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