Come on, man. As a former advisor to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mark Penn surely knows the answer to this question, although it’s certainly a question worth asking. In an interview with Hugh Hewitt earlier today, Penn discusses his op-ed in The Hill yesterday urging that Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe be “defeated” for the sake of the republic. Penn also tells Hugh that he’s disappointed more of the people who suffered through Ken Starr’s probe twenty years ago aren’t joining his crusade:
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.
Did Penn’s rallying cry get “the people of ’98” ready to fight Mueller? Er …
Lots of Clinton folks (past and present) feel this way… https://t.co/364R07QvPq
— Amie Parnes (@amieparnes) May 21, 2018
There’s no problem with Penn’s argument, if one assumes that human nature and political motives never come into play. The human-nature aspect is the easiest to explain; the “people from ’98” felt that they had been persecuted for political reasons and likely feel that 2018 is a kind of karmic justice. If anyone doubts the pull that revenge has on human hearts even in politics, just review the corrosion in the judicial nomination process from Robert Bork onwards involving both parties and two generations of Senate leadership. It’s practically a Bayeux Tapestry of political vengeance, and it continues to this day.
Political motives are tied closely to those impulses, but are less forgivable. Many of Clinton’s allies want Trump discredited in order to explain how they managed to blow the 2016 election, but most just want Trump’s agenda stopped by any means necessary. They don’t have a legitimate opportunity to do that until 2020, so they want to push either impeachment or a resignation to undo the election. That would, of course, leave Mike Pence in charge, but it would weaken his legitimacy too and make it tougher to enact his agenda.
It’s in this sense that Penn’s argument actually makes the most sense. The special counsel tool corrodes the normal electoral and governing processes, undermining their very legitimacy. It’s why Alan Dershowitz — also no paragon of conservatism — has argued repeatedly that Congress should have exercised its own authority to set up a bipartisan commission to delve into these matters. Had they turned up legitimate criminal activity by one or both campaigns, they could then exercise the constitutional power of impeachment and removal. The special counsel constitutes nothing more than a roving prosecutor looking for crimes to charge, a reversal of the role of prosecutors in general who only act after evidence of specific crimes has emerged.
That was true in 1998 too, until Bill Clinton made it easy by committing perjury and obstruction of justice. Trump might do the same thing if he agrees (or is forced) to testify. That doesn’t make special counsels a good idea or a success, as the Clinton outcomes proved.
Anyway, Penn’s kidding himself if he thinks that those who lived through Ken Starr will want to see Robert Mueller closed down. They’re cheering Mueller on, and are shocked to see Penn not joining them in the pyramid on the sidelines. Perhaps Penn’s truly shocked, shocked by this, but I suspect that it’s more of a Captain Louis Renault situation, only without the winnings.