The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mueller and Trump: Born to wealth, raised to lead. Then, sharply different choices.

The Post’s Sari Horwitz and Marc Fisher compare the events of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s life to how he's portrayed in pop culture. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

They are the sons of wealth, brought up in families accustomed to power. They were raised to show and demand respect, and they were raised to lead.

They rose to positions of enormous authority, the president of the United States and the special counsel chosen to investigate him. They dress more formally than most of those around them; both sport meticulously coifed hair. They have won unusual loyalty from those who believe in them. They attended elite all-male private schools, were accomplished high school athletes and went on to Ivy League colleges. As young men, each was deeply affected by the death of a man he admired greatly.

Yet Robert Swan Mueller III and Donald John Trump, born 22 months apart in New York City, also can seem to come from different planets. One is courtly and crisp, the other blustery and brash. One turned away from the path to greater wealth, while the other spent half a century exploring every possible avenue to add to his assets.

At pivotal points in their lives, they made sharply divergent choices — as students, as draft-age men facing the dilemma of the Vietnam War, as ambitious alpha males deciding where to focus their energies.

Now, as they move toward an almost inevitable confrontation that could end in anything from deeper political discord to a fatal blow to this presidency, Trump, 71, and Mueller, 73, are behaving much as they have throughout their lives: As the president fumes about a “witch hunt” and takes his frustrations to his supporters, the special counsel remains publicly mute, speaking through inquiries and indictments.

The months flip by, and the showdown looms: Mueller and Trump, the war hero and the draft avoider, two men who rise early and live mainly at the office, two men who find relief on the golf course. They circle each other, speaking different languages. Their aides talk in fits and starts about whether and when the two will meet, but it remains unclear whether that will happen. So they continue on their missions, one loudly, the other in silence. Neither knows how this will end.

From Princeton to the Marines

Mueller was born to a social rank that barely exists anymore, a cosseted WASP elite of northeastern families who sent their sons to New England prep schools built with generations of inherited wealth.

Mueller’s father was an executive at DuPont, part of a family firmly planted in the country’s plutocracy. Mueller, who grew up in Princeton, N.J., and the Philadelphia Main Line, was sent to St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, where the Astor, Vanderbilt and Mellon families educated their boys. At the Episcopal school, Mueller became captain of the soccer, hockey and lacrosse teams. He played hockey with classmate John F. Kerry, a future secretary of state and one of three St. Paul’s alumni who would run for president.

Mueller epitomized the tradition of “the muscular Christian” at the top prep schools, the archetype of the strong boy who embodies “values of kindness, respect and integrity,” said Maxwell King, 73, a classmate at St. Paul’s. “Bob was a very strong figure in our class. . . . He was thought of as somebody you could count on to be thoughtful about everybody on the team and to have very high standards.”

King, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer who runs the Pittsburgh Foundation, said Mueller “had a good sense of humor, but he wasn’t smartass at all. He was serious, but in a way that everybody liked him and liked being around him.”

Mueller was, from early on, a role model. As a group of boys gathered one day at the Tuck, a snack shop at St. Paul’s, a student made a derogatory comment about someone who wasn’t there. “Bob said he didn’t want to hear that,” King said. “I mean, we all said disparaging things about each other face to face. But saying something about someone who wasn’t there was something that Bob was uncomfortable with, and he let it be known and just walked out.”

At Princeton, which his father also had attended, Mueller was accepted into one of the most socially exclusive eating clubs, where he often was seen before dinner playing bridge by the sitting-room fireplace. Mueller had planned to go to medical school, but as a classmate who studied with him recalled, organic chemistry got the better of him. Mueller pronounced himself defeated by the subject; he realized he would not be a doctor.

Just a few weeks after he finished Princeton with a degree in politics in 1966, Mueller enlisted in the Marine Corps, a rare choice for an Ivy League graduate at a time when many young men were casting about for ways to avoid the draft. Mueller, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has often said he was inspired to join the Marines by his lacrosse teammate David Hackett, who had graduated from Princeton a year earlier and gone off to fight in Vietnam.

