Viet­nam vet plunges into mael­strom

Former FBI chief Mueller is no stranger to Wash­ing­ton con­tro­ver­sies and is ex­pected to ‘fol­low the facts’


When Robert Mueller re­tired as head of the Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion in 2013 after spend­ing 12 years as the top US law en­force­ment of­fi­cer, a col­league noted at his leav­ing party that he had served in al­most every jus­tice depart­ment po­si­tion ex­cept at­tor­ney-gen­eral.

The re­spected prose­cu­tor and Viet­nam vet­eran added an un­ex­pected ti­tle to his haul on Wed­nes­day when he was ap­pointed “spe­cial coun­sel” to lead a high-stakes in­ves­ti­ga­tion into links be­tween Trump pres­i­den­tial cam­paign aides and Rus­sia.

The ap­point­ment cat­a­pults Mr Mueller into a mael­strom that has en­veloped the White House. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump re­sponded with a tweet: “This is the sin­gle great­est witch hunt of a politi­cian in Amer­i­can his­tory!”

While the po­si­tion puts Mr Mueller in Mr Trump’s crosshair, former col­leagues and ad­ver­saries said he was the “per­fect” choice.

“He has got very broad ex­pe­ri­ence as a line prose­cu­tor,” said Michael Chert- off, the home­land se­cu­rity sec­re­tary un­der Ge­orge W Bush, who has known him for 30 years. “He has han­dled some of the most sen­si­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tions in the his­tory of the coun­try. He has tremen­dous in­tegrity.”

Mr Mueller, 72, was ap­pointed after a tu­mul­tuous eight days that be­gan when Mr Trump fired James Comey as FBI di­rec­tor. The White House said Mr Comey was ousted over his han­dling of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion last year into Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pri­vate email server, but Mr Trump later said it was be­cause of the “Rus­sia thing”.

It later emerged that Mr Comey had writ­ten a memo after a meeting with the pres­i­dent in Fe­bru­ary, in which he wrote that Mr Trump had urged him to shut down a probe into Michael Flynn, the former na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser who is a cen­tral fig­ure in the Rus­sia in­quiry.

Mr Mueller is no stranger to Wash­ing­ton con­tro­ver­sies. In 2004, he and Mr Comey threat­ened to re­sign after Al­berto Gon­za­les, White House coun­sel to Ge­orge W Bush, tried to per­suade John Ashcroft, the at­tor­ney-gen­eral who was sick, to ap­prove a spy­ing pro­gramme DoJ lawyers had said was un­law­ful.

Two years later, Mr Gon­za­les found him­self on the same side as Mr Mueller after the FBI chief threat­ened to re­sign if he was forced to re­turn ev­i­dence seized from the of­fice of a politi­cian who had hid­den $90,000 in his fridge. “Bob did men­tion the word res­ig­na­tion, which put me in a dif­fi­cult po­si­tion,” said Mr Gon­za­les. “When Bob makes up his mind about some­thing, you can de­pend on him to stick with it.”

Ge­orge Tenet, the former Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency head who worked with Mr Mueller after the 2001 ter­ror at­tacks, said there was no ques­tion that he will pur­sue the in­ves­ti­ga­tion in an in­de­pen­dent man­ner. “Bob Mueller is a first class public ser­vant — hon­est, dis- creet, and in­de­pen­dent,” Mr Tenet said. “He will fol­low the facts.”

A former White House of­fi­cial who worked with Mr Mueller said it was “good news and bad news” for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The bad news was that he would pur­sue all leads, the good news was that a “per­son driven by facts is do­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion”.

“He is very sim­i­lar to Comey in giv­ing the ab­so­lute high­est pri­or­ity to his own per­sonal in­tegrity and that of the jus­tice sys­tem,” said the former of­fi­cial.

Barack Obama asked Mr Mueller to stay in the post for two years when his 10-year term ended. When he re­tired, Mr Obama said “I know few in public life who have shown more in­tegrity.”

