Robert Mueller—the former FBI director who on Wednesday was appointed by the Department of Justice as a special prosecutor to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and possible collusion with Trump campaign associates—loves to prosecute.
A Republican, Mueller had several stints as a federal prosecutor during the 1970s and 1980s but had settled into a good job at a private-sector firm in Boston after Bill Clinton was elected president. But it didn’t sit well with him, and in 1995, he called an old friend who was then the U.S attorney for the District of Columbia: Eric Holder. Mueller asked Holder if there was a job for him in his office where he could put away murderers. The Democrat and future attorney general placed him in the homicide division. Three years later, after Holder became Clinton’s deputy attorney general, Mueller was named U.S. attorney in Northern California—the job he held until George W. Bush appointed him FBI director in 2001, just days before the September 11th attacks.
The terrorist attacks would define Mueller’s 12-year term as director of the Bureau, which under his watch had to transform as an institution to prioritize counterterrorism. He was not universally popular, particularly among veteran agents resistant to these changes. A Marine platoon commander in the Vietnam war, Mueller could be rigid to a fault, as one current FBI employee who worked closely with him for years tells me. He arrived at FBI headquarters every day at 6 a.m. Staff in the office of the director would joke that because Mueller only wore white shirts with either a blue or red tie, that became a de facto dress code for everybody else.
“He’s the human embodiment of the first of the FBI’s core values,” says the employee. “He is ‘rigorous obedience to the Constitution.’”
That obedience led him to clash with the president who had named him to the director position. Back in 2004 he and deputy attorney general (and future former FBI director!) James Comey fought an effort by the Bush White House to overrule the Justice Department’s ruling that its domestic wiretap program was unconstitutional. After Mueller and Comey threatened to resign, the White House backed off and fixes to the program were implemented.
Mueller isn’t known for his sense of humor. One former FBI official would say he had “patrician timing” and could rarely get a joke out quite right. But there were flashes of his funny side. He once told staff that when he would testify to Congress alongside CIA director George Tenet following the 9/11 attacks, Tenet would often lean over to whisper presumably serious information in Mueller’s ear. What Tenet was actually doing was slagging off on the questioning members of Congress, and Mueller said it took every ounce of his Marine training not to laugh out loud.
And while he was normally outwardly stoic, he was known by those close to him to evince emotion about the agents who worked for him. He would choke up delivering the eulogies of those who died in the line of duty, and he kept photos of every agent who did so above his desk at FBI headquarters.
“He spent 12 years as director,” said the current employee. “He is not good at expressing it, but he loves the institution the way he loves his children, the way he loves his wife, the way he loves his country, the way he loves the Marines.”
Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and writer at Lawfare Blog, worked with Mueller at the Bush Justice Department and called him a “man of extraordinary integrity.”
“He’s not afraid to stand up to POTUS when the law demands,” Goldsmith wrote on Twitter Wednesday night. “I also think it is a great choice for Trump if he is innocent. Mueller is one of few people who can reach that conclusion with credibility.”
My FBI source agreed, then added: “But if Trump did something, Mueller is not the guy he wants in that position”