WASHINGTON – Robert S. Mueller III, the former FBI director tapped by the Justice Department on Wednesday to be a special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, has spent most of his life in public service.
Mueller, 72, was named to head the FBI one week before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks – and spent the next 12 years at the helm of the agency, a tenure second in length only to J. Edgar Hoover.
At his confirmation hearings, Mueller vowed that his highest priority would be “to restore the public’s confidence in the FBI."
Mueller’s arrival to the FBI came after turbulent times that included the agency's deadly confrontation with Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; the discovery of FBI agent-turned-Russian-spy Robert Hanssen; and the disclosure of documents withheld from lawyers representing convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. By many accounts, Mueller succeeded. When Mueller stepped down as FBI chief in 2013, he was praised by frequent FBI critic Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., who called the New York City native “a great American.”
Now, he has a new challenge: Overseeing the FBI's ongoing counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia. His appointment comes after revelations earlier this week that the abruptly fired FBI director James Comey kept notes of a February meeting indicating Trump asked him to close the agency's investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Those who know him say he's the ideal choice. "Bob Mueller is an outstanding choice because he is apolitical and follows the rule of law, and follows the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of political outcomes," said John Pistole, a former FBI deputy director, under Mueller.
Here are seven things to know about the man who will oversee the probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in last year’s election:
Mueller is known for answering the call to public service
Mueller is an Ivy League-educated lawyer with an elite prep school grounding, who was born in New York City and raised outside of Philadelphia.
He has had several successful stints of public service, including three years as an officer in the Marine Corps. He led a rifle platoon during the Vietnam War, earning several medals, including the Purple Heart.
After earning a law degree he spent a few years in private practice before he began a 12-year stint in U.S. attorney offices. He again went into private practice, only to return to government service, where he was put in charge of the Department of Justice’s criminal division in 1990.
He left for private practice again and returned to become U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California where in 2001 he was tapped to become FBI director.
He headed the FBI longer than anyone since J. Edgar Hoover
After President George W. Bush tapped him for the top law enforcement job in 2001, Mueller served through most of 2013 – going over the usual 10-year limit on FBI directors, which was imposed to prevent reigns as long as Hoover’s 50 years. President Obama said continuity and stability was needed at the FBI at a time when the United States faced ongoing security threats, and leadership changes at the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency. The Senate unanimously approved the extension of his term. He was succeeded by Comey in September 2013.
Mueller was widely praised as a transformative director of the FBI
Mueller assumed leadership of the FBI just weeks before suicide hijackers slammed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. During the difficult aftermath, he was widely credited with transforming the bureau from a purely law enforcement agency to a intelligence-driven organization to confront the looming terror threat. It was President George W. Bush's terse, post-9/11 order – "Don't ever let this happen again'' – that prompted Mueller's make-over of the bureau to an agency designed to thwart, rather than respond to, terror threats.
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft said back in 2013 that Mueller projected an air of “total integrity” that began to restore the FBI’s standing at a very critical time. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff predicted Mueller would be known as “the most transformative director in the history of the FBI since Hoover.”
For a guy used to high-profile roles, Mueller doesn’t like the spotlight
Though he directed the highest profile law enforcement agency during one of the most momentous times in recent U.S. history, Mueller has eschewed the public spotlight at almost every opportunity. He did not travel with an entourage, rarely sat for media interviews and was famous for logging grueling hours, often starting days before sunrise and leaving well after dark.
“That’s how he survived…because he kept a low profile,” said Pistole, Mueller's former No. 2 who now leads Indiana's Anderson University. “He would let his and the bureau’s work speak for itself.”
Mueller’s ‘House of Cards’ moment as FBI director
Probably the strangest incident that Robert Mueller was part of during his tenure as FBI director occurred on the night of March 4, 2004.
That night Mueller and James Comey, then a deputy to Attorney General John D. Ashcoft, raced, sirens blaring, to the hospital intensive care unit where Ashcroft lay ill.
They had been tipped off that White House Counsel Albert Gonzales and President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, were on their way to the hospital in an attempt to persuade Ashcroft to reauthorize Bush’s domestic surveillance program, which the Justice Department had just determined was illegal.
Mueller and Comey won the race. Ashcroft, who was able to lift his head and speak, refused to sign the papers that Gonzales and Card brought with them.
Mueller investigated NFL handling of Ray Rice punishment
Even in retirement, Mueller has found his services in steady demand.
The National Football League tapped Mueller in 2014 to conduct an independent investigation into claims that league officials had received and viewed an elevator video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his then-fiancé Janay Palmer at a casino in Atlantic City, N.J. in February of that year.
Mueller was called in after the NFL suspended Rice for two games but before the graphic video surfaced on the celebrity web site TMZ., sparking national outrage and accusations that the NFL was suppressing evidence to protect one if its star players. Once the video was released, NFL Commissioner suspended Rice indefinitely.
After a four-month investigation, Mueller concluded that no one at the NFL headquarters had received or reviewed the tape before the initial punishment against Rice despite an Associated Press report that an unnamed woman at the league office in New York City had acknowledged receipt.
But the former FBI director also said there was “substantial information about the incident that should have put the league on notice of a need to undertake a more thorough investigation” that might have turned up the video earlier.
Mueller’s integrity was tapped again recently for air bag case
Last month, a federal court judge appointed Mueller to serve as “special master” and oversee the disbursement of nearly $1 billion in restitution in the Takata Corp. case involving defective air bags.
Takata pleaded guilty in February to fraud charges. There have been at least 11 deaths and 180 injuries in the United States linked to the defective air bags. The case also involves a recall of 70 million airbags in 42 million vehicles in the United States.
U.S. District Judge George Steeh wrote in his order last month that he chose Mueller in part because of the “court’s comfort and trust in his impeccable credentials, his relevant experience in settlement negotiations, his familiarity with the automotive industry in general, and based upon his well-known reputation for integrity.”
Mueller was also named the “settlement master” in 2016 to negotiate settlements in the Volkswagen excess diesel emissions scandal.
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