A Special Enemy

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was born and bred to torment Donald Trump.

Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller appears before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 19, 2013.

Larry Downing/Reuters

Donald Trump went to sleep Wednesday night with a new enemy outside his window: former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Mueller, a 72-year-old former prosecutor who left the FBI in 2013, has been called upon by the Justice Department to serve as a special counsel to investigate Trump and his associates. In accordance with an order issued Wednesday by the deputy attorney general, it will be up to Mueller—whose last name is pronounced Muh-lur—to decide whether anyone involved in the Trump campaign should be charged with a crime. “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability,” Mueller said in a statement Wednesday.

Even if Mueller’s investigation doesn’t result in any charges being brought, it’s almost certain Mueller and his team will end up asking Trump questions he doesn’t want to answer and demanding to see documents he doesn’t want to provide. Barring a drastic change in Trump’s disposition, the president will respond to these affronts by publishing angry tweets about Mueller and snarling about him in interviews. Maybe he’ll even compare him to a “dog,” as he did recently when talking about former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Or perhaps he could threaten Mueller, as he did last week in a tweet directed at former FBI Director James Comey.

While Trump loathes a lot of people, his hatred of Mueller is likely to be particularly intense. That’s because Mueller is exactly the kind of guy Trump always hates. He’s also exactly the kind of law enforcement official Trump doesn’t understand.

Raised in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, Mueller has Roman numerals in his name and attended a New Hampshire boarding school alongside John Kerry. Later, he followed in his father’s footsteps to Princeton, where he played lacrosse, and received a master’s from New York University and a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. According to NPR, former CIA Director George Tenet described Mueller in 2013 as a “high Protestant with a locked jaw [and a] blue blazer, khaki pants, penny loafers, maybe a little Vitalis and Old Spice to boot.”

Mueller was an oddity at the FBI, said Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI. “There are not a lot of people named Robert Swan Mueller III in the directory of the FBI,” he told me. “Bobby is very patrician. He’s very well-bred.”

It helped that Mueller was also a Marine who fought in Vietnam, having served as the leader of a rifle platoon and been awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Journalists who’ve profiled him invariably note that Mueller’s time in the Marines shaped him profoundly and informed his demanding leadership style. When David Margolis showed up to his first day of work as Mueller’s deputy at the Justice Department on the Monday after George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001, he discovered an unsigned note on his desk that was unmistakably from Mueller: “It’s 0700. Where are you?”*

Sworn in exactly one week before 9/11, Mueller found himself in charge of fixing a broken FBI that had failed to make sense of crucial clues before the attacks. Writing in Time in 2011, Barton Gellman described the state of the bureau before Mueller’s arrival: “The labor force—heavily white and male, with a blue collar culture that prized physical courage over book smarts lacked the language and technical skills to adapt.” Gellman explained that in the aftermath of 9/11, questions arose as to whether the FBI “was irreparably broken, ill equipped to collect intelligence and disinclined to share it anyway.”

Over the course of 12 years, Mueller worked to transform the agency into an organization that could both hold people responsible for past crimes and suss out malfeasance that hadn’t yet been committed—terrorist plots in particular. Mueller, Gellman wrote, “remade the bureau in his image,” as “[o]utsiders displaced agents with badges and guns as assistant directors in charge of finance, human resources, information technology and the directorate of weapons of mass destruction.” In his office, according to a Washingtonian piece by Garrett Graff, Mueller kept shelves lined with “counterterrorism books, manuals on IT and computers, and business books on such topics as ‘change management’ by corporate thinkers like Jack Welch.” Only a “tiny section,” Graff wrote, was “devoted to crime.”

Mueller, who is not an imposing street soldier who wears a cool uniform, doesn’t fit Trump’s image of a law enforcement official. As evidenced by the fact that villainous Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke appears to have landed a job in the Department of Homeland Security, Trump prefers guys who are cartoonishly “tough on crime.” He also tends to focus his political attention on rank-and-file members of police unions, presenting himself as a friend to regular cops while ignoring the senior “brass” who tell them what to do.  Trump has refused to even acknowledge the memo he was sent in February in which a raft of high-profile police chiefs—including Bill Bratton from the NYPD and David Brown, who was head of the Dallas Police Department at the time of the deadly sniper attack that killed five officers—urged him to reconsider his preferred crime-reduction strategy of putting as many people as possible in prison for as long as the law allows.

It’s possible, though unlikely, that under different circumstances Trump would be impressed by a fancy, smart guy like Mueller and would try to impress him back. But there’s one more thing about Mueller that’s going to make it impossible for Trump to show him any respect: The former FBI director is practically blood brothers with James Comey.

The bond between the two men was forged in early 2004—years before Comey succeeded Mueller as FBI director. Comey, who was then serving as the deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft, was locked in a high-stakes dispute with George W. Bush, who wanted to overrule the Justice Department’s conclusion that an NSA domestic surveillance program was illegal. As Graff tells it in his Washingtonian piece, Ashcroft was in a hospital room recovering from surgery when he was ambushed by a pair of White House aides. Here’s Graff:

Comey was driving home on Constitution Avenue with his security escort of U.S. marshals the night of Tuesday, March 10, 2004, when he got a call. … White House chief of staff Andy Card and White House counsel [Alberto] Gonzales were on their way to see Ashcroft in the hospital.

Comey told his driver to turn on the emergency lights and head to the hospital. Then he began calling other Justice officials to rally them at George Washington University Hospital.

Mueller was at dinner with his wife and daughter when he got the call from Comey at 7:20 pm. “I’ll be right there,” he said.

In 2007, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believed Card and Gonzales intended to use Ashcroft’s semiconscious state to get the attorney general to sign off on the surveillance program he had previously opposed. By intercepting them in Ashcroft’s hospital room, Comey and Mueller may have prevented the Bush administration officials from getting the attorney general’s signature. (Comey said in his testimony that Ashcroft made the ultimate decision to rebuff Card and Gonzales.) They also helped put the White House and the Justice Department on course for an epic confrontation. Not long after the incident at the hospital, Mueller told Bush he would resign if the surveillance program continued. Bush, realizing he faced a situation on par with Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” backed down. Afterward, Graff wrote, Mueller and Comey “shared a dark laugh” before going back to work.

“I think that experience, of having to stand together and say, ‘No, Mr. President, you can’t do this,’ really mind-melded them,” said Weiner. “It was a moment of brotherhood.”

At this point, no friend of Jim Comey is ever going to be a friend of Donald Trump, especially when he’s leading the same investigation that Comey led before his ouster. Odds are good, in fact, that Trump will use Mueller’s closeness with Comey to accuse him of bias and question the legitimacy of his inquiry.

If and when Trump does go after Mueller—he dipped his toe in the water Thursday morning by tweeting about how it was unfair that a special counsel had been appointed to conduct the “witch hunt” against him—their showdown will be marked by a pleasing irony. In one corner will be the patrician and brainy Mueller, who has little in common with the “real cops” the president so admires. In the other will be Trump, who will soon find out what being ”tough on crime” really means.

*Correction, May 20, 2017: This article originally misstated that David Margolis served as Robert Mueller’s deputy at the FBI. In fact, it was at the Justice Department. (Return.)