The Formation of Robert Mueller’s Mind

Robert Mueller UVA

If you talk to people who knew Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III when he was a young man, you will hear a lot of what you already know. He was hard-working, lacrosse playing, straight arrow who served in the U.S. Marines between studying in the privileged precincts of Princeton and University of Virginia Law School.

Robert Mueller UVA
Robert Mueller, law student (Credit: University of Virginia)

You will also hear some finer details. Friends and faculty describe a  temperamentally conservative young man who was comfortable with liberal ideas. Mueller was more methodical than ingenious, his classmate say, a plodder not a plotter.  “Not among Princeton’s best and brightest,” said one otherwise admiring alumnus. And he possessed a self-effacing quality that resulted in more than a few saying their memories of him were dim.

Mueller is now reportedly in the last stages of his investigation of President Trump and his entourage for possible collusion with Russian state agents. His final report (if the recalcitrant Attorney General William Barr makes it public) will set the stage for the last two years of President Trump’s first term.

Whatever Mueller finds, his formative years are prologue to the fury to come.


Mueller’s intellectual formation took shape in his undergraduate thesis for the Department of Politics, submitted in April 1966. His topic: international law and apartheid. In 121 pages of dry prose he analyzed the 1962 decision of the International Court of Justice to accept jurisdiction for a case challenging South Africa’s imposition of apartheid in the territory known as Southwest Africa, now the independent nation of Namibia.

[You can read Mueller’s thesis here.]

Mueller thanked his thesis adviser Richard Falk, a leftist scholar for his “stimulating guidance.” But when a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education called Falk last year to ask him about Mueller’s thesis, he initially did not remember its author.

When Falk re-read Mueller’s 1966 thesis, “I was extremely impressed with the maturity and sophistication of the analysis, which was quite unusual for someone who had not attended law school,” he wrote in The Nation. “Even though, from my perspective, it sided too strongly with the conservative interpretation of these complex issues, he did it in a judicious way and was very fair in his assessment of the opposing view.”

Falk noted the similarity between the situation facing the ICJ in 1962 and the special prosecutor today.

“Despite his antipathy to apartheid, Mueller clearly believed that the rejectionists had the better of the narrow legal arguments. Yet, as suggested, this did not resolve the issue for Mueller. He set forth an argument showing that South Africa had pursued an oppressive set of policies and practices that were imposed on the native population in draconian fashion. 

“In other words,” Falk continued, “Mueller considers the larger purposes of the law in this context to be the promotion of justice, respect for international law and human rights, and even the maintenance of peace.”

It was a situation, Falk said,  where the opposing views were “both based on sound legal reasoning, producing a situation in which there is no way to distinguish legal right and wrong on the merits, thus making non-legal factors such as human rights, peace, and justice potentially decisive.”

“Yet that wider context,” Falk went on, “… the court must show proper respect for sovereign rights, avoid the issuance of ineffective decisions, and not be seen as engaging in judicial legislation.”

Falk’s point: As special prosecutor, Mueller can’t afford to trample the rights of the accused, bring weak cases to court, or act as a legislator.

How Mueller balances his legal findings about Trump and Co. with “the larger purposes of the law” will define his report on the president and the Russians.


After graduation, Mueller enlisted in the Marine Corps and served two tours in Vietnam. He returned to enroll in UVA Law School in 1970. He joined the law review and received his degree in 1973. His style was unobtrusive.

One classmate, Howard Meyers, now an attorney in Philadelphia, said via email, “As a student, he was smart, hard-working and articulate… Bob was also well liked and indeed admired by others who knew him during law school.”

Otherwise, Meyers declined to comment.

“My impression is that Bob wouldn’t want his role as Special Prosecutor to be about him personally, but rather about the job that he and his colleagues are doing on the tasks assigned to them,” Meyers wrote. “I obviously can’t speak to those issues.”

Hugh McIntosh, now head of a private school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says he and Mueller worked as junior editors on the law review “doing mundane things like proofreading articles.”

“He was the kind of person who conducted himself with credibility, the kind of person who inspires confidence,” McIntosh said in a phone interview. “Of all the positive things, I have read about him, nothing has been overstated. He is all of that and more. “

Yet on some people he made no deep impression. John Jeffries, editor of the UVA Law Review in 1972-73, said via email that “Bob and I were classmates and friends, but not intimate, and I am not in a position to describe his intellectual formation.”

If history is any guide, Mueller’s forthcoming Trump-Russia report will be long on facts, process and rule of law, short on personality and anything but the most pedestrian politics. But unlike the young man, it will not be forgettable.

Privacy Group Says DOJ Agrees to ‘Expedite’ Release of Mueller Report

Electronic Privacy Information Center Logo

While social media chatter about the Trump-Russia investigation continues with the usual ratio heat to light, the report (300 pages, 400 pages, 687 pages?) remains secret, thanks to Attorney General Bill Barr.

Congress wants a copy. So does the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which has sued for the release of the report. On Tuesday EPIC said that the Justice Department has

agreed to the accelerated schedule after the group sued for the documents last month under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A portion of an email sent by a DOJ official to EPIC and viewed by The Hill also showed that the department had agreed to an expedited release of the report.

