by Jason Willick · June 8, 2018
Left to right: Ken Starr, Mark Penn and Robert Mueller. Illustration: KEN FALLIN, Getty Images (2)
President Trump opened the week in a typical fashion, angrily denouncing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But Mr. Trump appealed to an unlikely authority: Mark Penn, the Democratic pollster who guided President Clinton through his second-term scandals and then served as chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“ ‘Why are there people from the Clinton Foundation on the Mueller Staff?’ ” the president tweeted, paraphrasing Mr. Penn’s appearance on Fox News. “ ‘Why is there an Independent Counsel? To go after people and their families for unrelated offenses…Constitution was set up to prevent this…Stormtrooper tactics almost.’ A disgrace!”
Mr. Penn, now a lecturer at Harvard and a private-equity investor, has condemned the Mueller probe both on television and in columns for the Hill newspaper. These broadsides have turned heads in Washington, especially among fellow Democratic political professionals, who accuse him of selling out. Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide Philippe Reines told the New York Times that Mr. Penn is “making a play for something.” Top Obama adviser David Axelrod charged on Twitter that Mr. Penn’s “reemergence as Mueller-basher seems less like courageous truthtelling than cynical opportunism.”
Mr. Penn says it is his detractors who are putting political interest over principle. “There were not enough Republicans who came out in ’98 against the process,” he tells me, “and there are not enough Democrats who are coming out against the process now.”
By “the process” Mr. Penn means the use of legal tools to settle political differences, a phenomenon he sees as getting worse. “If all politics, even after elections, becomes the politics of personal destruction and destroying our opponents rather than fighting for the next election,” he asks, “what will be left of an ideas-based democracy?”
Mr. Penn helped design what he calls Team Clinton’s “aggressive campaign” against the Kenneth Starr investigation. That inquiry originated with suspicions about the Clintons ’ Arkansas land dealings and culminated with Mr. Clinton’s impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice in testimony arising from a sexual-harassment lawsuit. Mr. Penn sees strong similarities between then and now: “In 1998, the country was being torn apart in an investigation that had gone on for many years and then had segued into some other area, after having really not found anything in the areas in which it was set up.”
The process has intensified this time, as Mr. Trump takes on a more personal role than Mr. Clinton did. Mr. Penn also highlights the involvement of Mr. Obama’s former law-enforcement and intelligence chiefs, including Jim Comey, Jim Clapper and John Brennan. “It’s not unprecedented for a president to criticize an independent or special counsel,” he says. “It is unprecedented for people like Comey, Clapper and Brennan to go out and become full-bore political figures on the talk show circuit blasting the president as though they are pundits and not intelligence professionals.”
In addition to corroding “ideas-based” politics, Mr. Penn believes special-counsel investigations can push administration policy toward the extremes. He is credited with helping nudge Mr. Clinton into the political center in the mid-1990s. But in 1998, he says, Mr. Clinton had to retreat leftward to keep his party united behind him: “Those were the votes for acquittal in impeachment.”
Could the threat from the Russia probe force Mr. Trump to lean more heavily on his populist base? Mr. Penn is certain it already has affected the administration’s calculus on foreign policy. “If the idea was to use Russia as a fulcrum against Iran and China, that policy got blown up,” he says. “It’s not irrational policy,” but “the investigation made it impossible.”
The overarching problem, Mr. Penn contends, is that when law-enforcement agencies conduct “impeachment investigations,” it creates “a separation of powers problem.” He therefore recommends undertaking such probes “only when things are on the surest of grounds.”
Absent a smoking gun, in other words, Congress should take the investigative lead. But what if the political system is so polarized, as now, that lawmakers would be reluctant to challenge a president of their own party? “Elections come around every two years in this country,” he says. While lawyers often view the legal process as the key to accountability, Mr. Penn, a pollster, has a sunny optimism in the ability of the electorate to play that role.
He insists he has been consistent on this point, and there’s a paper trail to prove it. As a college sophomore in 1973, amid the Watergate scandal but before the release of President Nixon’s incriminating White House tapes, Mr. Penn wrote in the Harvard Crimson that the special prosecutor was a “ ‘quasi-constitutional’ mechanism” and that impeachment efforts should proceed with caution.
Critics may object that Mr. Penn has not been a Democrat in good standing for some time. He co-wrote an op-ed last summer urging the party to “move to the center” on cultural issues and focus on defending the Affordable Care Act. He says this advice is “as valid, if not more valid” today, and he hopes Democrats in 2020 pick a moderate nominee who will lead in that direction. He rejects the view that Democrats can win back power by doubling down on their current coalition. “I don’t think it’s possible for the Democratic Party to become a majority party without winning back the working class,” Mr. Penn says, “and continuing to make advancements in the suburbs and particularly with independent women.”
Mr. Penn cites the GOP’s choice of Mitt Romney in 2012 as evidence that a party can moderate. “I don’t think anybody expected during the peak times of the tea party that the Republicans would nominate people like Romney, ” he says. With the right standard-bearer, moving to the center “is a process Democrats could well undertake.”
Is Mr. Penn’s polemical anti-Mueller commentary a sign that he has been seduced by the GOP? No, he insists: Republicans also show no sign of occupying the middle ground that Mr. Clinton once did. But perhaps Mr. Penn’s policy instincts and his hostility to special counsels are related. If politics is a process of messy compromise through which ideas are recontested every two years, then it makes sense to respect election results and meet voters where they are. On the other hand, if the aim of politics is a decisive ideological triumph, then it makes sense to double down on your existing base and support any means, including criminal investigations, to force rivals out of power.
Mr. Penn’s rhetoric on Mr. Mueller has been excessive, but perhaps his views simply reflect a more pragmatic approach to politics—an approach that, alas, may be out of date.
Mr. Willick is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.