IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Transcript: Robert S. Mueller III: The Director (Part 1)

The full episode transcript for Robert S. Mueller III: The Director (Part 1).


The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg

Robert S. Mueller III: The Director (Part 1)

Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. And for many of you, welcome back. I'm Chuck Rosenberg, and I am honored to be your host for another compelling conversation with a fascinating guest from the world of public service.

This is our season four premiere, and I am privileged to share with you a conversation with an American hero, Robert S. Mueller the third -- Bob Muller -- the former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Bob was known to so many Americans as Special Counsel Mueller and also as the namesake of the thorough, and thoroughly professional, Mueller Report, which focused on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But his story, and his legacy is so much deeper than that. Bob was born in Manhattan and raised in Princeton, New Jersey, the oldest of five children, and the only boy. He was a star three-sport athlete in high school, and excelled in the classroom, and on the lacrosse fields of Princeton, where he went to college. Following the death of a Princeton teammate in Vietnam, Bob volunteered for service there. In 1968, after Marine Corps Officer basic school, Army Ranger school, and jump school, Bob was deployed to Vietnam, where he led a rifle platoon along the Demilitarized Zone.

Bob did not fear death in Vietnam and the death was all around him. He feared failure, which meant he had to do all he could to ensure that the young Marines under his command survived the war and made it home. A recipient of the Bronze Star with Valor and the Purple Heart, Bob returned to the United States after his military service.

He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law, became a federal prosecutor in San Francisco, and embarked on a career that would take him to the heights of federal law enforcement in this country, and to the helm of the FBI.

My interview with Bob Mueller is in two parts. The first part covers his childhood through his selection as the sixth Director of the FBI. The second part, which we will publish at the end of this season, picks up where this first interview leaves off, and covers his tenure as Director, guiding the FBI through a post-9/11 world, a difficult and challenging transition.

I should note what is not an either episode: that is, any detailed discussion of Bob's work as Special Counsel, leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Bob was abundantly clear when he testified before Congress about his work and his report, and that the report spoke for itself. One of the things I learned working for Bob Mueller at the FBI is that you take this decent, honorable, honest and courageous man at his word. When he says he does not want to talk about something, believe him. Bob is a man of few words. And so, each of his words matters a lot. And when he speaks, which is not often, it is worth listening. This interview with Bob Mueller is the only full one he has given since leaving public life. And it may be the only full one he gives. Bob Mueller is an American hero. And it's worth listening to what he has to say.

Bob Mueller, welcome to The Oath.

Robert S Mueller III: Thank you. I look forward to being with you.

Chuck Rosenberg: It's a real privilege to have you here.

Robert S Mueller III: Thank you, sir.

Chuck Rosenberg: I wanted to ask you about your childhood. I know you were born in Manhattan, but moved as a child to Princeton, New Jersey. Is that where you grew up?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Tell me a little bit about your mom and dad.

Robert S Mueller III: Well, they were married a heck a long time, had a great marriage. Had five children. And were relatively strict in the upbringing. But we all knew that they loved us and we loved them.

Chuck Rosenberg: You have four sisters all younger than you?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, you were in charge?

Robert S Mueller III: Some would say. [Laughs] Certainly my sisters would not say that.

Chuck Rosenberg: Tell me a little bit about them.

Robert S Mueller III: Probably most notable is the fact that they're all excellent athletes. And did very well in sports. And that's what motivated the friendships as we went forward.

Chuck Rosenberg: Well, and you are an excellent athlete too, which we are going to get to. Your dad served in the Navy as an officer?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. Chased submarines in the Mediterranean.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did he talk much about that?

Robert S Mueller III: No.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you ever ask him about it?

Robert S Mueller III: I did, but not at length, not as much in retrospect, as I would have liked, but I saw pretty much the same in Vietnam, and those who are in combat, desire not to talk about it amongst other people. And so those, whether it be in Vietnam or other places in combat, you do not find those who have been there talking about it. And I think it's fair to say that that happens when you've been on the front lines, you don't want to talk about it.

Chuck Rosenberg: That was a trait you saw among many of the people who served with your father and who served with you, a reluctance to talk about their service.

Robert S Mueller III: True, true.

Chuck Rosenberg: What did he do after the Navy?

Robert S Mueller III: He was with DuPont as a salesperson.

Chuck Rosenberg: Is that where he spent most of his career?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: How about your mom?

Robert S Mueller III: Housewife, taking care of five kids.

Chuck Rosenberg: You had always described your father as a gentleman and a role model. I was hoping you could say a bit more about that.

Robert S Mueller III: He was a quiet man, kept his own counsel, and was a tremendous role model for us growing up. And you don't recognize it when you're 10, 11, 12, 15, something like that, that the person is an individual to be followed.

Chuck Rosenberg: You said, lying was not something that either of your parents took lightly.

Robert S Mueller III: Worst thing you could do is lie. And if you're caught lying, you had to have an explanation, and quite often, a punishment for that slight.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did that ever happen to you?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: You recall an incident?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes… No.

Chuck Rosenberg: As in no, you don't want to share it?

Robert S Mueller III: [Laughs] It wasn't that bad. I tell you that.

Chuck Rosenberg: Probably not that unusual, either. I remember telling my father a lie when I was a little kid and being caught and there were consequences. It wasn't draconian, but there were consequences. My father was very much like that, too. You don't lie.

Robert S Mueller III: Well, we ended up in the military. We're used to it.

Chuck Rosenberg: You mentioned that your sisters were terrific athletes. But so were you, you grew up focused on sports. That fair?

Robert S Mueller III: That's fair.

Chuck Rosenberg: Which ones?

Robert S Mueller III: Soccer, hockey, and lacrosse.

