(Special Counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice,
Robert Swan Mueller III (born August 7, 1944) is an American lawyer and government official who served as the sixth director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from 2001 to 2013.
A graduate of Princeton University and New York University, Mueller served as a Marine Corps officer during the Vietnam War, receiving a Bronze Star for heroism and a Purple Heart. He subsequently attended the University of Virginia School of Law. Mueller is a registered Republican in Washington, D.C., and was appointed and reappointed to Senate-confirmed positions by presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Mueller has served both in government and private practice. He was an assistant United States attorney, a United States attorney, United States assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division, a homicide prosecutor in Washington, D.C., acting United States deputy attorney general, partner at D.C. law firm WilmerHale and director of the FBI.
On May 17, 2017, Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as special counsel overseeing an investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and related matters. He submitted his report to Attorney General William Barr on March 22, 2019. On April 18, the Department of Justice released it. On May 29, he resigned his post and the Office of the Special Counsel was closed.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
President George W. Bush nominated Mueller for the position of FBI director on July 5, 2001. He and two other candidates, Washington lawyer George J. Terwilliger III and veteran Chicago prosecutor and white-collar crime defense lawyer Dan Webb, were up for the job, but Mueller, described at the time as a conservative Republican, was always considered the front-runner. Terwilliger and Webb both pulled out from consideration around mid-June, while confirmation hearings for Mueller before the Senate Judiciary Committee were quickly set for July 30, only three days before his prostate cancer surgery.
The Senate unanimously confirmed Mueller as FBI director on August 2, 2001, voting 98–0 in favor of his appointment. He had previously served as acting deputy attorney general of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) for several months before officially becoming the FBI director on September 4, 2001, one week before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
On February 11, 2003, one month before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Mueller gave testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Mueller informed the American public that “[s]even countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism—Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Cuba, and North Korea—remain active in the United States and continue to support terrorist groups that have targeted Americans. As Director Tenet has pointed out, Secretary Powell presented evidence last week that Baghdad has failed to disarm its weapons of mass destruction, willfully attempting to evade and deceive the international community. Our particular concern is that Saddam Hussein may supply terrorists with biological, chemical or radiological material.” Highlighting this worry in February 2003, FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley wrote an open letter to Mueller in which she warned that “the bureau will [not] be able to stem the flood of terrorism that will likely head our way in the wake of an attack on Iraq” and encouraged Mueller to “share [her concerns] with the President and Attorney General.”
Special Counsel for the Department of Justice
On May 16, 2017, Mueller met with President Trump as a courtesy to provide perspectives on the FBI and input on considerations for hiring a new FBI Director. This meeting was initially widely reported to have been an interview to serve again as the FBI Director. President Trump broached resuming the position in their meeting; however, Mueller was ineligible to return as FBI Director due to statutory term limits, and Mueller lacked interest in resuming the position.
The next day, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to serve as special counsel for the United States Department of Justice. In this capacity, Mueller oversaw the investigation into “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump, and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”.
Mueller’s appointment to oversee the investigation immediately garnered widespread support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Newt Gingrich, former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives and prominent conservative political commentator, stated via Twitter that “Robert Mueller is a superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity.” Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said, “Former Director Mueller is exactly the right kind of individual for this job. I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead.” Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) stated, “former FBI dir. Mueller is well qualified to oversee this probe”. Some, however, pointed out an alleged conflict of interest. “The federal code could not be clearer—Mueller is compromised by his apparent conflict of interest in being close with James Comey,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), who first called for Mueller to step down over the summer, said in a statement to Fox News. “The appearance of a conflict is enough to put Mueller in violation of the code. … All of the revelations in recent weeks make the case stronger.”
Upon his appointment as special counsel, Mueller and two colleagues (former FBI agent Aaron Zebley and former assistant special prosecutor on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force James L. Quarles III) resigned from WilmerHale. On May 23, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts announced they had declared Mueller ethically able to function as special counsel. The spokesperson for the special counsel, Peter Carr, told NBC News that Mueller has taken an active role in managing the inquiry. In an interview with the Associated Press, Rosenstein said he would recuse himself from supervision of Mueller if he were to become a subject in the investigation due to his role in the dismissal of James Comey.
On June 14, 2017, The Washington Post reported that Mueller’s office is also investigating Trump personally for possible obstruction of justice, in reference to the Russian probe. The report was questioned by Trump’s legal team attorney Jay Sekulow, who said on June 18 on NBC’s Meet the Press, “The President is not and has not been under investigation for obstruction, period.” Due to the central role of the Trump family in the campaign, the transition, and the White House, the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was also reportedly under scrutiny by Mueller. Also in June, Trump allegedly ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, but backed down when then-White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit.
During a discussion about national security at the Aspen security conference on July 21, 2017, former CIA director John Brennan reaffirmed his support for Mueller and called for members of Congress to resist if Trump fires Mueller. He also said it was “the obligation of some executive-branch officials to refuse to carry out some of these orders that, again, are inconsistent with what this country is all about”. After Peter Strzok, an investigator for Mueller, was removed from the investigation for alleged partiality, Senator Mark Warner, the Ranking Member of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in a speech on December 20, 2017, before the Senate warned of a constitutional crisis if the President fired Mueller. On June 22, 2018, Warner hosted a fundraising party for 100 guests and was quoted there saying, “If you get me one more glass of wine, I’ll tell you stuff only Bob Mueller and I know. If you think you’ve seen wild stuff so far, buckle up. It’s going to be a wild couple of months.”
