He’s never been a fan of impeachment, but he’s an expert on the process and the politics, having helped President Clinton navigate his way through a highly partisan impeachment in 1999. Now pollster Mark Penn is sharing his strategy—and his polling data—with President Trump, assuring him, in an account of their meeting first reported by The Washington Post, that the Republican-controlled Senate will not remove him from office.
That’s hardly news about the Senate, but coming from Penn in an Oval-Office sit-down with Trump last Monday, it’s the equivalent of Karl Rove huddling with Joe Biden to advise how to handle the touchy subject of Hunter Biden and his role with a Ukrainian energy company.
Penn was at the White House at the president’s invitation, which was conveyed through Andrew Stein, a former New York City Council president who chairs Democrats for Trump. What could go wrong?
“Unbelievable, what the (expletive) is he doing,” says former lobbyist and longtime Democratic strategist Paul Equale. “He’s gone through the looking glass down the rabbit hole and then he drank the Kool Aid. If there was any question that he wasn’t a self-important opportunist, it’s now been answered.”
“None of this is about politics,” Equale thundered on. “It’s about what our mothers and fathers taught us—and certainly anyone who claims to have a credential as a Democrat of any stripe who gives advice to this president—particularly relating to impeachment—has political myopia and self-induced blindness.”
Equale urged me to contact people with names bigger than his to get even more blistering quotes about Penn’s apostasy. “I wonder what Hillary would say,” he mused.
Penn was Clinton’s pollster and, for a time, chief strategist in her 2008 bid for the presidency. He had urged her to “slander” Obama for his “lack of American roots,” advice Clinton didn’t take, recalls Jonah Blank, a former Senate Foreign Relations committee aide. “He was promoting a racist ‘birther’ dog-whistle strategy long before Trump found it,” Blank told The Daily Beast.
Penn had written in a 2007 memo to Clinton that Obama’s diverse, multicultural boyhood in Indonesia and Hawaii “exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.”
Penn has long been considered a “malign” force by Democrats, as one put it to me in an email, part of the cast of characters like pollster Dick Morris who had sway over the Clintons in the 1990s. Together with Morris, Penn gained notoriety for “triangulation,” steering Bill Clinton away from House Democrats and closer to the Republicans who won control of Congress two years into his presidency.
The ploy angered Democrats, but it worked: Clinton got re-elected. But over time—accelerated by Hillary’s loss to the insurgent Obama in ’08—Penn’s centrist approach to politics lost its luster in a party moving to the progressive left. When Clinton ran again in 2016, she did not hire Penn, leaving him on the outside for yet another presidential cycle.
Democrats theorize that Penn was angry about that, but his exile from Hillaryland put a mark on him. He ended up accepting an offer from Fox News, appearing regularly to opine about how Democrats were going off the rails, and to suggest Hillary might be readying another White House run. After learning that Penn had met with Trump, Obama strategist David Axelrod tweeted, “All that bootlicking on Fox News finally paid off for Mark Penn. He’s finally a White House insider again.”
Shortly after meeting with Penn, Trump flew to Florida for a rally where he called the House impeachment inquiry “bullshit.” Thousands of his supporters gleefully chanted the word. He also said, “I’m working my ass off,” which could be read as a tip of the MAGA hat to Penn, who told Trump to do what Bill Clinton did and focus on governing. Penn quoted Clinton to make the point.
Whether Trump takes Penn’s advice is not the issue, says one Clinton insider who did not want to be quoted on the record. “Quite frankly, I was nauseated that he would consent to consult for Trump,” this source said. “Worse that he would actually go to the White House. This man who is not only a Clinton Democrat but who ran Hillary’s campaign. And hasn’t he actually said recently that Hillary might still jump in? Is he playing both sides or is he just coocoo?”
With so much vitriol from Democrats, I wondered if Penn still considered himself a Democrat, and how he might respond to his critics. This is what he said in an email to The Daily Beast: “When the president of either party wants to meet, I think you should meet with them. What is nonpartisanship or bipartisanship about if just meeting with the president, at his request, is such a lightning rod. I am not working for him or paid by him nor will I be and only discussed publicly available data I talk about on TV and elsewhere. I am a lifelong Democrat and the president’s policies on immigration, abortion, equality and many other issues are far removed from mine.
“After spending a year helping to defend Bill Clinton against perjury and obstruction,” Penn’s email continued, “I came to see the problems and divisions created by impeachments that can’t win two-thirds in the Senate anyway. They can be bad politics and can backfire. Investigate, give air and let the voters decide is my view.”
For Democrats, Penn’s meeting with Trump provides a sense of moral equivalence to two very different impeachments. Not every president is the victim of partisanship, and if any president is to be saved by bipartisanship or nonpartisanship, it shouldn’t be Trump. And Clinton’s pollster shouldn’t be helping.