Chuck Rosenberg: And when you got to high school you played all three?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: I know you went to St. Paul School in Concord, New Hampshire, which is a very well-regarded Episcopal School. Did you enjoy your time there?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: You actually won the Gordon Medal as the school's top athlete.

Robert S Mueller III: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Were you more of a student or more of an athlete in high school?

Robert S Mueller III: You come to learn in environments such as that, that there are generally three types of individuals. One, are the party boys, everybody knows who they are.

Chuck Rosenberg: I'm assuming you were not one of those?

Robert S Mueller III: No, I was not one of those. The second one, are the scholars. I didn't fit in that camp either. And the third one, was the sports. And if you did one, you didn't do the other.

Chuck Rosenberg: Well, you were obviously a gifted athlete. But you were obviously also very, very smart. Even if you didn't think of yourself in the group of scholars, you went to Princeton.

Robert S Mueller III: [Laughs] Yes. I didn't know where you're going with that one. [Laughs] Yes, I ended up going to Princeton.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, you had to be reasonably intelligent.

Robert S Mueller III: One would hope.

Chuck Rosenberg: Mm Hmm. Did you get good grades in high school?

Robert S Mueller III: I got, eh... I was not a scholar.

Chuck Rosenberg: You mentioned that because St. Paul's was an Episcopal school, you had to go to church every day, which wasn't your favorite activity. But it surprised you in a way because you came to really enjoy the study of religion.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, over a period of time St. Paul's wore on you. It was every day and twice on Sunday. And while one does not recognize it, attending church regularly can have a positive effect on how you lead your life. Although you may not be able to understand at the time, it may well have had some way of working its way into your psyche.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, unexpectedly, religion turned out to be one of your favorite subjects at St. Paul's?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, it did, but not in sense of the church itself being the ultimate goal. Rather, leading a life that is under the church. When you go to church every day and twice on Sunday, it does make an impact. And as I've said to others, I think it probably helped somewhat my getting through the Marine Corps, and the war.

Chuck Rosenberg: You met the woman who would become your wife when you were in high school.

Robert S Mueller III: Yeah, tremendously lucky, as you can well attest because you know her. [Laughs]

Chuck Rosenberg: I've met Ann, I adore Ann, and I agree. You were tremendously lucky. Do you recall where you met her?

Robert S Mueller III: At a party up in Massachusetts.

Chuck Rosenberg: And she was attending school in Farmington, Connecticut at the time?

Robert S Mueller III: She did. And then she went to graduate school in New York for teaching for a year afterwards.

Chuck Rosenberg: And spent much of her professional career as an educator?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. For those with learning disabilities.

Chuck Rosenberg: You and Ann married when you graduated from Princeton in 1966?

Robert S Mueller III: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: But I wanted to actually talk to you a little bit about Princeton. I know you said it was not a hotbed of anti-war activism, when you were there, that public service was seen as noble and important. In fact, the Princeton motto I believe was, "in the nation's service."

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, true.

Chuck Rosenberg: Still all-male when you attended?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. Although I think there were some women who were graduate students, but I'm not certain we picked up undergraduates by the time I left.

Chuck Rosenberg: I think it became co-ed in 1969.

Robert S Mueller III: That sounds about right.

Chuck Rosenberg: What did you study at Princeton, Bob?

Robert S Mueller III: Politics.

Chuck Rosenberg: And why did you study politics, just an academic interest? Or did you think one day you might serve in government?

Robert S Mueller III: No, more interest than serving in government. I had no aspirations to serve in government other than the Marine Corps.

Chuck Rosenberg: At Princeton, you played lacrosse just as you had in high school?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, we were pretty good for a while.

Chuck Rosenberg: I think better than pretty good. If my research is accurate, three of the four years that you played, Princeton won the Ivy League Championship. It was a powerhouse.

Robert S Mueller III: We were pretty good. I'm not certain I would call it a powerhouse.

Chuck Rosenberg: What position did you play?

Robert S Mueller III: Crease attack.

Chuck Rosenberg: I know one of your classmates at Princeton and somebody you admired was a gentleman named David Hackett.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: I was hoping you would tell us a little bit about Mr. Hackett.

Robert S Mueller III: Well, he was a year ahead of us. He was a good lacrosse player, not a great lacrosse player. But I got to know from playing lacrosse, when he was on the same team I was on. He was a real leader in the sense of, somebody you'd look up to and try to emulate. He graduated in '65, I guess. And he went in the Marine Corps, he did not do the training like a Ranger, and jump [school], all the rest of that stuff. So, he was in Vietnam earlier than I was, in April of '67, where a sniper got him up near the DMZ when he was on patrol. And he had an impact on me, had an impact on others who had worked with him on the lacrosse field or otherwise. And as a result of his sacrificing his life, or because of his life pattern, he was an example for all the follow. And so not only I, but several other individuals, followed his example into the Marine Corps.

Chuck Rosenberg: Volunteered to serve.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And I know he was a teammate, and a classmate, and a role model, and a friend. But sadly, that type of thing, you know, the loss of friends and classmates in Vietnam was not that unusual.

Robert S Mueller III: No, it wasn't at all.

Chuck Rosenberg: I wanted to ask you, Bob, about your decision to join the Marine Corps after David Hackett was killed. You described it as a solitary decision and one that your family was generally opposed to?

Robert S Mueller III: Well, they were opposed to it. Yes. As any parent would be, you don't want your child to put themselves in the frontlines in danger. Because dad had been in the service, in the Navy, I think there was more understanding of why somebody in my slot would want to be in the Marine Corps and participate in whatever action was taking place at that time.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, your dad understood, but of course, the father's side of him, didn't want you to go, perhaps that the veteran side of him understood?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, I think I think that's fair to say.

