Mark Penn, former senior adviser to both President Clinton and Secretary of State Cklinton (during her 2008 presidential campaign) joined me Tuesday morning to discuss his column in The Hill:
HH: I am joined by Mark Penn. He is managing director of Stagwell Group. That’s a private equity firm specializing in marketing service companies. He’s also the chairman of the Harris Poll, author of Microtrends Squared, a relatively recent new book, served as pollster/senior adviser to President Clinton for six years of his administration, also as senior strategist to Secretary of State Clinton during her 2008 presidential run. And I read to you his column from The Hill this weekend and on Monday. Mr. Penn, welcome to the program, it is great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
MP: Thank you. Good morning.
HH: How has the reaction been to your column which I read in the last segment so the audience knows exactly what you wrote?
MP: Well, unbelievable in many ways. I mean, I thought I’d kind of get out my views. You never know who’s going to read it, and I think by this time, maybe millions of people have read this column. And I think it really struck a nerve, or a chord, on what people were thinking about how this investigation has gone off the rails.
HH: Have you spoken to President Clinton since it appeared?
MP: No. I mean, you know, people I noticed try to make something of the Clintons relative to that. The only thing I said was look, I think this inspector general report is going to come back and say that the investigation on the emails was a light investigation. I don’t think that’s the Clintons’ fault. I think that’s the fault of the James Comey and what was going on at the FBI.
HH: It does at one point suggest that the meeting on the tarmac between the former president and the then-current attorney general was not about mahjong. That’s why I thought that the former…
MP: Yeah, well, well, because look, you know, I’ve had, you know, hundreds of meetings, and it’s very, very unusual to have a no aides meeting. It is almost unprecedented, and usually aides are there, and frankly, aides, in this case, would have been a protection policy against anyone thinking that it was an inappropriate meeting. So look, again, and I’m merely saying that I suspect this IG report is going to raise a lot of questions about that, because it is pretty unusual. But look, I think the world of President Clinton, and I worked for Hillary Clinton many years. I think that the facts here are the facts about this, and I think that again, my focus was on why was the Attorney General holding a meeting like that. She should have known better. And why was the FBI director conducting an investigation in a manner that was really unprecedented?
HH: You raise good questions. When the former Secretary of State was my guest on this show for a very long and productive conversation about her memoir, What Happened, I told her bluntly that you know, the problem was the server, and she gave me her answer, which no, she didn’t think it was, but that investigation into the server is going to be the core of the IG report, as you rightly point out, and it’s going to be devastating, at least if the early indications are correct. Did you ever know she had that server, by the way, Mark Penn?
MP: It’s a good question. I would not have known she had a server. I wasn’t working with her during those years. And I would not have known that, because I was communicating with her as a private citizen, so I would expect to use private citizen email. So no, I didn’t know that she had that server until it came out in the paper, though I certainly know she had private, she had private email. But then, I was communicating with her as a private citizen, which I would expect someone to have.
HH: Now when I had Mike Morell on, former deputy CIA director, acting CIA director, I asked him point blank was her server compromised, and he answered in a roundabout way saying you know, everything’s compromised if it’s not NSA-protected. And I said so that’s a yes, he said yeah, that’s a yes. Do you think all your emails to Secretary of Clinton are out there owned by some foreign government waiting to come out someday?
MP: Well, I don’t know, they didn’t come out. So I think when she decided which emails were personal emails, you know, I think they were destroyed and across all these devices. I mean, look, I think the server thing was, again, from her perspective, I think was trying to keep control of her emails. I don’t think that anyone there intended to violate national security. But I think then the questions that surrounded that and a questions about, you know, emails became a huge weight on the election. But most important, it’s like we need to have, you know, justice in this country that’s equal. So whatever kind of investigation was run there is the same kind of investigation you should see run on anything else. You just shouldn’t see a difference. My fault is not with the Clintons and decisions they made to have an email server. It’s with the Justice Department for running a process that seemed to be tinged with politics, and, but frankly, undermines the country.
HH: Now today, the Washington Post has named Mr. Halper. I have avoided doing that until today when the Post puts it on its front page, and we’re talking about Stefan Halper, long time intelligence community operator. What do you make of his reaching out and touching, communicating with three, and that’s all we know about, but at least three, and now apparently four if you add in Peter Navarro during the transition, we don’t know yet, during the campaign, Trump campaign officials. What do you make of that, Mark Penn?
