The sun had just come up when Robert Mueller and James Comey walked up to the West Wing of the White House shortly after 7 am on March 12, 2004. Mueller and Comey had been up for much longer. Neither the FBI director nor the deputy attorney general had slept much in the previous week, and that was before al Qaeda terrorists killed 191 people in train bombings around Madrid. It was windy and cool; the thermometer hovered at 40 degrees as the two men prepared to brief the President.
It was, both fully expected, the last time they would enter the White House. In their desks at the FBI and Justice Department were letters of resignation they expected to submit; they would be joined by a dozen other Justice and FBI officials. The only reason the letters hadn’t been submitted already was that the men, at the request of the attorney general’s chief of staff, were waiting until John Ashcroft had recuperated from gallbladder surgery to the point where he could resign as well.
To understand that day, you have to go back to the 73-word oath that kicks off every federal career.
Bob Mueller never got his formal swearing-in as FBI director. The ceremony, one of the government’s nicest traditions, usually comes with the flickering of flashbulbs and applause from the assembled staff followed by brief remarks and a wine-and-cheese reception.
When Mueller was sworn in as US Attorney in San Francisco in 1998, in a sign of the respect he had garnered on both sides of the political aisle, Senator Barbara Boxer attended, the only time she has attended a US Attorney’s swearing-in during her 15 years in the Senate.
Three years later, when Mueller took over the FBI under a Republican administration, he had only a small ceremony attended by his wife, Attorney General Ashcroft, and a few aides. The date was September 4, 2001. The plan was that later in the month the bureau would hold a ceremonial swearing-in.
At the small September 4 ceremony, Mueller raised his right hand and swore: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
On that day seven years ago, perhaps a thousand presidential briefings and many thousands of national-security threats ago, he had no idea of the enemies he would face—or that while he was battling terrorists at home and abroad, he would also battle people within the Bush administration who in his view threatened the rule of the Constitution. As the oath says—“all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Robert Swan Mueller III had sworn the oath seven times. The first time was as a Marine recruit during the height of the Vietnam War. That Mueller would end up in the Marines is surprising. He grew up in a wealthy corner of Philadelphia, a path that led him to St. Paul’s boarding school in New Hampshire.
Even by the standards of elite private schools, Mueller’s class did well for itself: John Kerry was the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, Max King went on to edit the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Will Taft became the top lawyer for the State Department.
For Mueller, it was off to Princeton after St. Paul’s—a path determined, as it was for most of his classmates, by his father’s college choice many years earlier. The key figure at Princeton—whose motto is “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations”—was David Hackett, a popular athlete who joined the Marine Corps and died in Vietnam. Hackett’s model of duty and sacrifice inspired Mueller and a handful of his classmates to join as well. “He was always a leader to us,” says Mueller.
In the Marines, Mueller swore allegiance to the Constitution and entered officer training. Two years later, on December 11, 1968—nine days after his prep-school classmate Kerry earned his first Purple Heart in Vietnam—the platoon of Marines led by Second Lieutenant Mueller came under fire in Quang Tri province. The battle earned Mueller a Bronze Star.
“Second Lieutenant Mueller fearlessly moved from one position to another,” the medal citation says. “With complete disregard for his own safety, he then skillfully supervised the evacuation of casualties from the hazardous area and, on one occasion, personally led a fire team across the fire-swept terrain to recover a mortally wounded Marine who had fallen in a position forward of the friendly lines.” The citation praises “Mueller’s courage, aggressive initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty.”
After the war, in which he also received a Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, he returned to the United States and enrolled at the University of Virginia’s law school, where he excelled at law and lacrosse, and applied to be an assistant US attorney after graduation.
Unable to get a federal position, Mueller reluctantly entered private practice before eventually landing as an assistant US attorney in San Francisco, where for the second time he swore allegiance to the Constitution.
“Anyone who takes that oath takes it seriously,” Mueller says. “I would hope they do.”
It was in San Francisco that he first got to stand up in court as the government of the United States incarnate. He took on tough cases and got convictions, rising to become chief of the office’s criminal division until Joseph Russoniello was appointed US Attorney in 1982. Russoniello brought in his own team, and Mueller was demoted.
When Russoniello recently was appointed to a second term as US Attorney for the Northern District of California, Mueller called him and pointed out that he was the only person who had ever demoted him. Mueller joked, “Joe, however many FBI agents you have assigned to your office, it’s now ten fewer.”
Mueller moved east to work for Boston’s US Attorney. Friends say that part of the lure of Boston for Mueller was that he had a daughter with spina bifida and could get her good treatment at Children’s Hospital Boston. He made an instant impression on the office.
Then–US attorney William Weld recalls of Mueller, “You cannot get the words ‘straight arrow’ out of your head. He didn’t try to be elegant or fancy; he just put the cards on the table.”
Massachusetts was where Mueller’s ambition to run the FBI first showed. After William Webster stepped down as FBI director, Weld passed up a chance to be considered. Mueller was incredulous. Weld recalls, “He already wanted to be director of the FBI so bad that he could taste it. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to do it.”
Mueller eventually succeeded Weld as US Attorney in Boston, appointed by President Reagan, and returned briefly to private practice before getting a call from Dick Thornburgh, George H.W. Bush’s attorney general, who asked him to come down to Justice to help lead the prosecution of Manuel Noriega; Mueller later worked on the Pan Am 103 bombing. The two cases proved to be landmarks: one of the first major international crime prosecutions and the first major terrorist incident involving US citizens. Mueller rose to become head of the Justice Department’s criminal division.
After Bill Clinton took office, Mueller settled into a partnership in the Washington office of the tony Boston law firm Hale and Dorr, now WilmerHale. Mueller never loved private practice. As partner William Lee explains, “It was hard to find as many trials as he would have liked.”
An old Princeton friend, Lee Rawls, says he knew Mueller wouldn’t last in private practice when Rawls referred a corporate-malfeasance case to him. Instead of offering to defend the wrongdoer, Mueller said that the defendant, then in jail, was “right where he belongs.”
Says Rawls: “It’s a transition to go from prosecutor to defendant. It’s a different type of thinking. In his heart of hearts, he’s a prosecutor.”
Mueller’s next step was surprising: He called Washington’s US Attorney, Eric Holder, and asked to be appointed a homicide prosecutor—an entry-level job in the nation’s largest US Attorney’s office. “That really took me aback,” Holder says, “both because of the positions he’d had and that he was at a great firm. The decision on my side was a no-brainer: ‘I’m getting Bob Mueller for that price?’ ”
The move meant giving up more than three-quarters of the $400,000 Mueller had been making each year at the law firm. But he didn’t love the work and didn’t necessarily need all the money. Financial-disclosure forms filed when he was nominated to be FBI director show that Mueller’s wife has several multimillion-dollar trust funds, which provide a modest annual income.