Mr Mueller started at the FBI a week be­fore al-Qaeda struck. He spent much of his ten­ure deal­ing with ter­ror­ism and re­ori­en­tat­ing the agency to fo­cus on pre­vent­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

A grad­u­ate of Prince­ton, he was awarded the Pur­ple Heart and the Bronze Star for his time in Viet­nam.

At the FBI, one re­tired agent said he in­spired re­spect more than af­fec­tion and that by the end of his ten­ure peo­ple were suf­fer­ing from “Mueller fa­tigue”.

“He would work 20-hour days,” the former agent said. “He burnt a lot of peo­ple out.”

Mr Chertoff pointed out that most years Mr Mueller at­tends a me­mo­rial ser­vice for vic­tims of the 1988 Locker­bie bomb­ing — a case he over­saw. He also ran in­ves­ti­ga­tions that in­cluded suc­cess in the cases of Manuel Nor­iega, the Pana­ma­nian dic­ta­tor, and John Gotti, the New York mafia boss.

Mr Mueller is close to Mr Comey, but those who know him said it would have no bear­ing on his im­par­tial­ity. Mr Chertoff said Mr Mueller would not be swayed by the pres­i­dent’s tweets.

“Any­body who has a high-pro­file pros­e­cu­to­rial po­si­tion where they dealt with con­tro­ver­sial cases has a very thick skin” he said. “Pres­i­dent Trump is lucky that some­one who is do­ing this has a lot of in­tegrity. If it turns out that there is noth­ing there, then hav­ing Bob Mueller say­ing that will mean a lot.” Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by David J Lynch

‘If it turns out that there is noth­ing there, then hav­ing Bob Mueller say­ing that will mean a lot’

The story told by for­eign pol­icy types in Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has been one of a pres­i­dent “nor­malised” by the of­fice. From time to time, this nar­ra­tive takes hold. Briefly. Then Mr Trump blows it up by sack­ing the di­rec­tor of the Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion or shar­ing sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence with the Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter. When the Repub­li­can se­na­tor Robert Corker frets about a “down­ward spi­ral” in the White House he is guilty only of un­der­state­ment.

Mr Trump is about to set off on his first over­seas trip, tak­ing in visits to al­lies in the Mid­dle East and Europe. This as his pres­i­dency is en­gulfed daily by rev­e­la­tions about the past re­la­tion­ship with Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia and ef­forts to de­flect in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the Krem­lin con­nec­tions. Even be­fore the lat­est dis­clo­sures by the Wash­ing­ton Post and New York Times, the ten­sion in the for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment was pal­pa­ble. The or­gan­is­ing goal of US for­eign pol­icy has been dis­tilled as the avoid­ance of fresh calami­ties.

Rus­sia apart, the pres­i­dent’s ad­vis­ers have claimed to have done much in per­suad­ing Mr Trump to ad­just to in­terna- tional re­al­i­ties. Mr Trump used to think Nato was ob­so­lete. Now he does not. A cheer­leader for Brexit, he looked for­ward to the break-up of the EU. Ger­many’s chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel per­suaded him the union is here to stay. To prove the point, Mr Trump is plan­ning to visit the head­quar­ters in Brus­sels of both or­gan­i­sa­tions.

Of­fi­cials point to other about-turns. Mr Trump started out telling China’s pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping that the US might drop the long­stand­ing One China pol­icy to­wards Taiwan. Now he speaks of the Chi­nese leader al­most as a close chum. Ques­tion marks put over Wash­ing­ton’s com­mit­ment to its al­liances with South Korea and Ja­pan have been re­moved. As for the pres­i­dent’s hopes for a grand bar­gain with Mr Putin, they have fallen vic­tim to the mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the links be­tween Moscow and Mr Trump’s cam­paign team.