MP: Well, I think that looks like a sting operation to me. That you know, for those of us who remember the old DeLorean video with the cash or what not? I think that that was an old-fashioned sting operation that didn’t work, and you would have thought first of all, it should never have been done since there in theory was no investigation, no reason to be conducting those kinds of operations against a political campaign. And second, when it bore no fruit. One wonders why it didn’t end things. In many ways, one of the things I point out in the piece, it seems that the less investigators found, the more they decided to investigate.
HH: Do you think we will discover, Mark Penn, that other agencies beside the FBI are involved in this?
MP: Yes. I think clearly when you look at who’s become talking heads here, that the CIA and Director of National Intelligence seemed to have been, you know, all three departments seem to have been involved in this. And the heads of them are just unabashed in going out and becoming not a professional related to security, but a talking head, in many ways, defending what they did.
HH: Do you think that then, from what you’ve seen that’s just public, that Mr. Brennan, Mr. Clapper, were involved with Mr. Comey in organizing this?
MP: I think that each of these agencies clearly got involved in whatever combination of surveillance and investigation was going on. And remember, some of this is international in nature. And you know, the idea that the CIA and the FBI were all coordinating, and it does appear, I think, publicly that there were joint meetings about all this. The fact that there was such coordination, again, raises questions about what kind of CIA we have in the country. I mean, these are big questions that we need to get to the bottom of. And you know, what I thought in the piece was look, you know, you really have to understand there’s several things going on here. One, there are all these unanswered questions about what did happen, and how it happened, and why it happened. And second, and I think most importantly, we have a runaway endless investigation on people who are in a campaign and in an administration who just are trying to do their job.
HH: You know, Mark Penn, yesterday when the discussion about your piece was crescendoing, and it will continue, I had an exchange with Jonah Goldberg. Jonah thought well maybe he’s becoming the new Pat Caddell, and I said no, maybe he’s just a veteran of the criminalization of politics, and looking back on the Starr years, and saying this has got to stop. What is it?
MP: Yes, I think you hit it. You hit it exactly. I went through an entire year fighting against Ken Starr, fighting against a process that took the country down a rabbit hole that didn’t go anywhere. And now, you know, history repeats itself. And then to see this all happening again where we thought we had ended this statute that created officers of unlimited power to have kind of loopholes created so that there’s a government within a government that isn’t really accountable because of the recusal of the Attorney General, and then to see the investigation spiral out of control from one area to the next when nothing is found. And then to see, look, I saw the president firsthand, you know, under the stress and strain not only of running the country, but have to worry about this investigation and then huge legal fees that everybody has to run up just to do their job? Yes, I’m a veteran of that. And I’m really shocked that more people from ’98 who thought it was wrong then don’t come out. And look, no one was, felt more persecuted by an independent counsel than the Clintons. Don’t come out and say that this is just wrong today when nothing was found after two years of investigation here and national diversion.
HH: You know, Mark Penn, part of the problem, in my view, is that fanatics, and I mean fanatics of left and right, refuse to allow their reasonable counterparts in their party structures to make peace and pursue political differences through politics. They want to criminalize, for example, do you know David Brock?
MP: I don’t know him personally. I know of him.
HH: Media Matters For America…
HH: What do you think of him?
MP: Well, look, I think what I find in general in politics is that people confuse, you know, the politics for being like let’s find something wrong here and just pummel people. That’s not politics. Politics that I grew up with was idea-based. Should we have a balanced budget? Should we have welfare reform? Should we cut or raise taxes? Should we do something about our military? People don’t want to seem to talk about the issues. They want to take oppo research and turn, you know, over 90% of the political ads these days are negative. And unfortunately, they turn out, and I did many negative ads myself. But they weren’t exclusively what I did. It wasn’t the name of the politics today. And I think it is a big problem that people don’t want to talk about issues. They just want to pummel people.
HH: Well, let me stay focused on Brock for just a second, because he’s known to the right wing as the man who called Anita Hill a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty, and then he flips and begins you know, the permanent campaign of criminalization of everything and distortion of everything. Don’t the parties have to drive out people like Brock if they’re ever going to get back to conversations that are truth-based, policy-based?