Mueller’s military career, detailed in documents, was brief but remarkable

“As we were graduating, we . . . faced the decision of how to respond to the war in Vietnam,” Mueller said in a speech last year. “And a number of [Hackett’s] friends and teammates joined the Marine Corps because of him, as did I.” In April 1967, as he led his platoon in evacuating fallen Marines from a battleground, Hackett was shot in the back of the head by a North Vietnamese sniper. Mueller to this day speaks of Hackett’s death as a turning point, as the event that pushed him to a career of public service.

Before beginning his military training, and while recovering from a knee injury, Mueller studied international relations at New York University. Then he started Officer Candidates School at Quantico, Va., where he excelled, although he did get a D in delegation. Mueller followed that, according to military records, by going through the Army’s grueling Ranger School and Airborne School — unusual training for a Marine, signaling that he was going places.

By November 1968, he was leading a rifle platoon in the jungles of Vietnam.

Off to military school

Like Mueller, Trump was raised in rare comfort. The Trumps had a family chef and chauffeur, but they never considered themselves part of the country’s ruling class. Theirs was immigrant stock, from Germany and Scotland, hardy entrepreneurs who tackled the new land with a blitz of new businesses — restaurants, hotels and, finally, real estate.

The president’s father, Fred Trump, made his fortune himself, building middle-class housing for the union workers and civil servants of New York’s outer boroughs. Even after he’d established himself as one of the city’s biggest builders, Fred Trump still toiled in the trenches, taking young Donald along on weekends when they went door to door at Trump Village in Brooklyn, collecting rent.

Donald Trump grew up in a 23-room manse in Queens, a faux Southern plantation house with a Cadillac limousine in the driveway. He attended private school from kindergarten on; his focus in school, Trump told The Washington Post in 2016, was “creating mischief, because, for some reason, I liked to stir things up and I liked to test people. . . . It wasn’t malicious so much as it was aggressive.”

In second grade, he said, he punched his music teacher in the face. He got into trouble often. Before eighth grade started, his father sent him to military school.

At New York Military Academy, where the rules were so strictly enforced that a desperate cadet was said to have leaped into the Hudson River in an attempted escape, Trump thrived. Although he ate in a mess hall instead of being served steaks by the family cook, and although he slept in a barracks rather than his own room in a mansion, he for the first time took pride in his grades. He won medals for neatness and order. He also won notice from fellow cadets for touting his father’s wealth and boasting to friends that “I’m going to be famous one day.”

Trump competed to become a cadet leader and enjoyed wielding authority. As a junior supply sergeant in E Company, he ordered that a cadet be struck on the backside as punishment for breaking formation. Another time, while inspecting dorm rooms, Trump saw cadet Ted Levine’s unmade bed and blew up, ripping off the sheets and tossing them on the floor, Levine said. Levine threw a combat boot at Trump and hit him with a broomstick. Trump, infuriated, grabbed Levine and tried to push him out a second-story window, Levine said.

Promoted to captain of A Company, Trump won respect from some of the other boys, who said they never wanted to disappoint him. Trump introduced them to a world of fun, setting up a tanning salon in his dorm room, bringing beautiful women to campus and leading the baseball team to victory.

But other cadets said Trump tried to break boys who didn’t bend to his will. During Trump’s senior year, when one of his sergeants shoved a new cadet against a wall for not standing at attention quickly enough, Trump was relieved of his duty in the barracks, said Lee Ains, the student who was shoved.

Trump denied being demoted, saying he was actually moved up. “You don’t get elevated if you partake in hazing,” he told The Post in 2016. He was put in charge of a drill team that would perform in New York City’s Columbus Day Parade.

Fleeting victories and fiery retreats

Mutter’s Ridge was a killing ground, a craggy hellscape in Quang Tri province where the Marines had been fighting for years, setting up and abandoning bases as they tried over and over to assert control of one of the main routes the North Vietnamese used to infiltrate the South.