On October 30, 2017, Mueller filed charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign co-chairman Rick Gates. The 12 charges include conspiracy to launder money, violations of the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA statements, and conspiracy against the United States.
On December 1, 2017, Mueller reached a plea agreement with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to giving false testimony to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. As part of Flynn’s negotiations, his son, Michael G. Flynn, was not expected to be charged, and Flynn was prepared to testify that high-level officials on Trump’s team directed him to make contact with the Russians. On February 16, 2018, Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and 3 Russian companies for attempting to trick Americans into consuming Russian propaganda that targeted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and later President-elect Donald Trump.
On February 20, 2018, Mueller charged attorney Alex van der Zwaan with making false statements in the Russia probe.
On May 20, 2018, Trump criticized Mueller, tweeting “the World’s most expensive Witch Hunt has found nothing on Russia & me so now they are looking at the rest of the World!” Mueller started investigating the August 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and an emissary for the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The emissary offered help to the Trump presidential campaign. Mueller was also investigating the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Turkey, Qatar, Israel, and China.
On December 18, 2018, The Washington Post published an article concerning a report prepared for the U.S. Senate which stated that Russian disinformation teams had targeted Mueller.
On March 22, 2019, Mueller concluded his investigation and submitted the Special Counsel’s final report to Attorney General William Barr. A senior Department of Justice official said that the report did not recommend any new indictments. On March 24, Attorney General Barr submitted a summary of findings to the United States Congress. He stated in his letter, “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russian in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” Mueller’s report also reportedly did not take a stance on whether or not Trump committed obstruction of justice; Barr quoted Mueller as saying “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
On April 18, 2019, the Department of Justice released Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, the special counsel’s final report and its conclusions.
On May 29, 2019, Mueller announced that he was retiring as special counsel and that the office would be shut down, and he spoke publicly about the report for the first time. Saying “The report is my testimony,” he indicated he would have nothing to say that was not already in the report. On the subject of obstruction of justice, he said, “under long-standing Department [of Justice] policy, a president cannot be charged with a crime while he is in office.” He repeated his official conclusion that the report neither accused nor exonerated the president while adding that any potential wrongdoing by a president must be addressed by a “process other than the criminal justice system.” Mueller reasserted the involvement of Russian operatives in the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak and their parallel efforts to influence American public opinion using social media. Referring to those actions, he declared that “there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
Robert Mueller was initially scheduled to publicly testify before two House committees on July 17, 2019, with two hours for lawmakers to ask questions, but the hearing was postponed to July 24 with a third hour added for questions. His verbal testimony was expected to help inform the public—Democrats believe most Americans have not read the report—and to help Democratic leadership finally decide whether or not to impeach the President. In particular, the Democrats aimed to highlight what they consider to be the worst examples of Trump’s conduct. Representative Jamie Raskin from Maryland said he would use visual aids, such as posters, to help people understand the implications of the Mueller report. Republicans, on the other hand, planned to question Mueller on the origins of this investigation.
On July 24, 2019, Mueller attended both congressional committee hearings and was questioned by members of Congress. His testimony followed the guidelines he had stated would be appropriate regarding his report. In fact, many of his responses were one-word replies. He said he was “not familiar” with Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that commissioned the Steele dossier. He rejected claims that his investigation was a “witch hunt” or that it totally exonerated the President. He declined to answer questions outside of the scope of his investigation, but reiterated his concern about foreign interference with American elections. He noted that it continues, that he expects it to expand to include other foreign governments as well as the Russians, and that he considers it a great threat to the United States. According to the Nielsen Company, total viewership for the Mueller hearing fell just shy of 13 million, significantly lower than other hearings involving the Trump administration, such as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s (20.4 million), former FBI director James Comey’s (19.5 million), and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s (15.8 million). Reasons for this comparatively low television rating include the fact that the hearing occurred in July, vacation time for many Americans, and months after the release of the Mueller report. Fox News Channel enjoyed the top rating, with 3.03 million views. Subsequently, Mueller’s words were distorted and misinterpreted to both defend and condemn the President. Mueller’s testimony was criticized by some as uncharacteristically confusing.
In late September 2019, it was reported Trump may have lied to Mueller about his knowledge of his campaign’s contacts with WikiLeaks, citing the grand jury redactions in the Mueller report.
Political scientists William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe described Mueller’s decision not to take a position on obstruction of justice for Trump – despite “compiling a mountain of incriminating evidence” – as something that “will surely go down as one of the strangest – and most consequential – moves in modern legal history.” They added, “in refusing to draw legal conclusions from his evidence, Mueller simply didn’t do his job… because he didn’t, he failed to carry out his duty to tell the American people what his investigation actually revealed about Trump’s lawless behavior, and he failed to draw a bright line that would keep future presidents within legal bounds.”
The University of Virginia Law School announced in June 2021 that in the coming fall Mueller would participate in a six-session course called “The Mueller Report and the Role of the Special Counsel,” along with three of his colleagues from the investigation.