Mueller's Reputation In Washington Is 'Stunningly Bipartisan,' Journalist Says


A journalist describes Robert Mueller, pictured in 2007 when he was FBI director, as "about as apolitical and nonpartisan a figure as you could find in Washington."

Susan Walsh/AP

As the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election forges on, Robert Mueller, the Justice Department special counsel leading the investigation, has managed to stay largely out of public view.

Journalist Garrett Graff says that is in keeping with Mueller's personality: "This is not someone who in any way has tried to grab the spotlight, but instead has kept his head down and worked hard throughout his career."

Graff's 2011 book, The Threat Matrix, explores the transformation of the FBI under Mueller's leadership. Appointed by President George W. Bush, Mueller took over as director of the FBI one week before the Sept. 11 attacks. After Mueller completed his 10-year term as FBI director, President Barack Obama reappointed him for a two-year term, which required a special act of Congress.

"Bob Mueller is probably about as apolitical and nonpartisan a figure as you could find in Washington, particularly at the levels of government in which he has served," Graff says. "This is someone who really, truly believes in truth, justice [and] in the American way, in a way that very few people in American life today anymore do."

Interview Highlights

On Mueller's bipartisan record

We know him most recently, obviously, as the FBI director, but his tenure in government really dates back to the Reagan years. And he's been appointed or held top jobs in the administrations of all five of the last presidents, and was appointed to the Justice Department, the head of the criminal division, under George H.W. Bush's administration, then was appointed a U.S. attorney by Bill Clinton, then appointed the acting deputy attorney general by George W. Bush, and then later FBI director — a position he was reappointed to, in an unprecedented move, by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a vote 100-0, a stunningly bipartisan track record in today's times.

On Mueller's military service

Part of what makes Bob Mueller such a fascinating character is he has dedicated his life sort of time and again to public service. ... Mueller and a handful of other colleagues ... [signed] up for Vietnam after college. This was early in the 1960s, so it was before Vietnam became the cultural touchpoint that it did later.

Second Lt. Marine Corps Bob Mueller ended up leading a platoon in the jungles of Vietnam for a year and really distinguished himself in combat. He received a Bronze Star with valor for his leadership in an ambush that his unit suffered in the fall of 1968, and then was actually shot himself in a separate incident in April 1969 where he received, of course, the Purple Heart and was quickly back on patrol and served out the remainder of his year.

On how the FBI changed after the Sept. 11 attacks

Bob Mueller, in the days after Sept. 11, sees this incredible sea change in the mission of the FBI, which until then for most of its first 90 years had primarily been a law enforcement agency focused domestically on solving crimes after the fact. And on Sept. 11, we saw an international plot that focused on a suicide attack with catastrophic results, and that that necessitated this top-to-bottom change in the way that the United States approached counterterrorism issues, that after-the-fact investigation was going to be inadequate in the face of these threats.

So Mueller was given a mission by [former Attorney General] John Ashcroft and President Bush to not just investigate attacks afterwards, but to stop plots in the first place, to disrupt the attack before it happened.

It led to this massive reorganization that Bob Mueller spent the next 12 years of his tenure working on, to move the FBI from what was traditionally a domestic law enforcement agency into something that is more akin to an international intelligence agency.

On how Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign is similar to other FBI investigations

This is, in many ways, a perfectly standard and routine FBI investigation. The FBI, as an investigative agency, takes down corrupt organizations, that's what it's designed to do, go after street gangs, drug cartels, organized crime families, and the way that they do that is by starting on the outside and working their way in. And so that can either mean starting at the bottom of an organization, or starting with ancillary charges and working their way inwards, the equivalent of getting Al Capone for tax evasion.

So you've seen this investigation both where Mueller has started almost literally at the bottom with George Papadopoulos and pressured him to cooperate on people above, and also in the charges against Paul Manafort, which are sort of ancillary to the core question of the behavior of the Trump campaign. He's sort of first charged this decade-long alleged money laundering scheme dating back through some sort of unrelated work, again as a pressure point on Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. ...