Chuck Rosenberg: How about your mother?

Robert S Mueller III: [Sigh] I sigh because the persons who are hurt most in these situations are the parents and siblings that are left behind. And so, I don't care how much of a bright face she puts on, you know she was suffering immensely.

Chuck Rosenberg: When you volunteered to join the Marine Corps, you did so with a number of your Princeton friends and classmates?

Robert S Mueller III: True, but then they're the ones who became pilots, flyboys. And there is a substantial difference of those who are flying jets and those who are humping the hills.

Chuck Rosenberg: And you were humping the hills?

Robert S Mueller III: I was on the ground.

Chuck Rosenberg: Why did you choose that route, Bob? I mean, I assume that there would have been a pilot slot available to you if you had wanted one?

Robert S Mueller III: Well, I'm not so certain on that. Actually, reflecting upon it, most of us, including myself, thought perhaps we'll learn to fly. If I have to go in the service, send me to flight school, that's fine. Unfortunately, because of my sight, I really would not get a slot in the air wing. I ended up wanting to go to Monterey language school out in California, and was looking forward to language school. And I get you in this big room and they read the orders off coming out of basic school. And so, I was waiting to hear that I was going to Monterey language school. And I get to the room. They read off the assignments. They come to Mueller, they say, “Mueller: Army.” I say, “Yes, I've got it.” Unfortunately, it was not to be and they sent me to Ranger school. The lifespan of a Ranger is pretty short in circumstances such as that, and we were newly married. So, it was quite a blow to be going through Ranger school, which is the top-flight recon school in the world. It's one thing to look forward to Monterey language school, only to be told you're going Army Ranger school.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, when you were designated to Army Ranger school, it was pretty clear you were not going to be a pilot, you were going to be an infantry officer?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Were you disappointed you didn't get the slot at the language school?

Robert S Mueller III: At the time? Yes. In retrospect, no.

Chuck Rosenberg: Let me ask you about ranger school then, Bob. It is, generally speaking, the toughest course that the army has?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: What makes it tough?

Robert S Mueller III: You have three stages, basically. You have Fort Benning, where you do a lot of the grunt stuff. And then you have the mountains, Dahlonega, where you had a mountain troops mounting exercises, rappelling off cliffs, and doing snatches in the like.

Chuck Rosenberg: What do you mean by snatches?

Robert S Mueller III: Snatches mean you ambush and take one of the foreign leaders basically, and accomplish your mission. Then the third course was Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where you came to be friendly with snakes and alligators. The instructors are just terrific. The training I got saved my life on a number of occasions, and they are that good. But the key to it, and what you're really looking for are individuals who can go through this process without eating much at all, if anything. Very little water and very little sleep. And the purpose was to have you go through a series of exercises where you have to accomplish the mission. And to the extent that you get through there, you get through there with a fair amount of grit and a sense of true accomplishment. And you are enabled to make very tough decisions on life and death.

Chuck Rosenberg: Do you think in your case, Bob, being a gifted athlete in high school and college helped you in ranger school?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Why?

Robert S Mueller III: The more capable you are in terms of addressing periods of stress, the more likely you will be able to accomplish the mission. It goes back to your ability to operate when you're deprived of these things.

Chuck Rosenberg: You said that the instructors were excellent, outstanding. You remember any of them in particular or just generally?

Robert S Mueller III: Yeah, you remember them. I can to this day remember the faces of some of these guys, particularly the ones who were guys who lived on the mountaintop.

Chuck Rosenberg: What do you mean by guys who lived on the mountain top?

Robert S Mueller III: Guys who staffed Dahlonega on the mountains and operate in the mountains.

Chuck Rosenberg: Where is Dahlonega?

Robert S Mueller III: It's up in Georgia, I think. Of course, I never tell you where you are.

Chuck Rosenberg: What types of training exercises did they put you through?

Robert S Mueller III: The ropes, all the maneuvers that you use trying to get down a cliff, up a cliff, down a cliff with a prisoner, up a cliff with a prisoner. So, you have a mission, you always have a mission. And they expect you to accomplish that mission within the timeframe given.

Chuck Rosenberg: And I think you told me that a number of your classmates at Army Ranger school actually died during training.

Robert S Mueller III: We lost a couple at Benning because we were in there during the summer. And my recollection is that one or two died of heat exhaustion.

Chuck Rosenberg: I wanted our listeners to have a sense of just how rigorous the training was. I guess that's one indication of it.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: There's apparently a story that comes out of the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach, Brigadier General Norman Cota, who was the assistant division commander of the 29th Infantry Division, approached the commanding officer of the Fifth Ranger Battalion and asked him what outfit he was a part of. And the answer was, “Fifth Rangers, sir,” at which point general Cota said, “well, if you're Rangers, lead the way.” And from that, I understand, the Ranger motto, ‘Rangers Lead The Way’ was born. Good story.

Robert S Mueller III: It is a good story.

Chuck Rosenberg: But that is the motto?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And I know you're a remarkably modest man, but you were inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame in 2004 while you were Director of the FBI.

Robert S Mueller III: Yep.

Chuck Rosenberg: There's only several hundred people who ever had that honor. You're one of them.

Robert S Mueller III: I have been told, but I'm not certain that I've ever seen it.

Chuck Rosenberg: I was reading the Ranger Creed, and there's several, each beginning with a word that begins with a letter that spells out Ranger, but one of them I thought really described you well: "Never shall I fail my comrades, I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong, and morally straight, and I will shoulder more than my share of the task, whatever it may be, one-hundred percent, and then some."

