Why Mark Penn Is Sounding Trumpy

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Mark Penn recently moved into a brand new office on Washington, D.C.’s I Street, just a few blocks away from the White House, where he used to have an office during the Clinton administration.

It’s been a decade since Penn served as a top strategist for the Clintons, enjoying the inside-the-Beltway “genius” status conferred on architects of winning presidential campaigns. Since then, Penn has become an iconic Washington archetype: the heretic — a party insider who reliably criticizes his own team. That’s made him a villain to many of his fellow Democrats, who despise him for everything from Hillary Clinton’s flameout in 2008 to his relentless criticism of the party’s leftward lurch.

And yet the walls of Penn’s new conference room are still decorated with handwritten notes from Bill and Hillary, two poll-focused politicians who relied on his methods for 15 years and four elections between them. “Thanks for your help on this,” the president wrote to Penn on a copy of his remarks at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. “Mark — Thanks for helping me get off to a great start!” Hillary Clinton wrote on a signed copy of her Feb. 6, 2000, announcement of her Senate run.

A black-and-white photograph of Penn and Bill Clinton, huddled together behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, hangs in the main conference room. In the photo, Penn tells me, Clinton is asking his advice on whether he should settle a lawsuit with Paula Jones. Penn urged him to do so, he said, but Clinton worried it would look bad.

“Had he settled,” Penn muses, “he might have avoided the whole thing.”

“The whole thing” is what Penn, who now runs the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm, has become vocal about over the past year — a special counsel’s wide-ranging investigation into a president, one that ensnares family members and senior staffers around him, exacting an emotional toll on everyone involved and damaging the president’s ability to run a functional government.

Because he was against Ken Starr, Penn’s logic is that he has a unique perspective on why Robert Mueller is harming the country, too. And as a Democrat bashing the Mueller investigation and making arguments that are useful to President Donald Trump, Penn has found a prominent new perch in the Washington ecosystem. Our interview was the first time he’s explained his Trumpian turn, which has earned him fresh enmity on the left.

Penn has now become a regular face on Fox News — CNN and MSNBC won’t book him — and a contributor to The Hill’s right-leaning editorial pages. There, he has repeatedly bashed the Mueller investigation as 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” — followed up by more TV hits on Fox.

And despite the photos that decorate his office walls, he has willingly torched the Clintons, saying the Justice Department “broke their own rules” by ending an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, and noting that “Clinton Foundation operatives” urged the FBI to investigate Trump.

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