We speak of the Mueller probe as if it is one thing, but it's actually this whole panoply of different investigations into different threads of the Trump campaign, the 2016 presidential election and the involvement of Russia. There's sort of some money-laundering aspects to it, there's some campaign aspects to it, we've seen him go after and get documents from Facebook, other social media sites, Cambridge Analytica, the campaign data team. There's all sorts of different threads of this investigation that are being followed, and we know that Bob Mueller is going to be incredibly tenacious in that investigation but that he's also not going on a fishing expedition.

On what might happen to the investigation into the Trump campaign if Mueller is fired

This was an investigation that began before Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel. Remember, actually, the guilty pleas of George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn both stem from lies that they told to FBI agents months before Robert Mueller stepped into this probe.

And so those investigators would presumably continue investigating, and there might even be a new special counsel appointed who steps in, and even if that's not true, and the special counsel's office is disbanded entirely, the prosecution of those open investigations would likely transfer back to the U.S. Attorney's office in D.C. or the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, in Alexandria, Va., and that those investigations might just continue apace absent a special counsel.

People forget, or don't know, when you open an FBI investigation that's actually a very formal process that goes through several different stages of an investigation before you end up with what's known as a "full field" investigation, and by the time you get there, you have to have shown evidence of a potential criminal act in order to get to that formal "OK" to continue an investigation.

And similarly, there's a formal process to shut down an investigation that requires prosecutors to review the evidence with agents and to decline an investigation and charges. This is not something that's quite as simple as, "If Bob Mueller is fired, he walks out the door, locks the office behind him and everything just disappears into the ether."

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Dana Farrington adapted it for the Web.

Garrett M. Graff in The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Terror (2011) profiles the careers of Robert Mueller and James Comey as FBI head and agents.  Neither Mueller nor Comey are novices.  Graff writes that since Hoover, no FBI director has served as long as Mueller.  He reshaped the FBI in profound ways, remaking in short order an agency not know for changing with alacrity.  For Mueller, those early days at the FBI were a rude awakening.  A Marine platoon commander--turned-prosecutor, he was accustomed to being his own boss and moving as fast as he wanted.  The bureau was different; as people at the FBI lament, "Bureaucracy is literally our middle name."  At a graduation for new agents at Quantico in the spring of 2008, the class speaker, a new agent Eric Boyce, joked that the training taught the recruits that the Bureau has a form for everything and that he had to fill out five forms just to speak at graduation.  It was a joke that rang so true in the bureau that even Mueller's stone-faced security detail standing by the door cracked a smile.  Mueller shot back the Boyce was likely--it used to be twenty forms to speak at graduation but they'd streamlined it to five.

In more than nine years as director, Mueller has presided over a transformation of the FBI unlike anything since Hoover took over more than eighty years ago.  What Hoover made national, linking cases and agents across state lines, Mueller made international.

Despite the scores of books written about the Bush administration and the "War on Terror," few mention Mueller as more than a sideline charter.  Since his appointment as director, few articles have examined his role in the bureau, even though he's the only member of the president's national security team to remain[ed] in place [after] 911.  H only reluctantly speaks in public or submits to interviews.  As his former Justice Department chief of staff Dennis Saylor says, "I can’t think of a greater tribute to his personality than the fact that he's relatively unknown."

Post-Hoover reforms were designed to keep the Bureau free from political pressure and interference.  No director before Mueller has lasted for a full ten-year term, a length sufficient in theory to outlast whichever president appointed him (and they have all been "hims" thus far).  Those terms have often been rocky.  During the Clinton era, Director Louis Freeh had such a sour relationship with President Clinton that the two barely spoke.  (It was, in hindsight, a luxury for the pre-9/11 world that the FBI could operate so freely from the president.)

