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 a hardworking, 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.
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 classmates 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 rest of Trump’s presidency.
Whatever Mueller finds, his formative years are a 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, he said, “I was extremely impressed with the maturity and sophistication of the analysis, which was quite unusual for someone who had not attended law school. 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.”
In an article for the Nation, 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, “is also one of conflicting concerns, since 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 not obtrusive.
One UVA classmate, Howard Meyers, now an attorney in Philadelphia, said via email, “As a student, he was smart, hardworking 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. It will be short on personality and anything but the most pedestrian politics. But unlike the young Mueller, it will not be forgettable.