Is Mueller team bludgeoning to get narrative it wants?

Either Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 ClintonHarris favored as Biden edges closer to VP pick Ron Johnson subpoenas documents from FBI director as part of Russia origins probe Juan Williams: Older voters won't forgive Trump for COVID MORE campaign emails.

To add to these mixed messages, a bombshell came out in the Guardian that former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortTrump says he would consider pardons for those implicated in Mueller investigation Graham releases newly declassified documents on Russia probe The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - Mask mandates, restrictions issued as COVID-19 spreads 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.


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 TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection 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 StoneMatt Gaetz, Roger Stone back far-right activist Laura Loomer in congressional bid Barr: The left 'believes in tearing down the system' New HBO documentary lets Gaetz, Massie, Buck offer their take on how to 'drain the swamp' 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 SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Campaign Report: LIVE: Trump from Gettysburg | The many unknowns of 2020 | Omar among those facing primary challenges Trump's personality is as much a problem as his performance Sierra Club endorses Biden for president  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.


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 YatesTrump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing 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 PapadopoulosTrump says he would consider pardons for those implicated in Mueller investigation New FBI document confirms the Trump campaign was investigated without justification Republicans plow ahead with Russia origins probe 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 ComeyTrump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing Trump knocks Sally Yates ahead of congressional testimony 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.