During Bob Mueller's Senate confirmation hearing in 2001, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, a former prosecutor, recalled an exchange during one of the trials he prosecuted in Alabama.  An FBI special agent who, Sessions said, "had worked her heart out" on the case was on the stand facing cross-examination.

Well, who all are special agents of the FBI?  You call yourself a special agent," the defense lawyer asked.

"Basically the agents of the FBI," she replied.

"All of them?" the lawyer asked incredulously.

"Virtually all of them," the agent replied.

"Well, it's not too special, is it?" he said jokingly.

The special agent fixed the defense attorney with an icy stare: "It is to me, sir."

While the vast majority of its agents still work domestically, the FBI has become, without notice or attention from the public, the world's first global law enforcement agency.  The Bureau has teams specially stationed and equipped to respond anywhere in the world within hours; FBI "forward staging areas" overseas contain all the equipment necessary for the bureau's "Fly Teams" to run crime scenes anywhere on the planet.  The FBI is becoming one of the nation's lead overseas representatives and has become as recognizable a global brand as just about any U.S. export.

Even though George W. Bush and Robert Mueller shared an elite upbringing, Muller was everything Bush wasn't--serious stiff, earnest.  The president appreciated that his FBI director would say "I'll get back to you" when he didn't know the answer rather than bluffing: those with immediate answers hadn't always done him favors.

When he took over on September 4, 2001, Mueller thought his major task would be remaking the Bureau's technology platform.  That was a good fit for him.  Beneath his stoic prosecutor facade lay just a touch of geek; he was always buying the latest gadget and figuring out how it could make life easier.  Ever since reading the 1989 book The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, he had been ringing the bell regarding the government's ability to respond to cyber issues.  At Main Justice under George H.W. Bush and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, Mueller had created the first cyber-crime task force.  the, while at the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, he'd grown so frustrated with the government's case management system that he had overseen a term that built its own--a program so well received that the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys in Washington took it national.  By comparison, arriving at the FBI was for Mueller like stepping onto a nineteenth-century stagecoach.  When he asked for some basic software to be loaded onto his Bureau computer before he started as director, he was told that the FBI system couldn't support it.  Then, shocked and dismayed at the IT infrastructure during his first days on the job, Mueller ordered thousands of new Dells to replace the Bureau's aging computers.  "We are way behind the curve," he lamented to congress.

Mueller's first attempt at righting the FBI IT ship, was a failure.  Mueller, focusing on preventing the next terrorist attack, failed to pay sufficient attention.  The program was such a failure that it was scrapped almost entirely and Bureau had to start again from scratch in 2003.  "I broke my own rules--I delegated and didn't ask hard questions until it was too late," acknowledges Mueller, who, it will be recalled, had received a D in "Delegation" in Officer Candidate School as a young Marine officer.  "For too long, I was convinced we were on the right track.  I had no idea how far behind we were in personnel and capability.  No one understood the problem," he explains.  "We'd taken our existing business processes and moved those online without ever having a conversation about how moving online would change our business processes.  Many of the things were doing on paper didn't make sense once you put them into a computer."  And separate contracts for hardware and software, mandated by government procurement systems, made for an even worse nightmare.


When Jim Comey arrived at the Justice Department in the fall of 2003, the new head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, pulled him aside: "I'm glad you're here.  There's a lot I have to tell you."  After Comey was confirmed by the Senate as Justice' number two in December, Goldsmith returned with a laundry list of programs he felt warranted more oversight.  Top on goldsmith's list of programs he felt warranted more oversight.  Ten on Goldsmith's list was the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which required renewal by the attorney general every forty-five days.  Two years after the TSP had started, though, festering doubts about it within Justice had come to the fore.  The more Goldsmith and his deputy Pat Philbin learned about how the program worked, the more they worried.  In fact, Goldsmith, who took over OLC from Jay Bybee just weeks before Comey's arrival at Main Justice, concluded that the surveillance program "was the biggest legal mess I'd seen in my life."

