WASHINGTON — In his first public interview since he testified before Congress last year, former special counsel and FBI Director Robert Mueller talked for the first time in detail about facing death as a Marine in Vietnam — but he did not discuss the historic investigation he led into President Donald Trump and Russia.
Mueller spoke to former federal prosecutor Chuck Rosenberg for Rosenberg's NBC News podcast, The Oath. Rosenberg said Mueller made it clear he would not discuss the investigation he led, and Rosenberg, who once worked for Mueller at the FBI, didn't ask about it.
Nonetheless, Mueller's interview is noteworthy because it may dispel — somewhat — the impression he left during his July 26, 2019 testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, when he seemed frail, diminished and not in command of some key facts.
In the friendly interview with Rosenberg — an NBC News contributor and former Drug Enforcement Administration chief whose podcast highlights the life stories of public servants — Mueller, now 76, spoke in vivid detail about some of the formative experiences of his life, including his service in Vietnam, where he was wounded and won a Bronze Star for valor.
Mueller said that he knew, as he was flown into the war zone in 1968 after undergoing Army Ranger school, "You've got a pretty good chance that you're not going to make it."
But Mueller, who left a wife and baby at home, said he was confident he would survive.
He "spent a fair amount of time in prayer," he said, and developed "a belief over a period of time that…I'm going to make it."
More than death, Mueller said, he most feared failure.
"The worst thing that can happen for you who lead men is to fail," he said.
In a 2018 story in Wired magazine, the writer Garrett Graff interviewed men who served with Mueller in Vietnam service in detail.
One corporal who served under him, V.J. Maranto, told Graff that Mueller exhibited "remarkable composure" under fire.
"The minute the s— hit the fan, he was there," Maranto said. "He performed remarkably. After that night, there were a lot of guys who would've walked through walls for him."
Speaking of that particularly fierce battle at a place called Mutter's Ridge, Mueller told Rosenberg he was distraught about the losses but comforted when a superior officer praised his conduct.
"The last thing you want," he said, "is to be tagged with not having done all you can for your men."
Mueller was awarded the Bronze Star for valor for his role that day. Four months later he was shot in the leg.
"I remember thinking, 'That's not too bad, I got shot through the thigh…I did get hit, but I didn't get hit…I'll probably go to the hospital ship and get a decent meal.'"
But, "as it happened, I healed, and within three weeks I was back in the bush."
His survival in Vietnam, Mueller said, led him to want to further serve his country.
"I owed a heck of a lot," he said. "What you did back in Vietnam carries with you in the future. In terms of payback, it's payback for a relatively substantial gift."
That ethos has inspired deep loyalty from many who have worked for Mueller over the years, including most of the people who joined him as part of the team investigating whether the Trump campaign had coordinated with Russian interference in the 2016 election.
After his faltering July 2019 testimony, prosecutors who worked in the special counsel's office said Mueller was in full command of the investigation, making key decisions.
One of his top prosecutors, Andrew Weissmann, now an NBC News contributor, wrote a book that included some criticisms, arguing that the special counsel's office wasn't aggressive enough along certain lines of inquiry over worries that Trump might fire Mueller.
Weissmann questioned why the office didn't subpoena Trump to compel his testimony under oath before a federal grand jury. Instead, Mueller settled for written answers that were vague and incomplete.
In response, Mueller in September issued a rare written statement.
"It is not surprising that members of the Special Counsel's Office did not always agree, but it is disappointing to hear criticism of our team based on incomplete information," the statement said.
"The office's mission was to follow the facts and to act with integrity. That is what we did, knowing that our work would be scrutinized from all sides," he added in the statement. "When important decisions had to be made, I made them. I did so as I have always done, without any interest in currying favor or fear of the consequences. I stand by those decisions and by the conclusions of our investigation."
The second part of the Mueller interview, in which he discusses his term as FBI director after 9/11, will post later, Rosenberg said.
"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," Rosenberg said.