Year after year, the ridge, hard by the demilitarized zone that separated North from South, was the scene of fierce assaults, fleeting victories and fiery retreats.

On Dec. 11, 1968, Mueller led a platoon of Marines into an eight-hour battle around an extensive complex of North Vietnamese army bunkers. The enemy hit Mueller’s men with a “heavy volume of small arms, automatic weapons, and grenade launcher fire,” according to a Marine Corps account.

As his platoon suffered heavy casualties, “Second Lieutenant Mueller fearlessly moved from one position to another, directing the accurate counterfire of his men and shouting words of encouragement to them,” the account said.

Mueller set up a defensive perimeter and “with complete disregard for his own safety, he then skillfully supervised the evacuation of casualties from the hazardous fire area,” as the Marines put it. Mueller led a team across the smoldering terrain and into a North Vietnamese-controlled area to recover a mortally wounded Marine. For that, he earned a Bronze Star Medal with “V” distinction for combat valor. He was promoted to first lieutenant.

Four months later, the North Vietnamese attacked a squad of about a dozen Marines from Mueller’s platoon. Responding to the ambush, Mueller led the rest of his men to assist the Marines under assault. They pushed ahead against heavy fire, and Mueller was shot in the thigh.

“Although seriously wounded during the fire fight, he resolutely maintained his position and, ably directing the fire of his platoon, was instrumental in defeating the North Vietnamese Army force,” said the citation on the medal Mueller received.

His year in Vietnam was a turning point, friends said. “He never speaks to that horror and what he did,” said Thomas B. Wilner, a longtime friend and Washington lawyer.

A lifelong friend said that after Vietnam, Mueller “went from being this affable, good guy, good athlete” to having the “backbone and the steel that he has today.” But Mueller doesn’t talk about those harrowing months in the jungle. “That is not his style. He doesn’t brag about himself.”

Draft deferments

The country felt as though it were coming apart at the seams. At the University of Pennsylvania, where Trump had transferred after two years at Fordham University in the Bronx, protests against the Vietnam War grew larger and more insistent. There were sit-ins, candlelight vigils, demonstrations against university contracts with the military — a metastasizing culture of conflict as a new generation pushed back against war, segregation, dress codes and curfews.

Trump took part in none of that. Nor did he pay much attention to his coursework, fellow students said. He was already spending nearly as much time working for his father’s real estate business in New York as he was on campus in Philadelphia. He said he spent many of his off-hours while at school scouring the neighborhood for apartments to buy so he could rent them to students.

Trump never burned a draft card, but he never enlisted either. He benefited from five draft deferments between 1964 and 1968 — four for being a college student and one for a medical disqualification.

Trump has said he had bone spurs in his foot. During his presidential campaign, Trump said he could not recall which foot had the spurs. Later, his campaign said he had them in both heels. At another point, a campaign statement said that in 1969, Trump was fit for service and “had his draft number been selected, he would have proudly served.” His draft lottery number was 356 out of 366 — high enough that he almost certainly would have been spared from mandatory service.

'Mueller, Homicide'

Mueller spent the first two decades of his legal career putting bad guys behind bars. He worked as a prosecutor in San Francisco and Boston. And in Washington, he headed the Justice Department’s criminal division as an assistant attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, supervising high-profile cases such as the prosecution of Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega and the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

But by 1995, he was ensconced in the $400,000-a-year luxury of a white-collar litigation job in the Washington office of a Boston law firm, Hale and Dorr. It was not a happy time.

“He hated it,” said Wilner, the longtime friend. “He couldn’t stand selling his services to defend people he thought might be guilty. . . . There was no hesitation for Bob in leaving a lucrative job to . . . do what he thought was helping make the world a better place.”

So one day, Mueller called the District’s local prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr., and asked for a job, not handling the office’s big national cases but working the line, prosecuting homicides on the streets of Washington. He wanted no title, no supervisory position. He told Holder that he was shaken by all of the killings in Washington, then the nation’s murder capital, and that he just wanted to try homicide cases.

