Not long ago a journalist approached me out of the blue to do an interview about my impressions of Robert Mueller. At first the name didn’t ring a bell; it never crossed my mind that he might be referring to the Robert Mueller. You can imagine my surprise when this same journalist told me not only that he was referring to the special counsel appointed to investigate wrongdoing during the Trump presidential campaign but that Mueller had been my thesis advisee at Princeton 52 years ago.
The now-eminent Mueller had indeed been my advisee, normally a rather close and somewhat collaborative relationship. The senior thesis is usually the crowning experience for Princeton undergraduates majoring in the social sciences. To have zero recollections of the man was surprising, especially as the subject of his thesis coincided with my central interests at the time.
Mueller’s thesis was an unusually perceptive analysis of a controversial judicial decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), commonly known as the World Court. Mueller approached the law and its political context in a sophisticated manner that would have been impressive if done by a law-school graduate, let alone a college student who, as far as I know, had not yet opened a law book.
His long analytical essay addressed a seemingly technical issue: the authority of the ICJ to decide a case involving the extension of South African apartheid to South West Africa, a territory then administered by Pretoria. Germany had conquered South West Africa in 1884 and imposed colonial rule over the sparsely populated territory until Germany lost its colonies after World War I. The Treaty of Versailles established the territory as a Mandate, to be administered on behalf of the League of Nations by South Africa. (That arrangement was terminated in 1966 by the United Nations General Assembly, which had inherited the League of Nations supervisory role after World War II, but South Africa retained control of the territory until it was granted independence in 1990 as the sovereign state of Namibia.)
Until the 1966 World Court case, South West Africa was primarily known for the extreme nature of German colonial rule under the personal authority of the father of Hermann Göring, regarded as an ugly and prophetic prelude of the Nazi era.
On rereading Mueller’s thesis, I found the international-law issues he discusses of considerable interest even now, five decades later, but far more relevant for the broader public is what Mueller’s thesis tells us about his approach to the interplay of law, politics, and morality in the apartheid context, when he was a college student.
I would not attempt such an assessment if I did not think the thesis contains some hints about his decision-making process as special counsel. This seems of some value, given the gravity of the current situation and the overall contempt displayed by President Trump for constraints of any kind, including those of law. Before his appointment as special counsel, Mueller was generally regarded as an admired civil servant, having effectively directed the FBI for 12 years. He is commonly described as “a lifelong Republican,” though he has also enjoyed exceptionally strong bipartisan respect. Until Trump and such media poodles as Sean Hannity came along, it would have been unthinkable that someone with such an honorable and distinguished public image would find himself under attack as biased or as leading a witch hunt, but so it goes in these dark times.