April 9th, 2013
10:08 AM ET
10 years ago

McConnell campaign calls in FBI over secret recordings

(CNN) - Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign is "working with the FBI" on how Mother Jones, a liberal magazine, obtained a recording of political aides meeting with McConnell and discussing opposition research on Ashley Judd, McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton told CNN Tuesday.

In the recordings, political operatives huddling at the senator's campaign headquarters in Kentucky, are heard discussing potentially attacking Judd's mental health, as well as her left-leaning politics, if she had decided to make a bid against McConnell, who's running for a sixth term in office next year.

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"Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Senator McConnell's campaign office without consent. By whom and how that was accomplished will presumably be the subject of a criminal investigation," Benton said in a statement.

"We've always said the Left will stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell, but Watergate-style tactics to bug campaign headquarters is above and beyond," Benton also said.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson confirmed the investigation.

“We can confirm that Sen. McConnell’s office reported it and we are looking into the matter," Bresson said.

Judd mulled a decision to jump into the race but announced late last month she would not pursue a Senate bid "at this time," deciding to focus on her family instead.

It's common for political campaigns to plot their offensives, and the secretly-recorded audio of the February meeting gives a glimpse of how McConnell's campaign might have pursued their attack strategy if Judd became a candidate.

"She's clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced," one staff member said in the tape. Mother Jones did not disclose exactly how it obtained the audio. "I mean it's been documented. Jesse can go in chapter and verse from her autobiography about, you know, she's suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the '90s."

Judd has been public about her struggles and tension within her family, which includes her country legend mom, Naomi Judd, and her sister, Wynonna. She has openly described herself as a three-time survivor of rape and wrote in her autobiography about her troubled past growing up around drugs, alcohol and divorce.

Her website talks about her 2006 decision to enter an "intensive in patient treatment program" at Shades of Hope, a rehabilitation center in Texas, for "unresolved childhood grief that manifest as depression and codependency."

Responding to the recent news, a spokesman for Judd described the meeting as "another example of the politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington DC."

"We expected nothing less from Mitch McConnell and his camp than to take a personal struggle such as depression, which many Americans cope with on a daily basis, and turn it into a laughing matter," the spokesman said in a statement.

At the McConnell meeting, staff members and advisers mocked some of Judd's previous writings and statements. While they touched on Judd's emotional history, the meeting mostly focused on her political views as their would-be ammunition. They highlighted her support and campaigning for President Barack Obama, as well as her support for same-sex marriage and cap-and-trade policies. In the meeting, they described her as "anti-coal," which would be a big liability for Judd in coal country.

Asked about the story on Capitol Hill Tuesday, McConnell repeatedly pointed to attacks on his wife's ethnicity in February by a liberal group, Progress Kentucky. The group apologized for the comments.

"As you know last month my wife's ethnicity was attacked by a left wing group in KY, then apparently they also bugged my HQ. I think that pretty well sums up the political left in Kentucky," McConnell said, though it was not clear if he was specifically blaming Progress Kentucky for the secret recordings. He also described it as a "Nixonian move."

McConnell declined to comment on the strategy session when pressed further by reporters.

David Corn, the author of the Mother Jones piece, wrote the tape was provided by a source who wished to remain anonymous.

"We were not involved in the making of the tape, but we published a story on the tape due to its obvious newsworthiness. It is our understanding that the tape was not the product of a Watergate-style bugging operation," he wrote in an update at the end of the story.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon denied any association with the recordings.

"I certainly do not know anything about how this may have happened. However, it's clear that this is the McConnell we all know - leading a negative, nasty campaign determined to lash out at his opponents since he doesn't have any accomplishments to point to," he said in a statement.

Benton, McConnell's campaign manager, insisted the recording was not leaked and noted the meeting was held "in a very private, closed, locked conference room."

The campaign office is located in a Louisville office building in a private suite on the second floor, according to Benton.

McConnell was meeting with a half-dozen, long-time McConnell aides.

"These are people who have been with McConnell for years," Benton said. ""This was like a family meeting."

The team did not find out about the existence of the tape until it was reported in the media.

According to the audio, McConnell largely stayed quiet during the meeting but opened up at the beginning, saying it's best to get a head start on the opposition research.

