US special counsel Robert Mueller: A lawman's lawman

Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on May 16, 2013.
Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on May 16, 2013. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Robert Mueller, named Wednesday (May 18) to take over the US probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, has a reputation as a tough lawman who once even stood up to a president.

Mueller, a Vietnam war vet who served as director of the FBI from 2001 to 2013, is described as enjoying seamless respect from Democrats and Republicans alike as he undertakes a high-stakes mission which could determine the fate of Donald Trump's presidency.

"Mueller is a great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted," tweeted Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee.

The New York-born Mueller boasts "determination and independence of mind," added Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, one of Trump's loudest critics.

"I think that Bob Mueller is the kind of prosecutor and investigator we need here," Blumenthal added.

Trump's opponents are suggesting the president may have committed obstruction of justice - an impeachable offence - by allegedly asking FBI director James Comey in February to drop an investigation related to the Russia probe before sacking him last week.

Mueller, 72, is known for a no-nonsense management style developed during a tenure that began with him firmly in the hot seat: he took up the FBI post just a week before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Much of his work then centred on saving and reforming the Federal Bureau of Investigation amid calls for its dismantling after the agency missed clues that pointed to a massive attack against America being in the making.

Under Mueller, the FBI was rebooted into an agency with the new task of countering terror threats, and became a key part of the American national security apparatus.

Showdown with a president

One of Mueller's many accomplishments was the foiling of an Al-Qaeda attack on a commercial airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

Mueller proved his mettle famously in a dramatic 2004 showdown in which he threatened to resign rather than go along with reauthorisation of a post-9/11 domestic spying programme under then president George W. Bush.

The Justice Department, which oversees the FBI, had determined that it was illegal.

Mueller and his eventual successor - Comey, then deputy attorney-general - backed down when the Bush administration agreed to make changes to the programme, which was eventually disclosed to the public in 2005 by the New York Times.

In the end, Mueller was in the top FBI post for the second-longest period after J. Edgar Hoover, who held it for 48 years until his death.