depended on his subordinates. “Once you established that trust, he let you do your thing,” he said.

Mueller famously saved the FBI from being torn apart after the 9/11 attacks, when the Bush administration wanted to separate intelligence from law enforcement. Mueller waged a campaign of bureaucratic warfare — even enlisting the help of the director of Britain’s domestic spy service — and killed the plan. In doing so, Mueller endeared himself to official Washington. When his appointment as special counsel was announced late Wednesday, it was met with universal praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Central to Mueller’s reputation for independence is when he defied the George W. Bush White House over the reauthorization of a warrantless wiretapping program. In early 2004, the deputy attorney general — James Comey — concluded that a Bush administration program for monitoring communications of Americans likely violated the law.

The program required DOJ sign off to be authorized, and as the March 11, 2004 deadline approached, Attorney General John Ashcroft was taken ill and rushed to the hospital. Comey, then the deputy attorney general, took over for Ashcroft.

On the evening of March 10, Comey learned that two White House officials were racing to Ashcroft’s hospital bed in a likely attempt to compel him to sign a reauthorization while incapacitated. Comey rushed to intervene and alerted Mueller. In a dramatic bed-side confrontation, Ashcroft backed Comey.

In the ensuing crisis, the White House tried to authorize the program without DOJ approval. Mueller and Comey quickly established a unified front and threatened to resign — together with a slew of DOJ officials. White House officials quickly realized their misstep and backed down.

After graduating from the University of Virginia law school in 1973, Mueller spent a brief spell in private practice and then cut his teeth as a prosecutor in San Francisco, and later moved to Boston to work in the U.S Attorney’s office there. He then ran the criminal division of the Justice Department before decamping to private practice. He quickly drew frustrated with that work and took a job as a line homicide prosecutor in Washington D.C., before returning to San Francisco, where he was U.S. attorney.

In 2001, President George W. Bush nominated him to run the FBI, which he led for 12 years serving both Presidents Bush and Barack Obama. He is the only FBI director to have his 10-year term extended by Congress.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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