As a result, he asked for permission to let Comey into the loop.  After initial administration resistance, Hayden came down to Main Justice on February 19, 2004, to meet the new deputy attorney general.  "I'm glad you're getting read in," he said, "because now I won't be alone at the table when John Kerry is elected president."  Comey's internal alarms went off: what bombshell was the NSA head about to unveil.  Indeed, what Hayden detailed was frightening--and even more so was the realization over the coming says that Goldsmith and Philbin seemed to understate what was going on more than Hayden and the administration did.  The attorneys believed there had clearly been at least two felony violations of surveillance law.

The stressed Comey had few people he could turn to for advice; almost no one was allowed to know the program existed, and disclosing the program's existence to someone outside that circle could send him to prison.  In fact, there was only one person in government whom he could confide in and trust: Bob Mueller.  The two men met for a long conversation on the afternoon of March 1 to discuss the deputy attorney general's concerns; that conversation, sources say, was the first time Mueller was made aware of the pending stumbling block.

On Thursday, March 4, Comey met with Ashcroft for an hour to raise the legal term's myriad concerns.  Though Ashcroft was in overall agreement with the notion of taking a tremendously aggressive approach to fighting terrorism, he also realized the tremendously aggressive approach to fighting terrorism, he also realized the tremendous dangers of making the Justice Department knowingly complicit in active law-breaking.  Given the department's--and the FBI's--mandate, to do so would constitute a fundamental sort of corruption.  He gave his team his full backing; he would not reauthorize the program if the administration didn't agree to make substantial changes.  Within hours, though, Ashcroft was struck by acute gallstone pancreatitis and rushed to the hospital.  Drifting in and out of sedation over the coming days, the nation's chief law enforcement officer came close to death.  With Ashcroft unable to fulfill his duties, Jim Comey suddenly found himself legally acting as attorney general.  The entire weight of the decision now rested on his shoulders.

On Saturday, the Justice Department first presented its concerns to the White House where he Bush administration head honchos were furious and descended on Comey.  The Thursday deadline for the forty-five-day re-authorization was forcing the matter; without a presidential signature, the program would come to a screeching halt.  Mueller had met privately with his staff that morning to review the concerns; at noon, he and the other leaders of the Intel community and Cheney--where the message was clear: If the program didn't continue, thousands would die, and it would all be Jim Comey's fault.  "That's not helping me," Comey told the room while he shifted anxiously in his chair.

At one point, Comey said he couldn't find a legal basis for the program.  John Yoo's original memo, he explained, was specious on its face.

"Others see it differently," a scowling Cheney replied.

"The analysis is flawed--in fact, fatally flawed.  No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it," Comey said, his hand sweeping across the table dismissively.

Addington, standing in the back of the room, spoke up.  "Well, I'm a lawyer," he snapped, "and I did."

Responded Comey, "NO good lawyer."

The room went silent.

Comey's circle of allies was shrinking fast riding down Pennsylvania Avenue in the back of Mueller's SUV, The FBI director and the acting attorney general sat quietly.  Comey thought, a freight train is heading down the tracks, about to derail me, my family, and my career.  He glanced to his left at his fellow passenger, thinking, At least Bob Mueller will be standing on the tracks with me.

That night, Mueller was at dinner with his wife and daughter when he got a call from Comey.  The FBI director didn't hesitate: "I'll be right there."

The Bureau security detail at George Washington University Hospital had been under strict orders from John Ashcroft's wife not to allow any phone calls through.  When Andy Card's office had called, he hadn't been connected, but when President Bush himself called, the agents on duty didn't have the stomach to turn down a call from the commander in chief.  At some point since that morning, bush had learned that there was a problem with the TSP reauthorization.  He had called Ashcroft's hospital room to say he was sending over Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales.  Janet Ashcroft, the attorney general's wife, then called David Ayers, Ashcroft's chief of staff, to warn him of the imminent white House arrivals.  Ayers called Comey, who at that moment was driving home on Constitution Avenue with his detail of U.S. marshals.  Comey ordered his driver to the hospital; they drove Code 3 all the way, grill lights flashing, siren wailing, engine revving.  Comey's first phone call at 7:20 P.M., was to Mueller.