"I assume most of you have played the, the game Whac-A-Mole?" (Laughter.) This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out," he said, adding they planned to take a similar approach with the local newspaper The Courier.

Evidence of the preemptive approach was a web video McConnell's campaign released in February, attacking Democrats for not yet fielding a candidate to challenge the Senate minority leader. The parody attempts to depict President Barack Obama as being frustrated with the potential crop of Democratic contenders in Kentucky, including Judd.

Judd also saw attacks from American Crossroads, the conservative super PAC co-founded by Karl Rove. The group spent $10,000 on a web ad earlier this week, lambasting Judd for her declared allegiance to Obama, and her love of Tennessee, the state neighboring Kentucky where she's lived for years.

"This is just a fun way to kind of get under her skin a little bit and kind of show her what a campaign would really be like if she makes this decision," Jonathan Collegio, the communications director for American Crossroads, told CNN at the time.

- CNN's Carol Cratty contributed to this report.

Filed under: Ashley Judd • Mitch McConnell
soundoff (336 Responses)
  1. Sniffit

    Wait a second...did they say in that tape that they used legislative aidea to help with the research? Isn't that violative of a whole bunch of rules about using staff supplied by the federal gov't payrolls to perform political work?

    April 9, 2013 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  2. Ol' Yeller

    McConnell... a republican... playing the victim. Oh Wow, how novel. A genius move! No republican ever in the history of the world has ever played the victim (tongue planted firmly in cheek).
    It is their bread and butter move. Each and every republican running for or holding a National office either plays the victim card right off the bottom, or they might save it for the first sign of their being in trouble, but they WILL play it. They always have and always will. As long as they have a base who is made up of wannabe victims, it will work.

    April 9, 2013 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  3. Malory Archer


    Shouldn't we be worried about the really huge issues facing America ...like JayZ and Beyonce visiting Cuba?


    LOL – I know, right? Ironically, the very same people who are whining about two private citizens using their own money to visit Cuba are the very same people who are celebrating the guy who lost custody of his kids after behaving erratically at an antigovernment rally in Lousiana (other attendees were alarmed enough by his behavior to contact government authorities), hogtied his mother in law and put his two toddlers on a tiny sailboat in rough seas and SAILED THEM TO CUBA!!!! Even more ironic is the guy is a libertarian – and he absconded to a COMMUNIST country!

    April 9, 2013 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  4. Big Kev

    Do they drug test politicians and there staff, hell on my job am drug tested and am in charge of me. Politicians run the U.S(WORLD) then we wonder why are things so mess up drug test is needed because something not right. Americans we got to put a stop to this foolishness.

    April 9, 2013 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  5. tom in connecticut

    """"""""FBI spokesman Paul Bresson confirmed the investigation.

    “We can confirm that Sen. McConnell’s office reported it and we are looking into the matter," Bresson said. """""""""""

    sounds fishy to me. "we are looking into the matter" does not sound like an investigation. whomever first floated the idea that this was an inside job, possibly the senator himself might be a winner.

    April 9, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  6. John

    Karl Rove tried this one before. He took a bug to the FBI and claimed he "found" it in his office. The FBI determined that the bug had first been turned on in the parking lot, just before Karl came inside. It took some friends in special places to keep him out of jail for this one.

    April 9, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  7. RKN

    If this was in a "very private, closed, locked conference room" how could someone record this? Makes me think that Republicans should not be trusted with national security. oh, wait, Bush already proved this.
    Don't the conservative businessmen always make decisions based on whether someone or something adds value? If an employee does Not add value to the corporation then you fire them.
    McConnell has not shown that he adds any value to government. He needs to be fired.

    April 9, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  8. sativa619

    Some idiot probably butt-dialed.

    April 9, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  9. brian

    Maybe the FBI should probe the FBI. Nixon used to use the FBI in his dirty tricks tactics.

    April 9, 2013 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  10. Dave

    Yet again a Republican caught saying what they actually think. It's a shame they don't change what they SAY instead of whining like they do over being found out.

    April 9, 2013 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  11. Thatguy371

    When is KY gonna wake up outta the middle ages and vote this chump out of office. WHEN?!?!?!?

