Which makes it all the more striking that in his current campaign the longtime Democratic political consultant has essentially switched sides and accused associates of the Clintons of helping to orchestrate a politically driven, manufactured, “deep state” investigation into President Donald Trump that Penn says should be shut down.
In a series of recent newspaper columns and appearances on Fox News, Penn has endorsed Trump’s argument that the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, was instigated by secret Democratic intriguing. The inquiry, Penn said, has resorted to “storm trooper tactics” and has become a “scorched-earth effort” to “bring down Donald Trump.”
“This process must now be stopped, preferably long before a vote in the Senate,” he wrote in a column in The Hill newspaper that was posted on Sunday evening and generated a lot of buzz in Washington. “Rather than a fair, limited and impartial investigation, the Mueller investigation became a partisan, open-ended inquisition that, by its precedent, is a threat to all those who ever want to participate in a national campaign or an administration again.”
Penn goes further, however, by associating his former clients with the sort of wrongdoing that Trump often alleges. Penn wrote that the FBI and Justice Department “broke their own rules” to end the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. He implied that Bill Clinton’s encounter with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on a Phoenix airport tarmac in 2016 really was as suspicious as Republicans found it. And he suggested that “Clinton Foundation operatives” got the FBI to investigate Trump.
Penn declined to comment on Monday, but his migration away from the Clinton camp has been a long time coming. More center-right than most advisers in the Clinton orbit, he long battled with more liberal aides and eventually stepped down from his post as chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign amid bitter internal feuds driven by clashes over personality and strategy as well as ideology.
A New York native who was captivated by numbers since childhood and parlayed a Harvard education to become a top Democratic pollster, Penn, 64, was part of a trio of strategists brought into the White House by Bill Clinton after Republicans swept the 1994 midterm elections and took control of both houses of Congress.
The three helped Bill Clinton pivot toward the political center to undercut the House speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republicans and regain popular support to win re-election just two years later. Penn’s internal rivals grumbled that he cared more about statistics than people and pushed a bloodless form of politics that focused on trivial symbolism like school uniforms over meaningful policy.
Penn considered such criticism to be sour grapes by advisers who were held hostage by the left wing of the party, unable to see the popular middle and resented his ascendance. He boasted a record of helping elect two dozen heads of state around the world. He has also worked for corporate giants like Microsoft.
The other two members of that rescue team brought in after 1994, Dick Morris and Douglas E. Schoen, would also go on to become sharp critics of the Clintons and favorite guests on Fox News. But Penn lasted longer with the Clintons than any of them and had been most associated with their campaigns. He helped steer Hillary Clinton to win a Senate seat from New York in 2000 and set the original course of her 2008 presidential bid against Barack Obama, including the famous ad asking voters who would they trust for a 3 a.m. crisis phone call.
Today, he is the president of the Stagwell Group, a digital investment firm that owns a series of public affairs agencies, including one that has worked for Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, the former presidential candidate.
He attributes his criticism of Mueller’s investigation to lingering disgust with the inquiry by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, which led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment by the House in 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the president’s efforts to cover up an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was subsequently acquitted in a Senate trial in 1999.
“I spent a year working with President Clinton against Ken Starr and that effort,” Penn said on Fox earlier this month. “I just find that that was child’s play to what’s going on here.”
In another Fox interview, he said he “saw on the inside how these investigations affect people trying to do their job in the White House or political campaigns or in our democracy,” adding that “unless there’s something really incredibly significant there, to continue and drag this on, drags down the ability for people to do their job for this country.”
But his arguments have gone beyond denouncing Mueller or the investigation’s effect on the White House. He has come to see the Clinton team as unprincipled schemers, much as the Republicans he long opposed do.
In his column this week, he said the Australian diplomat who told the FBI about an incriminating bar conversation with George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser, was responsible for a $25 million contribution to the Clinton family’s foundation.
“You don’t need much imagination to figure that he was close with Clinton Foundation operatives who relayed information to the State Department, which then called the FBI to complete the loop,” Penn wrote. “This wasn’t intelligence. It was likely opposition research from the start.”
He likewise dismissed Bill Clinton’s explanation of a conversation he had with Lynch during the 2016 investigation into his wife’s email server. Lynch “definitely wasn’t playing mah-jongg in a secret ‘no aides allowed’ meeting with former President Clinton.” And he implied that the FBI was wrong not to charge Hillary Clinton in that case.
Spokesmen for the Clintons did not respond to messages on Monday, but some former colleagues from his days advising Hillary Clinton saw no moral conversion on the part of Penn. To them, Penn appeared intent on ingratiating himself with Trump for some unknown benefit.
“I caught him saying something crazy on Fox a week or so back but figured he was playing to the crowd,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton. “But he’s not dumb. He wasn’t even trying to not look like a shill. So he’s making a play for something.”
Conservatives, on the other hand, said Penn was being consistent given his experience with Starr. Hugh Hewitt, the radio talk show host, said on Twitter that it was possible that Penn “is just considering all facts and arriving at what many would view as an ‘admission against interest’ — not a personal interest, but that of a past client. Which would be ... honorable?”
In his writings and television appearances, Penn has said he was not motivated by party politics but by concern for the state of the country.
“Stopping Mueller isn’t about one president or one party,” he wrote. “It’s about all presidents and all parties. It’s about cleaning out and reforming the deep state so that our intelligence operations are never used against opposing campaigns without the firmest of evidence.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
PETER BAKER © 2018 The New York Times