Mueller said he knew what he was getting into. Holder hired him but insisted on giving him a title — senior litigation counsel — and eventually made him head of the homicide section. Day to day, though, Mueller was “just a line guy,” Holder said. “He would be in those parts of Washington that were most affected by the violence. . . . He would be interviewing people at crime scenes, going to people’s homes to build cases, working with street cops.”

He got a kick out of answering his phone, “Mueller, Homicide.”

“I love everything about investigations,” Mueller said years later in an interview with UVA Lawyer, the magazine of the University of Virginia School of Law, where he earned his law degree. “I love the forensics. I love the fingerprints and the bullet casings and all the rest.”

He led the prosecution of high-profile cases including the grisly murders in 1997 of three workers in a Starbucks coffee shop in Georgetown. D.C. police were not thrilled about the idea, but Mueller brought in a star FBI agent to work on the investigation. Three years after the killings, a D.C. man was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“If it wasn’t for [Mueller], that case would never have been solved,” said former longtime homicide detective James Trainum, who worked with Mueller on the case. “With his quiet demeanor, he just kind of waded in and diplomatically parted the waters.”

Through the decades, Mueller has often said that what matters even more than the content of one’s work is “how we do it,” as he put it in a commencement address in 2013. “You are only as good as your word. You can be smart, aggressive, articulate and indeed persuasive, but if you are not honest, your reputation will suffer, and once lost, a good reputation can never be regained.”

Tough enough to make it

Trump was determined to push beyond his father’s realm in New York’s outer boroughs and make it big in Manhattan. He had neither time nor patience for climbing the ladder rung by rung. He believed in big, bold leaps, even if that meant breaking with tradition or rules.

“The key to the way I promote is bravado,” he wrote in “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” his best-selling book. “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts.”

It was Trump’s older brother, Fred Jr., who was originally supposed to take over the family business. But Freddy, mild-mannered and, in Donald’s view, not tough enough to make it, struggled to live up to his father’s demands. Freddy left the family company to become an airline pilot, but he began drinking excessively. In 1981, at age 43, he died of a heart attack following years of alcoholism. Donald had adored his brother, and now he resolved never to drink alcohol and always to remember a lesson he drew from Freddy’s failure: “To keep my guard up one hundred percent. . . . Life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat,” he said at the time. “You just can’t let people make a sucker out of you.”

In contrast to his brother, Donald Trump was determined to do whatever it took to “be a killer,” as his father had repeatedly insisted. While working on his first hotel project in 1976, Trump persuaded a New York Times reporter to profile him as “a major New York builder,” even though he had never built a thing and had no financing.

He touted his ties to power. In the mid-1970s, seeking to buy New York’s World Trade Center, Trump had lunch with Peter C. Goldmark Jr., the head of New York’s Port Authority, which owned the twin towers. “You wouldn’t last in your job very long if Governor [Hugh] Carey decided you weren’t doing the right thing,” Trump said, according to Goldmark. “You should know I have a lot of weight in Albany.”

Goldmark said he ended the discussion after that. Trump denied Goldmark’s account, saying, “I really don’t talk that way.”

Trump’s knack for drawing attention sometimes embarrassed or persuaded the powers that were to cede to his demands. When city politicians who opposed granting Trump a tax incentive called a news conference outside the shuttered Commodore Hotel, Trump showed up and threatened to abandon the project if the city didn’t give him tax relief.

Trump had prepared for the event by directing his workers to replace the clean boards that covered the once-grand building’s windows with dirty scrap wood, accentuating the decrepit state of the midtown eyesore. The dramatic flourish had the desired effect. Trump got the exemption. He beat the system.


After Mueller did a stint as U.S. attorney in San Francisco, President George W. Bush nominated him to direct the FBI. He was sworn in on Sept. 4, 2001, one week before the planes hit the twin towers.

For the next 12 years, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, Mueller led the FBI through one of the most difficult periods in its history. The bureau shifted from a domestic law enforcement agency largely focused on criminal threats to a global intelligence organization reoriented to fight terrorism.