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, that's it.

Chuck Rosenberg: I had the privilege of working for you. That describes the man I worked for.

Robert S Mueller III: Keep that in there. [Laughs]

Chuck Rosenberg: What's the feeling when you graduate? Is it pride? Is it relief? Is it some combination of the two?

Robert S Mueller III: Some combination of that.

Chuck Rosenberg: When you graduate, you're given a Ranger Tab. Can you describe what that is and why that matters?

Robert S Mueller III: Well, it is just a tab, but in the Army, it immediately signals that you've done recon. Walk down the street in Benning or some of the other Army bases, and you immediately know who's a top-tier Ranger.

Chuck Rosenberg: When you were in Marine Corps officer training, the basic school, you said that you had two disappointments there. One, that you were not a great marksman?

Robert S Mueller III: They didn't put it exactly that way. But that's true.

Chuck Rosenberg: You had attained the marksman level.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. Which was the bottom level. It's the cellar, you did not want to attain that level.

Chuck Rosenberg: The insignia that you receive for attaining the marksman level you once described as, “a toilet seat.”

Robert S Mueller III: Yup.

Chuck Rosenberg: You may have not excelled in marksmanship, but you excelled in all other aspects of officer training.

Robert S Mueller III: I did okay.

Chuck Rosenberg: I think you're being modest, but--

Robert S Mueller III: A long time.

Chuck Rosenberg: You said another disappointment was that you had jumped enough times to get silver wings, but not gold wings?

Robert S Mueller III: Yeah, that's another grade that you get. You go to jump school, and you graduate from jump school. And you're given these little silver medals, that those who have jumped get. But if you get the five jumps, you get gold wings. And gold wings are like Ranger Tabs. And very few people have Ranger Tabs and gold wings at the same time. I was one of those that had the silver wings and no gold wings, which always frustrated me.

Chuck Rosenberg: Rankles you a bit?

Robert S Mueller III: Rankles is good word. Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: You had mentioned that you had injured your knees as an athlete in high school. Was jumping tough on your knees?

Robert S Mueller III: Not really. Not really.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you enjoy jumping from airplanes?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Have you done it since the Marines?

Robert S Mueller III: Since the Marines? No. Last ones I think were with the Marine Corps.

Chuck Rosenberg: You recall taking the oath as a new marine?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: You must have taken it many times. And you probably administered it thousands of times. That's something you enjoy doing?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Why?

Robert S Mueller III: It's tradition. It's unity. It's the best of what we have to offer.

Chuck Rosenberg: Bob, you graduated from Marine Corps basic school, and then from Army Ranger school, and then from jump school. And at that point, the Marine Corps deployed you to Vietnam?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: I wanted to ask you about that path. You tell a very compelling story, Bob, about being en route to Vietnam, staging in Okinawa, in Japan, and mingling with other Marines, also on their way to Vietnam. Can you describe that?

Robert S Mueller III: It stays with you, because you're embarking on combat zone, which 10s of thousands of your fellow Marines, not only were wounded, were killed. And it's your last sort of staged trip, this one to the war zone, and what is going to be with you as you try to survive this environment. And all of us who are on their way over there have to wrestle with their own demons in terms of protecting you, your family, your wife, your what have you. And the younger you are, the more impact this is. And by this, I mean grappling with the issue of whether you're going to live or die and what's going to be the consequence. And over a period of time, you have to come to an understanding of the likelihood you're going to be killed. And you're going to be killed in training, going to be killed in Vietnam. And over a period of time, you would see a phenomenon which entailed somebody coming to grips with the fact that they're going to die. And I don't know why, or how, or who, or when, but there are those that are struggling with it, you see. They're struggling with it. And generally, they are the ones that were killed.

Chuck Rosenberg: You described being in Okinawa and mingling with the other Marines as there being a palpable sense of sadness?

Robert S Mueller III: Not just a sense of sadness, there is a gradual adjustment into the circumstances that you find yourself in. In the Marine Corps, every infantry officer hopes to survive. There's a sense of, well, I'm not going to make it so I got to make the best of it. You can differentiate those who have come to grips with the fact that you may not make it and you've got a pretty good chance that you're not going to make it. And you sit there and Okinawa you see your buddy who's sleeping next to you, and he lasted a day in Vietnam.

Chuck Rosenberg: You would learn that your bunk mate had been killed?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: The average lifespan for a brand-new lieutenant in Vietnam was rather short.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, rather short.

Chuck Rosenberg: Were you sad, Bob?

Robert S Mueller III: No, not really.

Chuck Rosenberg: I think you told me that you thought you would live, that you would make it back and that it was in God's hands?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Is that something you thought about a lot when you were in Okinawa or just a realization that you came to?

Robert S Mueller III: I didn't worry about it. I was confident. Now, I will tell you also that I spent a fair amount of time in prayer at the same time. So, it wasn't just sit down, tell the story, wrestle it out. But a belief over a period of time that I'm going to Vietnam, I'm going to make it.

Chuck Rosenberg: You were married at the time?

Robert S Mueller III: I was.

Chuck Rosenberg: And did you have children at the time?

Robert S Mueller III: One.

Chuck Rosenberg: Later a second?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And was that on your mind?

Robert S Mueller III: For my family, yes, absolutely. I mean, I know, I've always been of belief if something happens, you're dead, you're dead. And the hardest part of it is leaving your family and leaving your family with such grief. And that's the way I pretty much looked at it.

Chuck Rosenberg: Meaning less concerned about you and much more concerned about them.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: In the summer of 1968, the Marine Corps deployed you to Vietnam, you served as a rifle platoon leader, you were a second lieutenant. And the regiment with which you served was known as The Magnificent Bastards.

