At the age of 50, Robert Mueller had arrived at the point in his career where many senior government lawyers settle into plush jobs in the private sector. After leading the entire criminal division at the Justice Department – one of the top positions in American law enforcement – there was a change in administration and Mr. Mueller left to become a partner at a well-heeled firm.
It was not his cup of tea.
In 1995, just two years after joining the law firm, Mr. Mueller made a move that was unheard of for someone of his seniority and experience. He gave up more than three-quarters of his salary to become a low-level homicide prosecutor in Washington, investigating local murders in a city ravaged by the crack epidemic. It was difficult work, he told an acquaintance at the time, but he did it because he felt like he was doing the right thing.
The striking choice is part of the legend that has made Mr. Mueller a unique figure in Washington, respected by Democrats and Republicans alike for an uncompromising sense of integrity. Now, as the special counsel investigating U.S. President Donald Trump and his campaign advisers, Mr. Mueller has taken on the most politically treacherous assignment of his long career.
On Sunday, Mr. Trump once again criticized Mr. Mueller's investigation as a "witch hunt," calling it a "distraction" from his political agenda in a post on Twitter.
Mr. Trump's new bête noire is a deeply experienced prosecutor who was also the longest-serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover. A former Marine who fought in Vietnam, Mr. Mueller is known both for his personal bravery and the strength of his convictions, even if they mean defying a president. And unlike many in Washington, he shuns publicity.
"All he wants to do is what is correct," said Dennis Saylor, Mr. Mueller's former deputy at the Justice Department. "He would cut off his right leg before he would do something wrong or illegal or improper or not in the interests of justice." And, Mr. Saylor added, "He would cut off the other leg rather than leak something."
Mr. Trump has fumed about Mr. Mueller's investigation and reportedly considered firing the special counsel. On Friday, Mr. Trump appeared to confirm that Mr. Mueller is investigating whether the President obstructed justice by dismissing FBI director James Comey on May 9. On Sunday, however, a member of Mr. Trump's personal legal team denied that the President was under investigation. Mr. Mueller's team is also reportedly examining the finances of Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, for possible ties to Russia. A spokesman for Mr. Mueller declined to comment on the scope of the investigation.
The special counsel has moved quickly to assemble a team of a dozen lawyers with expertise in areas such as criminal law and complex financial crimes. A handful of them have donated to Democratic candidates in the past, a fact seized upon by Mr. Trump's allies (Mr. Mueller is a lifelong Republican).
Dennis Lormel, a 28-year veteran of the FBI who worked under Mr. Mueller, called the criticisms of his personnel choices "a lot of smoke." Mr. Mueller "wouldn't have brought anybody on if he didn't believe they were capable of doing an objective job."
Friends and associates said they expected Mr. Mueller to conduct a thorough investigation in the most rapid time frame possible (Mr. Mueller "does not play with his food," said one former colleague). He is also unlikely to be swayed by public attacks, whether by Mr. Trump or anyone else. "Frankly, the barking dogs or the clamour of politics won't affect what he does," said former attorney general John Ashcroft in a radio interview last month.
Indeed, Mr. Mueller, now 72, has faced greater tests than his current one in his life and career. Born in New York and raised in Philadelphia, Mr. Mueller attended an elite boarding school where he played on the ice hockey team with John Kerry, the future Secretary of State. He went on to Princeton University and enlisted as a Marine after graduating. In Vietnam, he became the leader of a combat platoon. He was shot through the thigh in a firefight and earned a Purple Heart and several awards for valour.
"I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have made it out of Vietnam," Mr. Mueller was quoted as saying in The Threat Matrix, a 2011 book on his tenure at the FBI. "There were many – many – who did not. And perhaps because I did survive Vietnam, I have always felt compelled to contribute."
By far Mr. Mueller's greatest professional challenge came when he took on the role of FBI director in 2001, just seven days before the worst terrorist attacks on American soil. Only weeks earlier, he had undergone surgery for prostate cancer. New to the job, Mr. Mueller had to grapple with an unprecedented threat and transform the sprawling bureau into an agency geared toward fighting terrorism.
According to the 2012 book Enemies: A History of the FBI, Mr. Mueller awoke before dawn every morning for the next three years to review the night's events. He would arrive at FBI headquarters ahead of a 7 a.m. briefing before personally updating President George W. Bush on the dangers facing the country.
"He's meeting with the President of the United States every day, who is asking questions like, "What happened? How do we prevent the next one?'" said Mr. Saylor. "A word like 'challenging' or 'difficult' doesn't begin to convey the nature of that task."
Then, in 2004, Mr. Mueller played a key role in a storied showdown with the White House over a warrantless wiretapping program that government lawyers had determined was unlawful. Mr. Mueller and Mr. Comey – then a senior official at the Justice Department – told Mr. Bush in the Oval Office they were prepared to resign if the program was extended. Mr. Bush backed down.
Unlike Mr. Comey, Mr. Mueller has never discussed the episode in public. For a public figure, he has demonstrated a keen distaste for the spotlight. In one memorable anecdote, a reporter for The Boston Globe was working on a quirky story about a cat living in the city's federal courthouse back in 1988. She sought out Mr. Mueller, then a senior federal prosecutor in Boston, for his thoughts. "No comment," he responded. When pressed, he offered: "The cat is nice."
Years later, when Mr. Mueller was nominated to the post of FBI director by Mr. Bush in an announcement at the White House – the culmination of years of hard work – he spoke for just under a minute, uttering only nine sentences. (When Mr. Mueller's decade-long term at the FBI ended in 2011, Barack Obama extended his tenure for another two years.)
Mr. Mueller is "not a guy who likes small talk," said Rory Little, a law professor in San Francisco who has known him for three decades. "Everything he does has a purpose." Mr. Ashcroft, the former attorney general, once dubbed Mr. Mueller, "Square-Jaw McGraw" for his no-nonsense demeanour.
Married with two daughters – one of whom was born with spina bifida – Mr. Mueller works extraordinarily hard by all accounts. He is a man of few hobbies but of abiding principles. "He loves the law and he loves investigations," said Tim Weiner, the author of Enemies. "He won't deviate for glory or face time on cable TV."