Although more terrorist attacks were feared, Mueller was intent on protecting civil liberties, according to those who worked with him. “He didn’t allow FBI agents in the post-9/11 era to engage in interrogation techniques that he thought were inconsistent with American law and tradition,” said Holder, who, as President Barack Obama’s attorney general, was his boss once again.

Mueller worked around the clock, traveling from his Georgetown home to FBI headquarters in a black SUV that arrived shortly after 6 a.m. for morning security briefings, heading back late at night. He wore a traditional J. Edgar Hoover-era G-man uniform: dark suit, red or blue tie and white shirt — always white.

“He won’t wear a blue shirt,” Wilner said. “He is so straight, he always wears a white shirt. He’s a pain in the ass in many ways because he is so straight. . . . He’s conscious that he’s a public figure, and he doesn’t want anything to compromise his integrity. Even a blue shirt.”

Around the building, some privately dubbed him “Bobby Three Sticks,” a reference to both the Roman numeral at the end of his name and the three-finger Boy Scout salute. No one dared use the nickname in his presence, former Justice Department officials said.

Mueller usually avoided the limelight. He frustrated his speechwriters by crossing out every “I” in speeches they wrote for him. It wasn’t about him, he told them: “It’s about the organization.”

Family and politics

Mueller burrowed into the bureaucracy and won allies by eschewing publicity. Trump charged into one industry after another, from casino gambling to steaks to for-profit education and finally to politics. The only through line in his career was his own celebrity — the power and allure of his name.

In nearly every possible way, from their family relations to their political involvement, the two men have presented themselves in opposite ways.

Three months after he graduated from college, Mueller married his girlfriend, Ann Standish, whose ancestors had come to the United States on the Mayflower. The couple, who met at a party when they were 17, have two daughters. One of them has spina bifida, and at one point, Mueller took a job in the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston in part to be near the treatment she needed.

Mueller has asked reporters not to discuss his family life; Trump for decades regularly sought coverage of his love life by gossip columnists, and talked about his dates and bedroom activities with radio host Howard Stern.

Trump has five children by three wives, each of them newcomers to New York City, two from Central Europe and one from a small town in Georgia. None was born to privilege. Like his father before him, Trump was distant from his children when they were very young but grew close once they were mature enough to learn the family business and join him on his daily rounds.

Mueller is a lifelong Republican who has worked for administrations of both parties; Trump was raised in a Republican home by a father who spent many weekends visiting the Democratic clubs of Brooklyn, building relationships with the politicians who might help him get his projects built.

For four decades, Trump toyed with the idea of entering politics. He changed his party registration seven times between 1999 and 2012 — he was a Democrat twice, a Republican three times and an independent. In 2000, he briefly ran for president under the Reform Party banner. Once, when asked in a television interview why he was a Republican, he said, “I have no idea.”

A friendly conversation

In the Rose Garden on June 21, 2013, Obama announced that James B. Comey would replace Mueller as FBI director. “Like the Marine that he’s always been, Bob never took his eyes off his mission,” Obama said. “It’s a tribute to Bob’s trademark humility that most Americans probably wouldn’t recognize him on the street, but all of us are better because of his service.”

Four years later, last May, the new president invited Mueller back to the White House. President Trump had abruptly fired Comey and now, at the suggestion of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Mueller was coming in to talk about his former job. On his way into the Oval Office, Mueller met then-chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, a former Navy officer, and teased him for letting his daughter go to West Point.

Mueller and Trump spoke for about 30 minutes, according to a person familiar with the interview. It was a friendly conversation but seemed almost pro forma because Mueller made it clear from the start that he was unlikely to take the job he had held for 12 years.

Trump liked Mueller, according to the person. “He thought he was smart and tough,” a type Trump admires more than almost any other.

The question became moot within days, as Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Mueller as the special counsel to investigate whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.

Trump heard the news and asked one of his aides, “Wasn’t that guy just in here interviewing for the FBI?”

Dan Lamothe, Josh Dawsey and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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