Vice President Pence and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway were present for the meeting. Penn was escorted by Andrew Stein, a longtime Trump friend from New York who recently wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to replace Pence on the 2020 election ticket.
Penn recommended that Trump “stay focused on the substance” of the allegations surrounding trading access and aid for political favors from Ukraine, according to Stein, “and not respond to everything.”
Trump has thus far eschewed that approach. The president has sent dozens of tweets attacking Democrats for what he characterizes as waging an unfair battle against him and is fixated on the impeachment process, according to current and former aides, while attacking his opponents as “DO NOTHING DEMOCRATS.”
“You’ve got to govern,” Penn told Trump of how Clinton handled the impeachment process, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. Penn had the task of measuring public support for Clinton during that impeachment process and crafted the administration’s response to allegations of Clinton’s extramarital affair with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The White House visit by the former Clinton loyalist suggests that Trump is seeking information from a wide variety of sources as he battles what might be the biggest political challenge of his presidency. Officials say Trump has called a variety of TV personalities, lawmakers and longtime New York and Palm Beach friends for advice on how to survive the investigation.
But Democrats are pushing ahead with their case that Trump misused his office by pressing Ukraine to open investigations into his political rival Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. The House Judiciary Committee announced Tuesday that it would hold its first hearing on the issue on Dec. 4. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) spearheaded the first phase of the hearings, when several administration officials and career diplomats testified publicly, and his panel plans next week to submit a report of its findings to the Judiciary Committee.
In a brief interview, Penn said repeatedly that he was not working for Trump. “It’s the second time I have ever met with the president. I’m not counseling him. I’m not advising him.” Penn said he discussed with Trump only publicly available data but declined to be specific on his advice. “I don’t get into presidential meetings.”
Trump seems outwardly confident in his reelection prospects, despite the growing impeachment turmoil. Polls have shown public support for impeachment holding steady — a CNN survey taken during the public hearings showed that 50 percent of adults favor impeaching the president and removing him from office, while 43 percent do not. The numbers are unchanged since last month.
At last week’s meeting, Trump displayed a campaign map for participants, showing how he won in 2016 — a favored activity of his when he has visitors in the Oval Office. He pointed to a handful of battleground states that he captured in 2016, expressing a bullish optimism about his chances in 2020.
Stein also said that he “buried the hatchet” with Pence during the extended meeting after calling on Trump to replace Pence with Haley this year to win over moderate suburban women. “I told Pence, the president wants him on the ticket and that’s that,” Stein said.
The president had previously told Pence he did not appreciate Stein’s op-ed suggesting Haley for the ticket and did not support his writing it, White House officials said.
Democrats were quick to criticize Penn, a former pollster and top aide to the campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Many Democrats have bitterly attacked the strategist for arguing that the party should move to the center and blamed Penn for the losing 2008 primary strategy that saw Hillary Clinton defeated by Barack Obama.
More recently, Penn has become a Fox News regular and sided with Trump allies when he demanded the end to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“All that bootlicking on Fox News finally paid off for Mark Penn,” David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser while he was president, tweeted of the news that Penn had visited Trump. “He’s finally a White House insider again!”
This is not the first time that one of the architects of Bill Clinton’s campaign and impeachment strategy has visited with Trump. The president met with Penn in February to discuss 2020 strategy and the Mueller investigation, aides said.
Penn has served as a Microsoft executive and a corporate consultant in recent years. In a 2017 op-ed in The Washington Post headlined “How To Fix the Democratic Party,” he argued that moderate candidates had the best chance of winning in the 2018 midterms.
Trump is not personally close to Penn, who worked for Stein as his pollster in the 1980s, but admires his political strategy and TV appearances often praising Trump, officials said.
Trump also asked Penn about his Harvard CAPS/Harris survey, according to Stein. The latest version of the survey, conducted in September, showed Trump’s approval rating at 46 percent. Penn previously co-founded a polling firm with Doug Schoen, who recently dropped his representation of a Ukrainian oligarch and signed on this week to work for Mike Bloomberg’s presidential bid in news first reported by the Daily Beast.