MP: Well, look, I don’t want to get into someone whom I don’t actually know. I will take the general point, and the general point is we have to end what in fact President Clinton used to call the politics of personal destruction, to get back to the politics of ideas and issues. And that means that the parties are going to have to say you know, a little more about what they stand for instead of what they stand against. And I don’t, you know, I wish I could be more hopeful on this, because so far, I just don’t see a lot of that happening.
HH: Let me go back to your column in The Hill, Mark Penn. You said the process must now be stopped. Finding the off switch will not be easy. And you suggest the President himself might offer two hours of testimony, perhaps even televised live from the White House. Were you there when President Clinton agreed to the terms of the interview he gave to Ken Starr rather than litigate whether or not a grand jury could subpoena him?
MP: I was involved in the decision making. And ultimately, you know, the President looked at the options of, you know, testifying, not testifying, taking the 5th, whatever, and made the decision. And at the time, as I recall, the country did not want to see their president take the 5th or not testify. And so ultimately, you know, the American public both thinks these investigations are bad for the country, and on the other hand, when you ask them do they want investigations, on the other hand, they also seem to egg them on, and they like their leaders to testify. So I suggest, look, there are a number of ways that this thing could be stopped. I don’t think having the president testify for two days makes sense, but sometimes, he just might have to testify for two hours, I think, as President Clinton did. And why not just televise is live? They’re going to release the tape anyway.
HH: You know, Mark Penn, my suggestion has been for the President to direct the deputy attorney general to direct the Special Counsel not to issue a subpoena, which is within his Article II authority. There will be criticism of that. There might even be a lawsuit of that. But then you’ve got a defensible line far removed from invoking a 5th Amendment right, because this president is not disciplined at all when it comes to narrative. And I do not believe it is within the authority of an inferior officer. This is not an independent counsel like Ken Starr. It’s an employee of the Department of Justice which didn’t exist at the time the Constitution was framed, clearly subject to presidential order. What do you think would be the reaction of the President directing the deputy attorney general not to fire Mueller, let Mueller finish, but to direct him he will not subpoena the president?
MP: Yeah, look, I don’t think that would sit well. I think what you really find in these things is when an outside third party says something, which is why I think, say, this inspector general report is going to be critically important. You know, if it slams Comey, I think it will knock out all the obstruction of justice because their prime witness will really be completely discredited. And if it doesn’t do that, I’d be surprised, but we’ll see in a few days. I think rather than that, I think that the President’s lawyers, I think, have rightly taken a more aggressive posture. I think that the previous lawyers were naïve that just by cooperating that it would end. I think they have to understand that there’s some cost to the special counsel of moving forward in an unbridled way. I think they should question whether or not some of the evidence was properly collected and question it before some of the judges. You know, they didn’t have a subpoena for the GSA emails and confiscated every single email. You know, there are conflicts here that go against Justice Department rules as to whether Rosenstein is a fact witness, or Mueller, who you know, who is in fact a good friend of Comey’s, are eligible to serve in these roles, and they should have gone to the Office of Professional Responsibility. I think getting third parties to validate problems is a much better way than something you suggest, which I think would in fact, you know, probably backfire, I’m sorry to say.
HH: Oh, that’s, I wanted your opinion. In fact, quick conclusion. I’ve always found, I know people who know both Mueller and Rosenstein. They say they’re both straight arrows. Is it possible for straight arrows to lose sight of what’s going on?
MP: Yes, you know, as I look at this, there seems to have been almost a hysteria created by Steele and others and then a vast echo chamber that there’s something here. And so I think that people can get into a bubble in their own world and environment in which I think they’ve become disconnected from the fact that they didn’t have real substantial credible evidence, because here, you know, they had the stuff, and then it appears in Yahoo…
MP: And then it appears everywhere else.
HH: Yeah, echo chamber, yeah.
MP: And so there must be some truth here. You know, and I think that took good people and took them in the wrong direction.
HH: Mark Penn, I appreciate so much your time and the op-ed, Stopping Robert Mueller to Preserve Us All. Thank you, Mark Penn.
MP: Thank you.
End of interview.