Robert S Mueller III: That's it.

Chuck Rosenberg: The lifespan for brand new second lieutenants in Vietnam was pretty short on average.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Something that you were aware of when you were there, or something that you learned later?

Robert S Mueller III: Well, you can't get on and off Okinawa without understanding that you're going to be in the next plane to Vietnam, and there are certain consequences of that you need to prepare yourself for.

Chuck Rosenberg: Something you didn't know at the time, but 1968 was the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Vietnam. Almost 17,000 troops were killed in battle in 1968. As a marine infantry officer, obviously, you're also responsible for the men in your command.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: How does that weigh on you? How do you process that?

Robert S Mueller III: Your first thought, thanks to the Marine Corps, is your men. How do I keep my men safe? I was there to take care of our men.

Chuck Rosenberg: Do your job, take care of your men, and get as many home safely as you possibly could.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: You mentioned that you didn't really fear death. But there were things you did fear in Vietnam.

Robert S Mueller III: Failure. The worst thing that can happen for you who lead men is to fail, because failure is synonymous with death. The Marine Corps entrusted the lives of these soldiers to you as their leader, they look to you, and they look up to you. And the worst thing is to fail and somebody dies.

Chuck Rosenberg: How many men did you have under your command as a Lieutenant?

Robert S Mueller III: Well, the stock answer would be something like 35-40. In combat, split it in half.

Chuck Rosenberg: You must have been a little bit unusual to them. You had volunteered. You were an Ivy League graduate. They may not have known that. But some presumably did. Talk about the men under your command. Good soldiers, good Marines?

Robert S Mueller III: Good Marines. You have individuals who are someplace in the hierarchy of the platoon. You have platoon sergeant, you have a lieutenant, you have radioman. And like all of them have particular functions. And consequently, you're often working with men who may be of lesser rank than you, but are absolutely essential given their skill set to be part of the platoon. All of us are looking over our shoulders, some would be on point. Some would be in the back. Just about every evening we do an ambush. And so those experiences add up over a period of time to give us an ability to operate as a unit to address NVA when we came in contact with them.

Chuck Rosenberg: The North Vietnamese Army.

Robert S Mueller III: North Vietnamese Army.

Chuck Rosenberg: A good officer, a good lieutenant, and you were a good officer, learns to rely heavily on their sergeants.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, that's true.

Chuck Rosenberg: Why?

Robert S Mueller III: Most skilled persons in the platoon. When I was dropped down near the DMZ, when I first went over there, I had a staff sergeant who was a salty son of a gun, but he was I think, second tour in Vietnam and knew his stuff. And I am supposed to make decisions about what he should do? And consequently, you have to respect the skills and capabilities of persons of lesser-ranking in your platoon, but certainly absolutely essential in terms of keeping us alive.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, you had the ultimate authority to make decisions, but you relied heavily on input from professional soldiers, sergeants, people with more experience than you had.

Robert S Mueller III: Yup.

Chuck Rosenberg: You'd mentioned the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, Bob. Apparently, President Nixon wanted the DMZ cleared, and platoons such as the one that you led were used as bait, a word that you shared with me. But a concept that you did not appreciate at the time but understand in retrospect. What did you mean by being used as bait?

Robert S Mueller III: Throughout the DMZ, there were encampments of NVA waiting to come across the border. And what Nixon apparently wanted is a platoon such as mine on a scouting patrol, it would be sent up to the northern part of the DMZ in expectation of getting into combat and using that to trigger the backlash from the north.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, the idea was for your platoon and other platoons to probe into the DMZ and try and draw the NVA out into firefights?

Robert S Mueller III: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Exceptionally dangerous work.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. Because you're always outmanned.

Chuck Rosenberg: And when you probe and draw the NVA out, you have, I guess, no idea how many you may be encountering?

Robert S Mueller III: That's true, one of the more fearful times I had was we put in an ambush and using L-shaped ambush and the expectation of making contact and then our getting back across the border without losing too many people.

Chuck Rosenberg: And to be clear, this was not your strategy. This is what you were ordered to do?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. But did I, at the time, understand any of that? Any of that? And none of that whatsoever.

Chuck Rosenberg: Yeah, that's an interesting concept. You had mentioned that you really don't know why you're there. When did you learn it?

Robert S Mueller III: Well, after Vietnam, I ended up back at headquarters, I found out after the fact pretty much what they wanted us to do.

Chuck Rosenberg: You had analogized it to the movie Saving Private Ryan.

Robert S Mueller III: When I look at that, and I'm taking a beachhead that was taken on the longest day.

Chuck Rosenberg: On the invasion of Normandy.

Robert S Mueller III: And you have Private Ryan, who's one little individual with hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers that are hitting that beachhead. But the soldier doesn't know what's happening to the right, doesn’t know what's happening left, has no real idea of what a company does. And he had a sweeping view of the assault, but without any understanding where you fit into the larger strategy.

Chuck Rosenberg: Obviously, it's extremely dangerous work that you were ordered to do, to probe and draw the North Vietnamese Army out to engage in firefights. One of the things that you said made it even more dangerous is that troops were constantly rotating in and out of Vietnam. And so, there was a mix in a platoon of new and old, inexperienced and experienced. Was that, in fact, the problem?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, it was a problem because you were rotating individuals into a spot that was occupied by somebody else. In person, you don't know who is on the left, you don't know who is right, you haven't done any training with them. Now, units train together, they go into combat together. And they're far more effective by reason of that united approach. You're not half as efficient as you could be, if you trained together, operated together. And consequently, if you had a choice, you would always, I think, push on training together, fighting together, and keeping up the unit morale, to the extent that you can.

