The dance of Donald and Bob

Robert Mueller and Donald Trump were born 22 months apart to wealthy families in New York City and raised to lead. The similarities end there.

Robert Mueller and Donald Trump, back in the day.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Barry Thumma, AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

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 coiffed 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.

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.

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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.

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, New Jersey, and on 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 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."

At Princeton, which his father also had attended, Mueller was accepted into one of the most socially exclusive eating clubs. Mueller had planned to go to medical school, but as a classmate who studied with him recalled, organic chemistry got the better of him.

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 has often said he was inspired to join the Marines by lacrosse teammate David Hackett, who had graduated from Princeton a year earlier and gone off to fight in Vietnam.

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

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.

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." 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, Trump thrived. For the first time, he 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, "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. 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.

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 a key route the North Vietnamese used to infiltrate the South.

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, "2nd Lt. 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. He earned a Bronze Star Medal with "V" distinction for combat valor, and 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 firefight, 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. 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."

Trump got 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.

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 longtime friend Thomas Wilner. "He couldn't stand selling his services to defend people he thought might be guilty."

So one day, Mueller called D.C.'s local prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Eric 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.

"I love everything about investigations," Mueller said years later in an interview. "I love the forensics. I love the fingerprints and the bullet casings and all the rest."

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.

Mueller worked around the clock and 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."

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.

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; Trump for decades 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. 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 TV interview why he was a Republican, he said, "I have no idea."

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.

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