The for­eign pol­icy mile­stones of the first months of the ad­min­is­tra­tion are thus chalked up in the terms of suc­ces­sive re­ver­sals of po­si­tions taken by Mr Trump dur­ing his cam­paign. Sur­real, cer­tainly, but less danger­ous than had the pres­i­dent per­sisted on his orig­i­nal course. Even on trade, where the go­ing has been tougher for his ad­vis­ers, Mr Trump has been de­flected from launch­ing a full-scale trade war with China or Mex­ico.

Credit for the “nor­mal­i­sa­tion” is al­lo­cated to James Mat­tis, the sec­re­tary for de­fence, HR McMaster, the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, and, to a lesser ex­tent, Rex Tiller­son, the sec­re­tary of state. As mil­i­tary men, Messrs Mat­tis and McMaster have im­posed a mea­sure of dis­ci­pline and or­der on na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy, though nei­ther, I think, would call them­selves grand strate­gists. Mr Tiller­son, the former boss of Exxon, some­times looks lost. An­nounc­ing a rad­i­cal shake-up of the state depart­ment, he was then heard to ask a former busi­ness as­so­ci­ate for ideas as to how he might go about it.

Some over­seas lead­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the Mid­dle East, pre­fer to do busi­ness with Jared Kush­ner, the pres­i­dent’s sonin-law. Where oth­ers see mul­ti­ple con­flicts of in­ter­est these po­ten­tates are com­fort­able mix­ing busi­ness and for­eign pol­icy. They are used to pol­i­tics as a fam­ily af­fair and to the blur­ring of lines be­tween public pol­icy and pri­vate gain.

It is a mea­sure of just low ex­pec­ta­tions have sunk that diplo­mats in Wash­ing­ton shrug their shoul­ders at such shenani­gans. Dam­age con­trol scarcely adds up to a for­eign pol­icy for the world’s sole su­per­power — es­pe­cially when the dam­age is be­ing in­flicted by the per­son who is sup­posed to be in con­trol.

Sto­ries abound of the chaos in the White House — of a pres­i­dent at once con­vinced that he is right about ev­ery­thing and gripped by fears that he will be seen to fail. Aides walk in and out of favour, fac­tions fight it out, of­fi­cial pa­pers go un­read and meet­ings rarely have agen­das. And, most dan­ger­ously un­pre­dictable, no one knows what Mr Trump will say, or tweet, next. In the mem­o­rable de­scrip­tion of one close ob­server, ad­vis­ers face a con­stant strug­gle against the “sheer depth of the pres­i­dent’s ig­no­rance”.

Any­thing can be up­ended at any mo­ment. Thus it was the pres­i­dent who drew the ex­plicit link be­tween his de­ci­sion to sack James Comey and the FBI di­rec­tor’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the Trump cam­paign’s Rus­sia con­nec­tion. Mr McMaster sought to play down the pres­i­den­tial shar­ing of in­tel­li­gence with Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov about Is­lamist ter­ror­ist plots — only for Mr Trump to tweet he had noth­ing to apol­o­gise for. Now it seems that the pres­i­dent asked the then FBI di­rec­tor to go easy on Michael Flynn, the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser sacked after rev­e­la­tions about his close con­nec­tions to Moscow.

The sen­ti­ment most of­ten heard by vis­i­tors to Wash­ing­ton, from Repub­li­cans and Democrats, is that things can­not go on like this. It is of­ten fol­lowed by the pre­dic­tion that for the fore­see­able fu­ture they prob­a­bly will. The rea­son­ing is as cyn­i­cal as they come. Much as they would like to be rid of Mr Trump, Con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans think they are safer po­lit­i­cally back­ing the pres­i­dent than sack­ing him. If and when that cal­cu­lus changes, the pres­i­dent will be gone. Un­til then, the US’s for­eign pol­icy, like this pres­i­dency, will be any­thing but nor­mal.

Mile­stones are chalked up in terms of re­ver­sals of po­si­tions taken by the pres­i­dent in the cam­paign

Bren­dan Smi­alowski/Getty

Robert Mueller: spent 12 years as the top US law en­force­ment of­fi­cer

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