Behind the Decision to Ask Bob Mueller to Stay at the FBI

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REUTERS / Jason Reed

Attorney General Eric Holder stunned Bob Mueller when he told the FBI director late last month that President Obama wanted him to stay on for two more years. Mueller, 66, was already the longest serving director since J. Edgar Hoover, and he is poised to become the first to outlast the 10-year term that Congress established in 1972.

So why stretch out his appointment? Insiders say months of searching turned up nobody as well qualified who was easily confirmable and willing to take the job.

Thursday’s announcement was a shrewd political move for Obama, who has struggled to win Senate approval for his nominees. (James Cole recently became the first nominee for deputy attorney general to face a filibuster.) Mueller’s extension will keep him in the job until September 4, 2013, well after the presidential election.

“This gets [Obama] through the re-elect with a solid, stable leader at the FBI,” said a senior administration official, who would not speak on the record. “And politically it makes sense for Republicans to support. If they win the presidency, they’ll get to pick the next director.”

For months, Holder and Vice President Biden led a search committee to find Mueller’s successor. Replacing him was bound to be a tall order. Since Sept. 11, 2001 – a week after Mueller arrived – the job of FBI director has required a hard-to-find combination of national security, law enforcement and managerial experience. Republicans and Democrats alike heap praise on Mueller, who has helped transform the FBI into something closer to a 21st century domestic security service.

Two top prospects took themselves out of the running – Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, because he hopes for a Supreme Court appointment, and former deputy attorney general James B. Comey, because he has five kids headed for college and is making a lot of money at Bridgewater Associates, the gargantuan hedge fund.

Before Biden and Holder could narrow the field to a short list, Obama became intrigued by the prospect of keeping Mueller on. Holder broached the subject with Mueller after one of their daily briefings in the FBI’s Strategic Intelligence Operations Center. Mueller, insiders say, was surprised – and reluctant. Holder wooed him in daily conversations; it was more than a week before Mueller “finally indicated that he would say yes” if Obama asked him to stay.

“It’s not that he wasn’t interested, but if you have a job that ends on a certain date, you orient your thinking around that date,” says a senior Justice Department official. The outcome, however, was probably inevitable. “It’s hard to even imagine what he’s going to do when he retires,” says the official, who sees a lot of the hard-driving former Marine. “He’s not going to putter around the house.”

In a prearranged telephone call on Tuesday, Obama formally asked Mueller to accept two more years as director. Mueller accepted on the spot.

Two days later, Obama made the announcement: “In his ten years at the FBI, Bob Mueller has set the gold standard for leading the Bureau. Given the ongoing threats facing the United States, as well as the leadership transitions at other agencies like the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency, I believe continuity and stability at the FBI is critical at this time.”

Cover story: Is the FBI up to the job 10 years after 9/11?