10 things to know about Robert Mueller

Daniel Klaidman
Editor in Chief, Yahoo News

Robert Swan Mueller III, 72, who was just named special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, is a jut-jawed former Marine with a bone-dry wit who retains traces of his Main Line Pennsylvania upbringing. At the Justice Department he was known as Bobby Three Sticks, a playful allusion to his patrician name and, some say, to the three-fingered Boy Scout salute. He started as FBI director a week before 9/11, and oversaw the remaking of the bureau into an intelligence and counter-terrorism organization, charged with preventing new attacks as well as arresting the perpetrators. Here are 10 things you should know about Mueller:


1.  He graduated from the uber-preppy St. Paul’s School in 1962, where he was the captain of the hockey, soccer and lacrosse teams and won the medal for all-around best male athlete before going on to attend Princeton.

2.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and soon headed to Vietnam, where he led a rifle platoon. He rose to become aide de camp to 3rd Marine Division’s commanding general and was awarded a Bronze Star, two commendation medals, a Purple Heart and a Vietnamese Medal of Gallantry. He never talks about his service, according to a close friend.

3.  He got his law degree from the University of Virginia law school. After a stint in private practice, he joined the Justice Department as a prosecutor at the U.S. attorney offices in San Francisco and Boston, rising to become chief of the Criminal Division during the first Bush administration. While there, he oversaw two of the most high-profile prosecutions of the era: the Pan Am 103 bombing and the case against Panamanian ruler Manuel Noriega. Mueller was known for cutting through the bureaucracy to get the resources and support he needed for his staff.

4.  When President Bill Clinton took office, Mueller left the DOJ and went to work for a law firm in Boston, focusing on white-collar crime. But he wanted to get back to prosecuting criminals, so he asked Eric Holder, then the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, for a job as a line prosecutor in the homicide unit of that office. Holder was astonished that a former chief of the criminal division would seek such a relatively low-level job. “It was one of the most extraordinary calls I’ve gotten,” he told Yahoo News, but he made the appointment.

5. In 1997 he was given an interim posting to the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco after his predecessor left abruptly. He did so well that Clinton nominated him as the permanent U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, even though he had been a political appointee of George H.W. Bush.

FBI Director Robert Mueller at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2013. (Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)

6.  He was nominated to be FBI director by George W. Bush on July 5, 2001. His confirmation hearing took place on July 30, just three days before he underwent successful prostate surgery, and he began the job one week before 9/11. At the FBI he instituted major reforms, including transforming the bureau into a full-fledged intelligence organization, modernizing the bureau’s outdated technology and bringing non-agents into senior positions.

7.  At the FBI he bucked the administration’s push to torture suspected terrorists to obtain intelligence. He ordered agents to maintain traditional interrogation tactics.

8. He played a key role in the 2004 confrontation in the hospital room of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Needing a Justice Department sign-off on the Bush administration’s controversial program for wireless wiretapping, White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez and White House chief of staff Andy Card tried to talk Ashcroft, who was recovering from surgery and partially sedated, into giving his assent. Mueller and the then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey intervened and helped persuade Ashcroft to hold off. “In every man’s life there comes a time when the good lord tests him,” Mueller told the attorney general, according to Barton Gellman’s account of Vice President Dick Cheney’s tenure, “Angler.” “You have passed your test tonight.”

 9.  Cheney, who badly wanted the surveillance program to go into effect, arranged for Gonzalez to sign the authorization in place of Ashcroft. In a frantic series of late-night meetings, Mueller, Comey and some half-dozen ranking Justice Department officials agreed to resign if the order wasn’t reversed — something that could have touched off a constitutional crisis and posed an embarrassment for Bush, who was running for reelection. At the White House, Comey and Mueller were called separately into private meetings with the president, where they explained their objections. The administration backed down, modifying the program to meet the Justice Department’s demands.

10.  When Mueller’s statutory 10-year FBI term came to an end in 2011, Holder stepped in again and convinced the Obama White House to go to Congress to ask for a one-time extension of two years. Mueller left the bureau in 2013 believing, according to a friend, that his days as a law enforcement officer were over.


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