Chuck Rosenberg: Bob, you have a story about working for General Jones. And what happened one night while you were back at base camp.

Robert S Mueller III: I was at that point in time, aide to General Jones, who was head of the third Marine division. It was a night in which we are back at the base camp, I was back with a general who had been out in the field someplace. And I remember we had a team out, I don't know, several miles doing recon on an NVA unit. And night was coming, so they left on their patrol. And I was sort of hanging with them listening to the radio comms. And about one or two o'clock in the morning, the sergeant comes in wakes me up and says, “we got problems out there.” And, "what's the problem?" He says, "we don't have a more commo." I said, "when do you leave? How do you leave? Anybody with him? Anybody know where he went? Has there been any communications? Any of that stuff?” And the fact of the matter is, he wasn't communicating because he was dead. It surrounded the team as we subsequently found out and the team had no capability of resolving the issue. But the thing that stays with me is babysitting that radio for the balance of the night, hearing as time goes on, the minimal sounds of skirmish in the like. And then silence, silence, silence. And then next morning, went and picked them up. All the men had been killed. [Pause] Yeah, I hadn't thought of that in years.

Chuck Rosenberg: This is while you were working for General Jones?

Robert S Mueller III: Yeah, it was, because it was back at camp… O'Connor, O'Connor. That's the guy's name O'Connor. Lieutenant O'Connor. He was with me at basic school. He was O, I was M, so we had become fairly close friends over that period of time.

Chuck Rosenberg: Alphabetically close.

Robert S Mueller III: Yeah that's it. [Laughs]

Chuck Rosenberg: What made you think of that?

Robert S Mueller III: The fate of the recon Marines.

Chuck Rosenberg: Difficult job?

Robert S Mueller III: Impossible job.

Chuck Rosenberg: On December 11, 1968, you were involved in a fierce firefight, at a place called Mutter's Ridge. Mutter's Ridge was the name given by the Marine Corps to three hills that overlooked the southern border of the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ in Vietnam. Can you talk about it?

Robert S Mueller III: Apparently, the day before, the other company--D, may have been D--was up taking down the NVA. There was a series of caves and the like. And D Company was ordered to go and take that hill basically. And they go and get smothered, to put it bluntly, and most of their people killed by NVA. And in the course of a saving operation, many of my company was killed, I lost a number of people. And so, when we came upon the scene, NVA was still up there in the caves. D Company was pinned down. In the course of that, we lost a lot of men. Red got hit in the chest.

Chuck Rosenberg: Red was your radio operator?

Robert S Mueller III: Yup, radio operator. He went out and I never saw hide nor hair of him again. We outlasted them and knocked them off the ridge. But in the case of Mutter's Ridge, we saved some, lost some. And I'm sitting on the ridge line, as I remember, and this major came up behind me who I dealt with in the past. And he patted me on the back and says, "nice job, Bob." And, that was meaningful because the last thing you want is to be tagged with not having done all you can for your men.

Chuck Rosenberg: Were you worried that you had not done all you could have done?

Robert S Mueller III: Always. Absolutely.

Chuck Rosenberg: Those words helped alleviate some guilt you felt?

Robert S Mueller III: No, it made a huge difference because of that particular point in time where he hit me and I was particularly vulnerable. I'd lost a number of men.

Chuck Rosenberg: But the major’s words helped you?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And I think you said that was a lesson that you carried forward into your professional career including as Director the FBI?

Robert S Mueller III: Well, yes, if the comfort is for me.

Chuck Rosenberg: At that time?

Robert S Mueller III: At that time.

Chuck Rosenberg: But it was something that you tried to do for other people in your career?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Was that your first experience with all-out battle, all-out war?

Robert S Mueller III: Yeah, that was pretty close to it.

Chuck Rosenberg: For that battle, at Mutter's Ridge, the Marine Corps awarded you Bob, the Bronze Star with what is called the V Device for Combat Valor and the commendation read, “for courage, aggressive initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty at great personal risk.”

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Four months after the battle at Mutter's Ridge, in April of 1969, in another engagement, you were actually shot. What happened?

Robert S Mueller III: Well, we were on a movement. And we're on the ridge line as opposed to the stream. And one of our squads gets hit down the ridge line, I don't know 400-500 yards, something like that. But we'd run into opposition on this particular ridge line where I'm up on a hill and the shooter is down the hill, I would say 50-60 yards something along those lines, when my person has already been killed, and others wounded. And I'm chasing them along with 5-10 others down the hill. And one of their persons opened up on fire on me and some others. I didn't really notice anything at the time. But afterwards somebody said, "Lieutenant, you're hurt. Over here." I said, "what are you talking about?" You know, "your thigh!" So, they put a bandage on it, they take care of the other NVA, they move out. And then they pulled me out with a sling, basically a chopper with a basket on it. And I did that, and I remember thinking that's not too bad. I got shot through the thigh. I'm still alive. That's not too bad at all. Maybe I'll go out to the hospital ship. In other words, I did get hit, but I didn't get hit.

Chuck Rosenberg: You got hit but you didn't get killed.

Robert S Mueller III: That would be it. Yes. [Laughs] Yeah. But I was thinking, so I'm in a chopper on the way to the coast. And I'm saying this is, you know, it may not be altogether bad, I'll probably go to the hospital ship and get a decent meal. And so, I'm sitting there thinking this and then we land at Dong Ha. And I come to find out in the next day or so that it wasn't that bad, it had been a through-and-through, and I'm not going to any hospital ship. As happened, I heal. And within three weeks, I was back in the bush.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, when you were shot through and through in the thigh, you didn't feel it at the time?

Robert S Mueller III: No.

