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Reputation on the line: Russia probe head Robert Mueller

3 min
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Washington (AFP)

Over the two years of his Russia meddling investigation, Robert Mueller was called nearly everything by President Donald Trump: angry, conflicted, biased, a leaker, leader of a dirty and corrupt witch hunt.

But true to a four-decade career in public service, sphinxlike Mueller stayed silent and plodded along with the politically explosive probe.

The former FBI director and Justice Department criminal investigator is deeply admired in the US capital's judicial circles for a stiff backbone and hardened shell that gives no ground to political pressure and ad hominem attacks.

But his reputation will be on the line Wednesday when he appears before two separate committees in the US House of Representatives to answer questions for the first time about his investigation and the 448-page report it produced.

Many admirers say he needs to open up and say what he truly thinks and feels after enduring Trump's personal attacks.

- By-the-book -

The report detailed scores of instances when Trump's 2016 campaign sought to cooperate with Russians, and at least 10 occasions when Trump allegedly obstructed justice.

But, ever by-the-book, 74-year-old Mueller hewed closely to Justice Department regulations that required him to find a conspiracy -- which he did not -- and prohibited him from charging a sitting president with a crime.

That allowed Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr -- Mueller's overseer -- to declare the president exonerated and deride an investigation that Mueller called "of paramount importance" for the country.

Tall, stately, gray-haired, the former Marine disdains such politics, and his reputation among his colleagues in the justice community reflects that.

Mueller is a "consummate professional and a straight shooter," current FBI chief Christopher Wray said Tuesday.

- Led FBI after 9/11 -

As a young prosecutor in San Francisco and Boston, Mueller took on cases involving grisly murders, organized crime, fraud by powerful banks, and terror attacks, winning some, losing some, but rarely drawing serious criticism for his work.

He was named director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation just days before the September 11, 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, which plunged the bureau into an entirely new mission to protect the country from terror plots.

Mueller led the FBI for the next 12 years, during which time he built up the bureau's counterterror mission but had some notorious problems, including a botched anthrax investigation and a poorly functioning intelligence unit.

He gained a reputation of being an exacting and tough taskmaster, and despite his early Republican political alignment, someone who was appreciated by politicians of both political parties.

After retiring in 2013, he joined a private Washington law practice where he handled official arbiter missions, including an external investigation of the National Football League's mishandling of assault allegations against a star player, and reviewing security controls at intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton after several of its employees stole highly confidential national security information.

- 89th appearance before Congress -

Trump's firing of Mueller's successor at the FBI, James Comey, in May 2017 resulted in Mueller being recalled to public service to lead the Russia meddling investigation.

Over 22 months, his investigators issued charges against 34 individuals, including six Trump associates, and three companies.

But no one saw or heard from Mueller himself during the probe.

Testifying before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees on Wednesday could be an opportunity for Mueller to say what he really thinks. But few believe he will.

He has appeared before Congress 88 times since 1990, but has rarely gone beyond a just-the-facts approach to questioning by politicians.

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