WASHINGTON — Long before the convictions last week of two former members of President Trump’s inner circle, the political left’s expectations for the Russia investigation were at a fever pitch.
Democrats predicted that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, would break with a half-century of policy and prosecute a sitting president. One MSNBC panel considered how to arrest him if he refuses to leave the White House. (Answer: “At some point, he is going to have to come out.”)
Mr. Mueller, a lifelong Republican who is an unlikely hero for the anti-Trump resistance, faces a series of crucial decisions in the coming months. Will he subpoena the president? Recommend charges? Will he write a public report? Each could help sway the midterm elections and shape the future of the presidency itself.
For insight on what he will do next, those who have known him for years say, do not look at the mythology that has built up since Mr. Mueller was appointed 15 months ago. Look instead to his four decades of government service.
As he advanced from line prosecutor to top Justice Department official to head of the F.B.I., his time was marked by aggressive prosecutions but also a deference at key moments to precedent, tradition and higher office. “He’s the last guy who’s going to do anything that’s even slightly a departure from the bedrock principles,” said Glenn Kirschner, who worked alongside Mr. Mueller as a homicide prosecutor.
The special counsel investigation has followed a familiar path, colleagues said, largely because Mr. Mueller, a publicity-averse 74-year-old who is as conservative as his go-to outfit (dark suit, white shirt — never blue — and a button-down collar), has stuck to his approach.
“He’s the same guy he’s always been,” said Marilyn Hall Patel, a retired federal judge in San Francisco. “Steady, measured, cautious.”
Assemble a Team
Shortly after taking over as United States attorney in San Francisco in 1998, former colleagues recalled, Mr. Mueller asked all the supervisors in the office to step down. He promptly sent a Justice Department-wide email announcing that “the following positions are now open” — and listing every major prosecution job in Northern California.
Many in the office found it brusque and off-putting. But Mr. Mueller told colleagues that he had learned a management style decades earlier as a Marine platoon commander: You cannot make people do things that they are incapable of doing. So rather than prodding employees, he preferred to move quickly to assemble the best possible team, even if his method was disruptive.
As special counsel, Mr. Mueller has recruited talented prosecutors from across the country, stocking the office both with trusted longtime colleagues and younger prosecutors with sterling résumés. “If you have an opportunity to work with him and learn from him, you do it,” said Melinda Haag, a former United States attorney in Los Angeles who once served as Mr. Mueller’s chief white-collar prosecutor.
Mr. Mueller was not the obvious choice to lead the San Francisco office during the Clinton administration. Those jobs usually go to politically connected lawyers, and Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, had formed a selection committee to recommend candidates.
Mr. Mueller was tied to the wrong party, having served as a top Justice Department appointee of George Bush. But the San Francisco office was adrift, and career prosecutors at the Justice Department in Washington recommended Mr. Mueller for the job. And though Ms. Boxer had an eye for liberal nominees who diversified the work force, the chairwoman of her committee, Cristina C. Arguedas, had known and respected Mr. Mueller when he was a young prosecutor and she was a public defender.
“It was quite ironic, me going to Barbara Boxer saying, ‘You have to give this plum appointment to this straight white guy who’s also a rock-ribbed Republican,’” Ms. Arguedas recalled.
Judge Patel said she also quietly recommended Mr. Mueller to top Justice Department officials. “I’m a Democrat. He’s a Republican,” Judge Patel said. “But he’s a different kind of Republican, the kind we remember.”