Chuck Rosenberg: What do you think that is?

Robert S Mueller III: Adrenaline.

Chuck Rosenberg: For that wound you just described, you were awarded the Purple Heart?

Robert S Mueller III: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Who was Stormy Sexton?

Robert S Mueller III: Stormy Sexton is a quintessential Marine officer. If you look at him, he is a grunt. And that's exactly what he was.

Chuck Rosenberg: Was Stormy Sexton a mentor to you, a role model to you?

Robert S Mueller III: He was a role model, if not a mentor. Everybody looked up to him.

Chuck Rosenberg: In what ways was he a mentor to you?

Robert S Mueller III: He is an example of what a true Marine really is. The really good are the ones that have, are good, and have great tactics, strategy, leadership. Stormy Sexton was one of the quintessential leaders that I worked with.

Chuck Rosenberg: There's one other story I was hoping you would tell us about your service in Vietnam, you were once shot down in a helicopter. What happened?

Robert S Mueller III: I was on a chopper going back to either Dong Ha, or one of the bases on land. But we were going into a landing zone. And on the way in, we took some rounds from an AK-47, that was on the ground, someplace on our trail into the landing zone. This happens all the time over there.

Chuck Rosenberg: Helicopter lose power?

Robert S Mueller III: It auto-rotated down. It's a lesser hit, but we get hit and they, people want to know they don't care about you, they want to know where the hell the squad or NVA are, and want to take them out.

Chuck Rosenberg: In a speech that you once gave, you reflected on the impact of your service in Vietnam and your desire to continue in public service. You said, "I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have made it out of Vietnam. There were many, many who did not. And perhaps, because I did survive Vietnam, I've always felt compelled to contribute."

Robert S Mueller III: True. I owed a heck of a lot. And we lost persons who really deserved more than I. Think the public service aspect of it, that is part of payback.

Chuck Rosenberg: This notion of payback, that you feel like you still owed something to your country, even after your service in Vietnam.

Robert S Mueller III: It's a lifetime of lessons. In other words, what you did back in Vietnam carries with you in the future. And so, in terms of payback, it's payback for a relatively substantial gift that the good Lord had provided.

Chuck Rosenberg: In this case, the gift that you survived.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: When so many others did not.

Robert S Mueller III: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Bob, after your service in the Marine Corps, you enrolled in law school?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes, as I was getting out of the Marine Corps, I made a decision. I would not stay with the Marine Corps. And so, I started looking for law schools. And I actually, I think, originally was going to be a prosecutor. So, I was looking at the usual names, and back then, of law schools--the Harvards, the Yales--and they all rejected me. And actually, it was the admissions Director at UVA at the time, who took an interest in me because of my wartime experience. And so, I got into UVA law school as a result of my wartime experience.

Chuck Rosenberg: Because when you started at UVA law, the war in Vietnam was still going on.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: You said the University of Virginia was far more hospitable for returning Vietnam veterans than many other schools.

Robert S Mueller III: True, from my experience, my limited experience.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you like your time in Charlottesville?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you like law school?

Robert S Mueller III: Not particularly.

Chuck Rosenberg: But you wanted to be a prosecutor?

Robert S Mueller III: Yeah.

Chuck Rosenberg: When did you decide that?

Robert S Mueller III: When I was looking for an occupation, it made some sense. I wanted to do something in criminal justice, I think.

Chuck Rosenberg: And you wanted to continue to serve?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Not too many years after you graduated from law school, you actually became an Assistant US attorney in San Francisco?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: How did that happen?

Robert S Mueller III: So, I get out of law school and decided I want to go to the US Attorney's office, so I apply the US Attorney's office and they come back and say yes, we want you, but we want you in the Civil Division. What about Criminal? Civil Division, take it or leave it. So, I decided to go ahead and take it.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, many of our listeners know about the work of US Attorney's offices from our other guests. But they may not appreciate that US Attorney's offices around the country do both criminal work and civil work. And on the civil side, Assistant US Attorneys are often defending the United States where it may be sued by somebody for some tort or some wrong, something of that nature. But on the criminal side, we are bringing cases for violations of the criminal law.

Robert S Mueller III: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you eventually move over to the criminal side, Bob?

Robert S Mueller III: I did.

Chuck Rosenberg: You'd moved up through the ranks in the office to become not just a Criminal AUSA, but the chief of the Criminal Division in San Francisco?

Robert S Mueller III: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: And you moved to Boston and continued your work as an Assistant US attorney?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Doing criminal work as well?

Robert S Mueller III: Whenever I could get it.

Chuck Rosenberg: You actually ended up going to Main Justice, headquarters, to work for then Attorney General, Dick Thornburgh.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: How did that come about?

Robert S Mueller III: I had a very good friend who was on Thornburgh's staff.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you like working for him?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Was he a mentor?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. Exposed me to the political life of Washington, understood Washington far better than I.

Chuck Rosenberg: You were appointed with Dick Thornburgh's support to be the Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice. And you served in that position from 1990 to 1993. During that period, there were some remarkably important investigations and prosecutions, including of Panamanian leader, Manuel Noriega, and Gambino crime family boss, John Gotti. But another case during that period, involved the prosecution of those responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. As you know better than anybody that bombing killed 270 people, most of whom were on the plane, some of whom were on the ground.

Robert S Mueller III: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Finally, in 1991, charges were brought against the two people responsible for that bombing. What was your role in that case? And what were the difficulties in bringing charges, both in the United States and in Scotland?

Robert S Mueller III: Our role was to investigate and to prosecute. To start off with you're looking at a huge, horrible tragedy, which encompassed any number of citizens from various countries. Most of the passengers were from the United States, and Syracuse had substantial numbers of persons who run that flight as well.

