Robert Mueller, special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, is a “gruff guy” who routinely undermined his subordinates and evaded responsibility as head of the FBI, according to several former aides and investigators who worked with Mueller interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
In a lengthy profile published on Friday, the Times dredged up some of Mueller’s most difficult moments throughout his career as government prosecutor and as the sixth director of the FBI, a post he maintained from 2001 until 2013.
Those interviewed criticized Mueller’s handling of many high-profile cases stretching back to 1979, his temperament with government witnesses, and for directing his subordinates at the FBI to shield him from criticism.
One former aide went so far as to say that Mueller is “someone that can’t accept the fact that he screwed up.”
The Times profile begins by focusing on Mueller’s tenure at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he was criticized for mishandling high-profile cases and for his treatment of government witnesses and subordinates.
The first of these cases took place in 1979, when Mueller, as head of the U.S. attorney’s special prosecutors unit, took over the case against 33 members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club charged with drug trafficking, murder, and bombings. The first trial, which sought to imprison 18 of the accused members, was unsuccessful, as the five convictions reached in the case were overturned on appeal.
Mueller then took over the case and lead a team of four prosecutors in the second trial with 11 eleven defendants. However, as reported by the Times, “after four months, the jury said it was deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial. Mueller decided not to ask for a retrial.”
Mueller then transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston where he oversaw cases against Panamanian president Manuel Noriega, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, and head of the Gambino crime family, John Gotti.
However, his success was marked by a disdain from some of his subordinates. As noted by the Times, Mueller sparked resentment “when he referred privately to reassigning career lawyers as ‘moving the furniture.’”
After a short stint in private practice, Mueller returned to public service as a homicide prosecutor in Washington, D.C. in 1995, where Mueller reportedly had a tough time forging relationships with victims, suspects, and government witnesses and was charged with being cold and unsympathetic.
"He was a gruff guy, and a lot of times, there wasn't much warmth or ability to really build a bond or connect with a victim-witness," one of Mueller’s fellow investigators told the Times. "There's times when you've got to bond with the suspect to get what you need. His personality wasn't necessarily the best for that."
Mueller was also criticized for his time as head of the FBI. He led the investigation into the deadly anthrax attacks in the years after 9/11 for nearly seven years, ultimately leading in the prosecution of the wrong suspect, who later successfully sued the government for $5.8 million.
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After agents successfully traced back the anthrax to an Army microbiologist who committed suicide once he was informed of the impending charges, Mueller “was reluctant to publicly address the missteps” in the case.
"I think he was personally embarrassed," a former aide told the Times. "I would assess him as someone that can't accept the fact that he screwed up."
Later, as director of the FBI, Mueller instructed his staff to protect him from the agency’s oversight division, according to former colleagues interviewed by the Times.
Most notably, Mueller is charged with scrapping a highly-critical review of his Directorate of Intelligence, a unit that he had created at the FBI to investigate terrorism more effectively.
After an internal inspection reported that Mueller should “set [the unit] on fire and start from scratch,” his top aides decided to protect the director at all costs by hiding the report from the Justice Department’s inspector general.
“It was, ‘The director will get skewered. We've got to protect him, and we can't issue this,’” a former official told the Times. “Anywhere it said ‘inspection,’ they changed it to ‘review.’ And said this was a review, not an inspection, and therefore they didn't have to issue it to … the inspector general.”
Lastly, the Times article delves into Mueller’s unsuccessful attempt at negotiating with Russian officials to turn over Edward Snowden in 2013.
According to a former official, Mueller would call his Russian counterpart, Alexander Bortnikov, “starting at 3 a.m. in Washington” every day for at least a week, “begging to talk to the guy.” Bortnikov reportedly never answered the phone, and Snowden was granted asylum in Russia soon after.
Through a spokesperson, Mueller declined to comment on the Times' article.
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