WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Clinton's chief presidential campaign strategist stepped down Sunday in the aftermath of last week's revelation that he met with Colombia's U.S. ambassador about a pending trade deal that Clinton opposes.
Clinton's campaign announced in a two-paragraph statement that Mark Penn had decided to relinquish his post following "the events of the last few days," leaving campaign communications director Howard Wolfson and pollster Geoff Garin to fill the job. Penn's polling firm will continue to advise the campaign.
"Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign," campaign manager Maggie Williams said in the statement. "Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates Inc., will continue to provide polling advice to the campaign."
Penn's exit ends his unsuccessful attempt to wear two large hats as the top strategist for Clinton and as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, one of the nation's leading lobbying and public relations firms, which included Colombia among its clients.
The Colombian government fired Burson-Marsteller on Saturday.
It had hired the firm to help win approval of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement that President Bush advocates, but which Clinton considers detrimental to American workers. On the campaign trail, Clinton has been critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which President Bill Clinton pushed through Congress.
When details of the Penn-Colombia meeting became public, some labor unions angrily called on Clinton to fire Penn, sparking comparisons to the flap that Illinois Sen. Barak Obama's rival campaign endured after one of its senior economic advisers met with Canadian officials and allegedly told them that Obama's anti-NAFTA remarks were merely campaign rhetoric.
Clinton was said to be angry when she learned of Penn's Washington meeting last week with Ambassador Carolina Barco Isakson. Penn called the meeting "an error in judgment that will not be repeated, and I am sorry for it."
The Colombia meeting appears to have been the last straw for Penn, who's worked with Bill and Hillary Clinton for years, but has been faulted for a strategy that failed to secure the nomination early and left the campaign unprepared for a long struggle with Obama.
He was among the key Clinton campaign officials who were squabbling and privately pointing fingers at each other as Obama was racking up primary victories and unpledged convention delegates while Clinton struggled to keep pace at the ballot box and the bank.
Penn at times appeared to try to disassociate himself from the campaign. He told the Los Angeles Times in February that he had "no direct authority in the campaign."
"I have no involvement or say in four key areas — the financial budget and resource allocation, political or organizational sides," he told the paper in an e-mail.
Wolfson, who now assumes part of Penn's duties, said that Penn was responsible for the campaign's message and strategy.