Chuck Rosenberg: Syracuse University, a number of students who studied there were returning home for Christmas.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. And so, the first few hours, days, addressed the evidence that one finds in the fields of Lockerbie. After the investigation was ongoing, it was tremendously important that we work cooperatively with the Scotts, that we work cooperatively with other countries who lost their citizens in this disaster. And we also put into place, whatever mechanisms we can to prevent another Pan Am 103. Our challenges were teaming up with another country, albeit Scotland, by utilizing the forensics tools that from the United States, from the UK, and elsewhere, as well as all international pressures that we can bring to bear to resolve that issue. And only two persons were charged with participation in that travesty.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you visit the crash site?

Robert S Mueller III: I did.

Chuck Rosenberg: What do you recall from that?

Robert S Mueller III: I recall seeing shelf, after shelf, after shelf, of pieces of clothing, books, and any of number of articles that found its way to the soil of the grounds.

Chuck Rosenberg: I think you described seeing sweatshirts and backpacks and all sorts of things that would belong to these young men and women.

Robert S Mueller III: I remember sweatshirts, Syracuse sweatshirts, more than anything else.

Chuck Rosenberg: I know that your career took you from San Francisco to Boston to the Department of Justice. And then after a brief stint in private practice, again, you returned to the front lines of a prosecutor's office in this case in the District of Columbia working homicide cases.

Robert S Mueller III: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: How did you end up in the DC US Attorney's office?

Robert S Mueller III: I'd been with law firm for a couple of years. And I wanted some different challenges. And I always love forensics. So, I would have the opportunity to do homicide cases. I don't have to worry about supervising. And Eric Holder took me back, allowed me to do homicides.

Chuck Rosenberg: Eric Holder was the US Attorney in DC at the time?

Robert S Mueller III: Yes. And so, I was there until Margolis needed somebody to go out to San Francisco and fill in, in the US Attorney's office area which was having some problems.

Chuck Rosenberg: I'm so glad you mentioned David Margolis. I think every organization, every government agency, probably every corporation, has a David Margolis. He was my friend and mentor. I know he was your friend and mentor. He passed away a few years ago, way too soon. David was an icon in the Department of Justice. He was our Yoda. He was the person everyone went to for advice. I know you were very close with him.

Robert S Mueller III: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Although David Margolis, sent you to the west coast to run the San Francisco US Attorney's Office, that was not your last job with the Justice Department. You came back?

Robert S Mueller III: I did.

Chuck Rosenberg: Louis Freeh was the fifth Director of the FBI. And he resigned in 2001. President Bush offered the job to you. Is that a job you wanted?

Robert S Mueller III: I did want to be back in government.

Chuck Rosenberg: You wanted to serve again?

Robert S Mueller III: I wanted to serve again. And I'd always wanted to be in the FBI in one way or another. I didn't think I'd be in this position. But, so it was.

Chuck Rosenberg: We had so much to cover with Bob Mueller, that I thought this was a good place to end part one of my interview with him. When we resume the interview later in the season, we will begin with his leadership of the FBI after 9/11, and his efforts to transform the FBI to help prevent another catastrophic terrorist attack. The second half of this interview, which we will publish at the end of season four in about nine weeks, is every bit as interesting and compelling as the first half.

As I noted at the beginning of this episode, Bob is both an American hero and a man of few words. That is a very good reason to know more about him, and to listen carefully to what he says. We also have lots of other terrific episodes with men and women from interesting and varied public service backgrounds. For instance, in the coming weeks, you will hear from Anne Milgrom, the former Attorney General of New Jersey, who turned around an ailing police department in Camden. And former National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, who managed our magnificent National Park System. Fighter pilot Heather "Lucky" Penney, among the first women to fly an F-16, who shares a riveting story about a mission on the morning of 9/11. Former NSA General Counsel Matt Olsen, who has had a remarkable career at the forefront of US national security efforts. And Mike Bush, the former Commissioner of the New Zealand police, with fascinating insights into federal policing in his magnificent home country.

If you have listened to The Oath before, you know we have astonishing guests and great stories, civil and thoughtful conversations, and that we stay away from politics and partisanship. You have probably listened to many of our interviews from the first three seasons. However, if you're new to this podcast, you may not know that we have an entire catalogue of interviews from those first three seasons that you should not miss. Interviews with leaders like former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, or how about the longest-serving Navy Seal in US history, and the former commander of the Joint Special Forces Operations Command, retired four-star Admiral Bill McRaven. We also had former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Homeland Security Advisor at Lisa Monaco, former FBI Director Jim Comey, former National Security Council Director Fiona Hill, US Air pilot, Sully Sullenberger who landed his crippled plane in the Hudson River, and Jim Stavridis, also a retired four-star Navy Admiral, and the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and many, many more, you get the picture. Remarkable men and women who served with distinction, integrity and honor, leaders who light the path for all of us.

You can find all of these interviews at You'll also find notes and transcripts for these interviews for any details you might have missed. If you have any thoughtful criticism, feedback or questions about this episode or others, please email us at that's all one word, And though I cannot respond to every email, please know that I read each one and that I appreciate it. If you like this episode, please let us know by leaving a five-star rating on whatever app you use for listening and ask your friends to subscribe. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Tune In, and on every major listening app. If you are listening on a smartphone, swipe or tap over the cover art for the podcast.

Thanks to the good folks at the WilmerHale law firm for helping us with the logistics on this episode. The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by FannieCo. With Rob Hebert, Nic Bannon, Kate Robbins, and Fannie Cohen. Olivia Cruiser provided excellent production support, as always, our associate producer is Allison Bailey.

This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.