Source: Privacy group says DOJ agreed to ‘expedite’ release of Mueller report | TheHill

What Mueller’s Inquiry Means For the Next President

Jonathan Cook Twitter Photo

British journalist Jonathan Cook, who writes from Israel/Palestine, draws three lessons from the Mueller investigation, which he calls “an in-house squabble between different wings of the establishment.”  That’s a bit glib. It wasn’t a squabble–which is something petty–but it was–and is–a power struggle between two power centers in Washington, the White House and the secret agencies.

The third point I think, is especially relevant for voters looking ahead to the the 2020 election. He talks about the hostility of the British establishment to Labor Party leader Jermey Corbyn, who advocates fundamental change in the British stance toward the world. Now imagine Bernie Sanders was elected in 2020.

Were the U.S. to get its own Corbyn as president, he or she would undoubtedly face a Mueller-style inquiry, and one far more effective at securing the president’s impeachment than this one was ever going to be. That is not because a leftwing U.S. president would be more corrupt or more likely to have colluded with a foreign power. As the U.K. example shows, it would be because the entire media system – from The New York Times to Fox News– would be against such a president.

Source: Three Lessons From ‘Failed’ Mueller Inquiry – Consortiumnews

Why the Mueller Investigation Was Good for the Country

Counterpunch Logo

Counterpunch’s Stuart Newman gets it right:

Of course, some liberal pundits overplayed the Russophobic side the investigation. But so did the anti-“Russiagate” critics, who took glee in pointing out the lack of connection of each new criminal disclosure to election stealing. It was hard to determine whether they thought Trump was above entering into criminally corrupt dealings or the Russian elites were.

Source: Why the Mueller Investigation was Good for the Country

PLUS: The Formation of Robert Mueller’s Mind.

Mueller’s Report Blunts the Criticism of Former Spy Chiefs

Robert Mueller

The report of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, as summarized by Attorney General Bill Barr, significantly qualifies the U.S. intelligence community’s January 2017 finding about Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

The unclassified findings of the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency set the stage for the special prosecutor’s investigation by asserting that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at affecting the U.S. presidential election.

James Clapper
James Clapper, former NSA director

The subsequent public statements of the former directors of those agencies encouraged the implication. Former CIA director John Brennan charged Trump’s post-election behavior was tantamout to treason.

Former director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it “hard to believe” Trump didn’t know about his campaign’s contacts with Russian state actors.

Michael Hayden
Michael Hayden, former NSA and CIA director.

Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden described the famous meeting of Trump officials and Russian operatives at Trump Tower as a“classic”intelligence operation.

The CIA-FBI-NSA report did not address the conspiracy issue but it went farther than any intelligence finding about a U.S. president in suggesting compromising behavior. Even before Trump took office, the three leading U.S. intelligence agencies stated that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” They assessed that “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”

All three agencies agreed with this judgment. CIA and FBI expressed “high confidence” in this judgment; NSA had a “moderate confidence.”

Two Strongest Cases

Robert Mueller
Former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Robert Mueller (Credit: Wikipedia)

Two cases brought by Mueller offered the strongest evidence of a possible conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors: the Feb. 2018 indictment of 13 Russians working for the Internet Research Associates, and the January 2019 charges against political trickster Roger Stone.

The IRA case laid out how Russian social media operatives sought to influence the election with pro-Trump and and anti-Clinton messaging. The case against Stone detailed his backchannel communications with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange who released email from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign.

The January 2017 finding did not address whether candidate Trump had cooperated or collaborated in the Russian efforts but its language–“aspired to help”–certainly left the implication that collusion was possible, if not probable.  The former spy chiefs took that implication and ran to the cable news bank with it.

Mueller’s report, as summarized by Barr, indicates the former spy chiefs overestimated Trump’s culpability. Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings does not contradict the NSA-CIA-FBI findings but it does but it does qualify them in two significant ways.

According to Barr, Mueller concluded that Trump and his entourage did not collaborate with Putin and his operatives, that Russian aspirations to help Trump were not reciprocated by the Trump campaign.

Official portrat

The Attorney General has not released the full report, so we don’t know what is being withheld. Given Barr’s record in concealing information in the name of executive power, it may be a lot. (See my piece on “Bill Barr’s CIA Resume.”)  So conclusive judgments may be premature.

What is certain is that Mueller decided neither the IRA nor Roger Stone case was strong enough to bring charges of conspiracy.

No Social Media Conspiracy

From Barr’s letter to Congress.

The Special Counsel’s investigation determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. The first involved attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election. As noted above, the Special Counsel did not find that any U.S. person or Trump campaign official or associate conspired knowingly or coordinated with the IRA in its efforts, although the Special Counsel brought criminal charges against a number of Russian nationals and entities in connection with these activities.

No DNC Hacking Conspiracy

Mueller’s report, as described by Barr, repeated U.S. government allegations that the Russians “government actors” used Wikileaks to disseminate emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations. (Wikileaks founder Julian Assange denies the charge.)

In any case, Mueller concluded that Trump and his entourage did not criminally conspire or coordinate with the Russians in such hacking activities.

From Barr’s letter:

The second element involved the Russian government’s efforts to conduct computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election. The Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks. Based on these activities, the Special Counsel brought criminal charges against a number of Russian military officers for conspiring to hack into computers in the United States for purposes of influencing the election. But as noted above, the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.

In short, Mueller’s finding is that Russian military intelligence, the GRU, sought to influence the election and offered to help the Trump campaign but the campaign did not respond in any way that rose to the level of criminality.

That judgement modifies the U.S. intelligence communities’ findings by refuting the implication that the Trump campaign had reciprocated the Russian overtures.