In January 1998, longtime Democratic pollster and strategist Mark Penn hunkered down with President Bill Clinton, intending to help the administration ride out the storm of a pending independent-counsel investigation.
These days, Penn, still a leading voice on the left, is speaking out against the special-counsel investigation into President Donald Trump and Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election — opposing it for much the same reason that he opposed Ken Starr’s investigation in 1998.
“I worked with President Clinton through impeachment,” Penn tells National Review in an interview. “And I felt passionately throughout that experience that the investigation weighed so heavily on the president and his ability to carry out the job that America just wasted a year, for nothing really. That had a powerful impact on how I regard this.”
Penn had worked with Clinton since the 1994 midterms, which swept Republicans into control of Congress; he served as a key pollster and, eventually, one of the president’s most influential advisers. In 2000, the Washington Post wrote that no pollster before Penn had ever become “so thoroughly integrated into the policymaking operation” of a presidential administration.
That close connection was especially apparent during the brutal storm of the 1998 investigation, which initially focused on Clinton’s failed Whitewater real-estate investments before expanding into his affair with Monica Lewinsky and related perjury charges, and culminated in his impeachment by the House. Penn, along with colleague Doug Schoen, conducted a series of polls to track the public’s opinion of the investigation as it unfolded, and he continued to advise the administration on managing the blowback until Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999. He went on to advise Hillary Clinton during her 2000 Senate run and serve as a chief strategist during her 2008 run for president.
Given this résumé, it likely comes as a shock to many on the left that Penn has emerged as one of the most prominent Democrats to critique the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign.
Penn sees his opposition to Robert Mueller’s investigation as very much consistent with his opposition to Starr’s investigation. He’s remained consistent on the former since mid 2017, when he wrote an op-ed for The Hill entitled, “Don’t repeat the mistakes of Clinton and 1998 with Trump”:
The Democrats, just like the Republicans of 1998, have staked their party not on the issues, like inequality, healthcare or jobs, but on this battle to delegitimize Trump. They have driven it from a national joke to a national scandal, as every contact by anyone associated with the Trump campaign has become a banner headline from anonymous and increasingly questionable sources. They turned Russia into kryptonite. . . .
I have seen this movie before, up close. And I for one am hoping the sequel turns out differently and that some of the actors in this play — especially the special counsel and the Democrats — will rise above their expected roles so we can go back to accepting the finality of elections and battling on the issues instead of relying on the politics of personal destruction. I battled it in 1998 when the Republicans went down this path and I look at what’s happening today, and I say that as a country, we can do better this time.
To Penn’s mind, an investigation such as this one — especially given its unbounded nature — will always be detrimental to the operation of a successful administration and federal government. “I think a lot of people see it as a sporting event: ‘Just get the president! What difference does it make?’” he explains. “They think it’s a wholly legitimate tool to use against a president and an administration you don’t like. My attitude on that is, if you don’t like him, vote him out. Introducing these elements into politics is a kind of tool. It had a bad impact in ’98, and a bad impact here.”
To Penn’s mind, an investigation such as this one — especially given its unbounded nature — will always be detrimental to the operation of a successful administration and federal government.
In particular, he believes that, because the accusations against the Trump campaign were so nebulous to begin with, the resulting investigation could even discourage public servants from becoming involved in campaigns and politics in the future.
“What’s unprecedented here is the fuzziness of the accusation of ‘Russian collusion,’ which led to the prosecutors examining everybody in the campaign, getting every email and piecing together virtually every meeting about everything, and then investigating everybody in the White House, in this search for that one contact with Russia that might prove it,” he says.
According to Penn, this process could very easily dissuade people from joining campaigns, presidential administrations, or other parts of the government, because it will lead them to believe that to do so could put them at risk of facing costly legal fees, FBI investigation, and possible prosecution. “We can’t run a campaign, democracy, or government under this kind of open-ended investigation,” he argues.
Even on top of these fundamental concerns, though, Penn says that the evidence that has emerged over the course of the investigation — from the muddy origins of the probe to the fact that the “Steele dossier” on Trump was paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC to the politically charged texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI counsel Lisa Page — confirms his worst suspicions.
“The fact that so many of the prosecutors here are not only contributing Democrats, but are even represented by the Clinton Foundation, is incredible,” Penn says. “To think that that’s a team that is supposed to make the investigation seem unbiased is incredible.”
“I think we should always look skeptically at investigations of campaigns and new governments to begin with,” he adds. “But when all this other material came out, there are enough real, incontrovertible facts that made me double down in my belief that this was taking the country down the wrong path.”
To those on the left who continue to view this investigation as a tool to defeat a president they abhor, Penn says, “What goes around comes around. What happened in ’98 was wrong. What’s happening here is wrong. We don’t want this to go into another, third cycle where it’s always about payback against campaigns that win.”
This time around, many Republicans evidently have found Penn’s arguments — the very same arguments that he and other Democrats made two decades ago, when the shoe was on the other foot — to be useful. That much of the Right now embraces Penn’s perspective in defense of Trump is a testament to how much the GOP has changed since that era, and that change must be personally gratifying. He says that some Republicans have even apologized to him for the staunchly anti-Clinton, pro-impeachment stance they took in 1998, now that they’ve seen the harms of such an investigation from the other side.