Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist stepped down yesterday, days after it was revealed he had met the Colombian ambassador to discuss a controversial trade deal.
By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington
The Clinton campaign said Mark Penn, a long-time adviser and pollster for Mrs Clinton, had asked to step down from his senior role but would continue providing polling and other advice in her push for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The resignation underlines the sensitivity surrounding any suggestion that Mrs Clinton is not sincere in her objections to a free trade agreement with Bogotá.
The revelation on Friday that Mr Penn, who also serves as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, the Washington PR and lobbying firm, met the envoy made it seem he opposed Mrs Clinton’s vocal opposition to the deal.
Burson-Marsteller was hired last year by the Colombian government to advise it on passage of the agreement in Congress.
Mr Penn apologised for the meeting with Carolina Barco, the Colombian envoy to the US, saying it was “an error in judgment”.
The apology angered the Colombian government, which in turn fired Burson-Marsteller on Saturday, charging that Mr Penn had treated the country with disrespect.
The Clinton campaign has said the Democratic candidate did not discuss the trade deal with Mr Penn and would vote against it. A colleague of Mr Penn said he was not active on the account and had met the ambassador as a “courtesy” to the executive who was advising Colombia.
The incident reveals the difficulties that can face strategists serving conflicting political interests.
While Mr Penn has repeatedly denied that his role as a political adviser interfered with his work for corporate clients, the incident shows that, in the heat of a political campaign, Mr Penn was forced to side with Mrs Clinton ahead of the interests of another client, the Colombian government.
“The Colombian government considers this [the apology] a lack of respect to Colombians and finds the response unacceptable,” the embassy said on Saturday, after Mr Penn declared his meeting an error.
The affair comes at a difficult time for Mrs Clinton, who has campaigned against the Colombia deal ahead of the Pennsylvania primary this month and is promising prospective voters that she would renegotiate the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement if she were elected president.
The Clinton campaign has criticised Barack Obama, her rival for the Democratic nomination, for allegedly misrepresenting his views on trade.