    April 9, 2013 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  12. FrmrMrine

    Watergate style? Remember, it was the Republicans who did the wiretapping at Watergate as part of a campaign very similar to the smear campaign that McConnell and his cronies were discussing conducting against Judd. Takes a lot of Brass for a Republican caught talking about a Watergate style mud slinging personal attack campaign to accuse the other side of the same thing.

    April 9, 2013 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  13. just me

    Mitch is a joke, and a hypocrit. People of Kentucky, PLEASE ask your self honestly... what has this man doen for you? I don't care if you are liberal, conservative, or what ever. Demand a better politician for your state and the contry. Mitch is not alone, their are other senators (some democrates, and some republicains) that excell in one thing... DOING NOTHING. democrates, untie and put worth a candidate We can all get behind, Republicains do the same. Give us real choices that are dynamic and difficult not the manufactured stuff about wow electing (x)will be the end of the world.

    Get involved in your primaries, YES the primaries, because if the only ones to voting are the party local, the paid attendees, and business leaders... you don't get the best for the people, you get the best for the special interest. This goes for both parties. Moderate candidates are needed to bridge the divide. The FAR left and the FAR right are equally nuts, but most of us regular people have a mixture of view points. Some are conservative, some are liberal. Some we feel strongly about, Some we don't

    The point is it is better to participate so that the coomon people's voice is heard, Business owners get ONE vote each just like you! not because they own a business, its because they are a citizen, just like you. The business may be able to spend unlimited money as free speak, but You and I know that they are not PEOPLE, and dispite the Supreme courts recofnition as people, they are not alive, they can not starve, get sick, or expreience joy... AND THEY CAN'T VOTE!!!

    So don't let the special interest win on either side, you have the power, YOU CAN VOTE.

    April 9, 2013 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  14. poopscoop

    Government passes bills to wiretap, bug, monitor, and stripsearch citizens: It's A-OK!

    Citizen wiretaps corrupt politician: FBI GO GET EM!

    April 9, 2013 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  15. harposd

    had to go a long way into the CNN website to find this article. Typical liberal rag.

    April 9, 2013 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  16. babooph

    These lowlifes eat their own...

    April 9, 2013 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  17. Eric

    Politics in America is exactly what we thought it is. A WAR ON WORDS. You idiawwts on this website are so shocked, but your liberal assenine party does much worse. The liberal zombie party in this country is a complete joke. You have no room to judge, especially when you are the inventors of mud slinging propaganda.. Hypocrites..

    April 9, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  18. Gurgyl

    Can USA get rid off this old, no good junk.

    April 9, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  19. Rich

    "We've always said the Left will stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell, but Watergate-style tactics to bug campaign headquarters is above and beyond," - I like how they invoked a Republican tactic to describe how they think the Left will go.

    April 9, 2013 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  20. John

    Senator McConnell should know the first rule of Whac-A-Mole is, you Do Not talk about Whac-A-Mole!

    April 9, 2013 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  21. Bobbie

    Typical democratic strategy. When you're wrong, change the subject! The ONLY issue is the ILLEGALITY of the tape!! What was said has no bearing on anything! Whoever put the recorder there, violated the law! End of story!

    April 9, 2013 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  22. VEW2012

    Sounds like ole' Mitch is claiming he was bugged....maybe to show that he thinks he has ammunition on Ashley to make sure she doesn't run. When are the people in Kentucky going to get smart enough to vote this old goat out of office?

    April 9, 2013 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  23. kitty

    Someone from his OWN camp probably recorded the message themself.

    April 9, 2013 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  24. James

    There should be no closed doors in politics. We have a right to know each and every conversation any elected official engages in. Whomever did this should not be treated as a criminal but applauded.

    April 9, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  25. bmullan

    Give me a break...
    "We've always said the Left will stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell, but Watergate-style tactics to bug campaign headquarters is above and beyond," Benton also said.

    What about the conversation they were having when it was recorded? What about the Republican operatives that just a year ago or so were posing as reporters and secretly taping people in their offices? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

    They didn't even appologize for the unscrupulous strategy they were plotting against Ashley Judd... like... that's OK????

    April 9, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
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