After hanging up with Comey, Mueller instructed the FBI agents guarding Ashcroft not to remove Comey and the other Justice officials from the hospital room.  Gonzales and Card would likely have Secret Service agents with them, and the Bureau's agents were to prevent any interference.  Under no circumstances was the security detail to allow anyone to speak to Ashcroft alone.  The FBI director had just ordered his agents to use force, if necessary, to prevent the Secret Service and the White House from removing Justice Department officials from a hospital room.  As motorcades and officials converged on the hospital, the thought was on everyone's mind: Just how much further would this situation spiral out of control?

Comey beat Card and Gonzales to the hospital and ran up the stairs.  The white house duo arrived minutes later and marched straight to Ashcroft's bedside.  The FBI security detail, who moments earlier had been working one of the quietest assignments they'd ever had in an otherwise empty wing of the hospital, were suddenly very nervous.

Rallying, the drugged Ashcroft explained why he wouldn't sign off on the re-authorization and chided the administration: "You drew the circle so tight I couldn't get the advice I needed."  He finished by pointing to Comey: "But that doesn't matter, because I'm not the attorney general.  There is the attorney general."  Jack Goldsmith said later that it was such an amazing scene he thought Ashcroft would die on the spot.

A moment of tense silence passed.

Then Card and Gonzales left, saying only, "Be well."

Mueller arrived at the hospital moments after the departure of the White House aides.  He conversed briefly with Comey in the hallway and then entered Ashcroft's hospital room.

"Bob, I don't know what's happening," Ashcroft told him.

"There comes a time in every man's life when he's tested, and you passed your test tonight, Mueller replied.

A phone call came into the command post from Card, summoning Comey to the White House.  Given the night's events, he refused to go without a witness, Solicitor General Ted Olson.  Mueller left the FBI detail with instruction not to allow anyone to see the attorney general without Comey's personal consent.

Frantic meetings stretched late into the night at both the Justice department and the FBI.  Senior staff had been recalled.  Cars had been abandoned wherever convenient.  The core team was all on the same page; they were closely linked as friends and colleagues, and both Chuck Rosenberg and Dan Levin, Ashcroft's counselor, had don stints as Bob Mueller's chief of staff.

Across the upper ranks of the Justice Department and the bureau, letters of resignation were drafted.  Comey's read, in part, "I and the Department of Justice have been asked to be part of something that is fundamentally wrong."  If Comey went, Mueller went; if Comey and Mueller went, so would the top ranks of both agencies.  Chris Wray the assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division--the same post Mueller had once held--stopped Comey in the hallway at Main Justice to say, "Look, I don't know what's going on, but before you guys all pull the rip cords, please give me a heads-up so I can jump with you."


Graff states that by the fall of 2010, Mueller had become the longest-serving FBI director, and almost unarguably the most influential, since J. Edgar Hoover.  Mueller's face has aged greatly since the day he stood next to George W. bush as the president announced his nomination to be the Bureau's sixth director.  As his onetime deputy director, Bruce Gephardt explains, "Bob has consumed himself into the FBI to make it better than it was yesterday."  The stress of a thousand Oval Office meetings, some three thousand Threat Matrices, tens of thousands of briefings, scores of congressional hearings, and funerals for five agents killed in the line of duty is now etched around Mueller's eyes.  As he explains, "When I look ahead, threats are going to have one foot in the U.S. and one foot overseas.  When I started out as a prosecutor, maybe one case in ten would intersect with someone in another state.  Now in many areas, it's not just other states, its other countries.  This is all about putting the Bureau in a posture of predicting the next threat."  There will be a moment when the director will exit the Hoover Building for the last time, when he no longer spends his mornings at the White House, when he can stand in the sun and work on his mornings at the White House, when he can stand in the sun and work on his golf game.  Robert Mueller will go--but the "Threat Matrix": a spreadsheet prepared daily to track all the unfolding terrorist plots and intelligence rumors, will remain.

