Is Mueller team bludgeoning to get narrative it wants?

Either Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE has the case of the century, tons of incriminating emails, and is now close to unveiling the collusion with the Russians that has been so widely repeated, or the special counsel investigation has come up empty handed, and he is now trying to bludgeon peripheral figures into plea deals to give the appearance of collusion. It sure has created a lot of confusion. While we have to leave the door open to the first theory, recent actions sure look like last minute overreach to draw in fringe characters who did little more than make inquiries or tried to seem in the know about the purloined Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLanny Davis says Nixon had more respect for the Constitution than Trump Clinton commemorates Sandy Hook anniversary: 'No child should have to fear violence' Sanders, Warren meet ahead of potential 2020 bids MORE campaign emails.

To add to these mixed messages, a bombshell came out in the Guardian that former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortMueller probe has cost more than M so far Prosecutors investigating Trump inaugural fund, pro-Trump super PAC for possible illegal foreign donations: NY Times Swalwell says Butina guilty plea shows 'influx of Russians' into US ‘political bloodstream’ MORE allegedly met repeatedly in person with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Such activity would definitely have changed the whole complexion of the case. But with both Assange and Manafort issuing denials and a full denial from the attorneys for Manafort, it is more likely the Guardian was “had” with fake Ecuadorian embassy notes. There would be cameras filming everyone going into the embassy, where Assange took asylum in 2012, and holding three meetings in person would have generated lots of collateral emails and calls. You do not just show up at an embassy out of the blue and knock on the door. Once examined, the story is frankly preposterous.

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Mueller then raised collusion hopes with the accusation that Manafort has been lying, but now we learn that his “lies” have been about his business dealings and not about his interactions with President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE. With news of the cooperation deal leaking out, it looks more like retaliatory behavior on the part of the prosecutors, who have so far had a very warm reception from Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who never hesitated to throw Manafort in jail without bail. Her actions, I believe, will eventually be sanctioned, as Manafort was never a serious flight risk.

On top of all this comes the confusion surrounding political operative Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneRoger Stone challenges Dems to produce WikiLeaks evidence Google chief defends company during Capitol Hill grilling Alex Jones heckles Google CEO heading into House hearing MORE. To put his actions in perspective, we can place them in the timeline of WikiLeaks. In March 2016, WikiLeaks published a searchable archive of 30,000 Clinton emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Albeit it having been legally obtained, this is the first time WikiLeaks showed clear interest in the Clinton emails. In June 2016, Assange said in an ITV interview that more Clinton emails were coming, tipping his hand and putting out into the public domain that more emails were on the way, beyond what she had turned over to investigators.

Then in late June 2016, the Democratic National Committee announced that its computer servers had been hacked by two separate Russian intruders. The Democratic National Committee said that one group took unspecified materials, while the other group just took the opportunity to grab an opposition research file on Donald Trump. In July 2016, WikiLeaks released the Democratic National Committee emails showing how much the party favored Hillary Clinton over her opponent Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersBiden team discussed 2020 run with O'Rourke as VP: report Teen quits job at Walmart over intercom, tears into company over employee treatment O'Rourke doubles support in CNN poll of Dem presidential race MORE.

It is after all this activity, and after the Assange interviews, that beginning in late July 2016, Stone and political commentator Jerome Corsi had a flurry of exchanges about potential future releases of emails. The cat, so to speak, was already out of the bag, and WikiLeaks showed it had troves of emails. If Stone or Corsi had been active members of this operation, there would have been emails before the hacked emails came out.

Just to be clear, we are talking about the same Jerome Corsi who regularly is labeled a conspiracy theorist and who falsely spread the “birther” sham against President Obama. He is banned from much of social media for spreading speculative and often unsubstantiated material. How on earth is the special counsel going to paint him as a shrewd operative who was actually in the know and behind Russia collusion? It is beyond ridiculous that the special counsel is tarring and threatening Stone and Corsi.

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Has this unrestrained investigation not done enough damage to people, to the administration, and to the Constitution in two years? Stone and Corsi were simply following the story, trying to get information behind the scenes. Maybe they got a tip from somewhere, maybe they made the story up, maybe they were trying to seem in the know. As Hillary Clinton once said, “What difference does it make?” These two were not the masterminds of these hacks or of their release to the public, so trying to trip them up and indict them for lying about something perfectly legal will not change that basic fact. Even if someone told someone who told someone else about what might happen, that is no more of a crime than former British spy Christopher Steele talking to some Russian agents.

There is a troubling pattern here of the special counsel and his team using the prosecutorial process to demand the narrative it wants and then bludgeoning people with unrelated charges. The pattern has left a trail of ruined lives and questionable prosecutions. If President Trump did suggest leniency for Michael Flynn, a four star general who had already lost his position as White House national security adviser, he was probably right. The special counsel went after Flynn over an interview that never should have been held, except that at the time acting attorney general Sally YatesSally Caroline YatesIs Mueller team bludgeoning to get narrative it wants? The Hill's Morning Report — Where the Kavanaugh nomination stands Hillicon Valley: 50M affected by Facebook hack | Google CEO to testify on Capitol Hill | Tesla shares slump after SEC sues | House Intel votes to release Russia probe transcripts | Dem holds up passage of key intel bill MORE, who was part of the resistance, ludicrously invoked the Logan Act to have him interrogated. His actions of speaking to the Russian ambassador were perfectly legal. He and his family were threatened with unrelated charges to pressure Flynn to plead to lying to the FBI so that the special counsel could portray the comments by Trump as obstruction of justice. The plea is designed to set up the president in the final report and has little to do with the unregistered lobbying it actually had on Flynn.

Prosecutors did exactly the same thing with Michael Cohen. They found potentially illegal business dealings but instead had him plead guilty to campaign violations over the Stormy Daniels payments when those payments would, most likely, never be found as campaign expenses. Again, the purpose was to set up the president. Once again, Cohen is forced to plead guilty to a charge to reflect on Trump, as deals often have continuing discussions after they are effectively over. Discussions of travel that never happened are not exactly the makings of criminal charges.

The George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosPapadopoulos wants to run for Congress in 2020 Intel panel expects to refer more cases of suspected lying to Mueller The Hill's Morning Report — Takeaways from the battle royal in the Oval Office MORE case seems even thinner. The team often interviewed people without lawyers, asked them very detailed questions they knew the answers to, and then held perjury charges over their heads to try to get them to sing their tune. These are not the tactics of fact finders but of a determined group ready to use the outer bounds of prosecutorial power to give the appearance of a case they never proved. In exit polls taken during the midterm elections, 54 percent of voters said the investigation was politically motivated, a remarkable number for a supposedly independent special counsel. The public sees the team, the methods, and the lack of proof after two years as evidence of bias.

With the written questions answered by the president, this investigation should be over. Fired FBI director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyGOP rep says Trump should pardon Flynn Comey’s remarks about Trump dossier are not credible, says former FBI official Trump shock leaves Republicans anxious over 2019 MORE managed to clear Hillary Clinton within days of her interview. This last minute side show with Stone and Corsi, who were only interviewed recently, shows the desperation of a team that feels it cannot fail to get its scalps, even after two years of not finding any collusion. About this fact, there should be no confusion.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.