FBI's No. 2 Steps Down; Are We Nearing A Constitutional Crisis?

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 7, 2017 file photo, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe appears before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, on Capitol Hill in Washington. On Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017, President Donald Trump reacted to reports about the coming retirement of FBI Deputy Director McCabe, who has been buffeted by attacks from the president and his Republican allies over alleged anti-Trump bias in the agency, by retweeting falsehoods about McCabe's wife. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 7, 2017 file photo, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe appears before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, on Capitol Hill in Washington. On Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017, President Donald Trump reacted to reports about the coming retirement of FBI Deputy Director McCabe, who has been buffeted by attacks from the president and his Republican allies over alleged anti-Trump bias in the agency, by retweeting falsehoods about McCabe's wife. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

With guest host Anthony Brooks.

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe resigns abruptly. Republicans in Congress vote to release a Republican-authored memo critical of the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign. Are we steps away from a constitutional crisis?

We were joined by the Washington Post's Devlin Barrett, Politico's Joshua Gerstein, UPenn's Claire Finkelstein and George Washington University's Jonathan Turley.

Highlights From This Show:


Devlin Barrett, national security reporter for the Washington Post. (@DevlinBarrett)

Josh Gerstein, senior White House reporter for Politico. (@joshgerstein)

Claire Finkelstein, Algernon Biddle Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law.

Jonathan Turley, teaches Public Interest Law at George Washington University's law school. (@jonathanturley)

From The Reading List:

Washington Post: FBI's McCabe Leaving Deputy Director Job — "Andrew McCabe has been a frequent target of President Trump and congressional Republicans."

Politico: McCabe Out As FBI's No. 2. — "His exit comes amid heated partisan tensions around special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. House Republicans have pointed to text messages between FBI officials to allege bias at the agency and drafted a secret memo about the bureau’s surveillance of a former Trump campaign official. Democrats and DOJ officials have defended Mueller and the FBI, but McCabe still became a focal point as Trump and others in the GOP bashed him."

President Trump’s war against the FBI is red hot. Last year, former FBI Director James Comey, fired. Now, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, a target of presidential attacks - forced out early. We’ve heard the President tried to fire special counsel Bob Mueller, whose probe has reached Trump’s inner circle. And now a Republican memo accuses the FBI of dirty politics. This hour, On Point: Are we lurching toward a constitutional crisis? --Anthony Brooks

This program aired on January 30, 2018.

Trump Tweet Ties 'Missed Signals' In Florida Shooting To FBI Russia Probe


President Trump's suggestion that the FBI failed to stop the Florida shooting because it spent too much time on the Russia investigation has outraged his critics.

Views: 81

Comment by mary gravitt on February 28, 2018 at 12:07pm

Mueller is rounding up the crooks one by one.

Comment by mary gravitt on February 28, 2018 at 12:16pm

Had to do some repairs.


You need to be a member of Our Salon to add comments!


Trump introduces new cabinet nominees!

Posted by Dicky Neely on December 15, 2018 at 2:20pm 1 Comment

The Bit Player

Posted by Robert B. James on December 15, 2018 at 9:30am 5 Comments

The Ly'in King

Posted by Safe Bet's Amy on December 15, 2018 at 8:30am 2 Comments

Furry Friends

Posted by Rodney Roe on December 15, 2018 at 5:52am 10 Comments

A 21st Century Political Dictionary

Posted by Tom Cordle on December 14, 2018 at 1:30pm 10 Comments

From The Hills

Posted by Robert B. James on December 14, 2018 at 8:00am 3 Comments


Posted by J.P. Hart on December 13, 2018 at 4:12pm 4 Comments

© 2018   Created by lorianne.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service