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. Toast Butter

    Who is attacking whom? You're the twits planning evil behind closed doors...........

    You're just mad because we know about it now..............

    April 9, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  2. BLKmanWHOvotes

    In a statement, McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said that "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.".............RIGHT but when M. Ole'McDonnell does it WHAT IS THAT?

    April 9, 2013 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  3. TKO

    Wait a minute! The LEFT is at fault for exposing the RIGHT's dirty tricks? The LEFT is being investigated for uncovering the RIGHT's attempt to smear Judd?

    How curious.

    April 9, 2013 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  4. BigTBone

    Turtleman is worthless. You knew they were running scared with just the thought of Judd entering the race.

    They had the entire team scour everything for any piece of dirt. Pretty despicable yet pretty predictable.

    April 9, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  5. Jim

    So it's OK to bug the Republicans and use that info to smear them but you can't say a negative word against Obama. The one way Dems at it again.

    April 9, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  6. nilla

    If we really want to go conspiracy theory on this, let's say it was the GOP who recorded and leaked it.

    Hey, you never know.

    April 9, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  7. Lynda/Minnesota

    Watergate, hun?

    No doubt CNN will get back to us after it has investigated how the "bug" was planted ... and by "whom".

    Oh, that's right. CNN no longer investigates ... it simply repeats ad nauseam Republican talking point "entertainment" articles which to date have no meaning whatsoever.

    April 9, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  8. Borderless

    The new Democratic Party. Don't you just love them? Where have all the liberals gone?

    April 9, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  9. Naive

    Anyone who doesn't think this goes on behind close doors of every high profile political campaign, both Democrat and Republican are in serious need of reality.

    April 9, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  10. Sean

    Right, the "left" will stop at nothing, but since the right can't run on their policies, they have to strategize on attacking Judd's mental health, and that is just fine and dandy, huh. Hypocrites.

    April 9, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  11. Michael

    Far left so bad. Far right in ACORN's offices and Planned Parenthood.

    Basically if you got caught no matter what side you are on- explain what you said. Don't be a baby and complain because you got caught. Have some dignity McConnell and put on your big girl panties.

    April 9, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  12. Indyswimmer66

    Attacking someone's mental health to win an election... sounds like the traditional GOP game plan.

    April 9, 2013 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  13. HenryB

    Talking about mental health! One must wonder whether they should be talking about McConnell's mental health instead.

    April 9, 2013 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  14. eleridge

    Typical liberals, trying to blame the victim for doing something wrong.

    April 9, 2013 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  15. Jerome

    I'm sure the Justice Dept. will get right on this after they finish up the Fast & Furious investigation.

    April 9, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  16. DB

    You can't make this stuff up!

    The strategy you were planning to use against Judd was beyond despicable, it was the lowest of the low. When she dropped out, you thought nobody would find out what you were planning to do to her. Now that we know, you're ashamed of it and you want the story to go away...so you're going on the offensive and claiming to be a victim of whoever it was that told us what you were planning to do.

    Hey, Mitch! Did the thought cross your mind that the recording was deliberately made by one of your own campaign staffers that found your tactics repulsive and wanted to blow the whistle on you?

    April 9, 2013 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  17. The Real Tom Paine

    Interesting that a man who launched a successful pre-emptive strike against a potential opponant is screaming about foul play for getting caught. I wonder what his thoughts were on the Porject Veritas leader who secretly taped ACORN and then tried to bug the office of Senator Mary Landrieu? Guess its ok when its your guys. Did it occur to him that one of his own staff may have had qualms about doing a Tom Eagleton?

    April 9, 2013 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  18. matt

    Lol yeah like anybody needed to bug the room to know McConnell and his pals are corrupt scum

    April 9, 2013 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  19. tadpole

    In my opinion there is a huge difference between organizing a break in and, what most likely happened in this case, someone from your own inner circle making a recording and feeding it to the press. They simply want the FBI to find their leak for them.

    April 9, 2013 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  20. DirtyHeat

    I love you libs all crying foul that he would exploit her mental health if she entered the race. Sorry but thats politics. You all act like nobody from either side has ever exploited the personal life of their opposing candidate during a campaign.

    April 9, 2013 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  21. fastrack

    I'm with nilla. Who's to say that the Reugs didn't 'plant' info with Mother Jones so they could point the finger and those nasty ol' liberals. Sounds very Eddie Haskell to me.

    April 9, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  22. Randy, San Francisco

    No surprises here. The newly rebranded Republican Party still uses "swift boating" dirty political win at any cost tactics. Compalints about secret recordings are just diversionary tactics to shift blame away from Sen McConnell's reelection staff.

    April 9, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  23. Tom

    It was probably leaked by one of his aides who still has a shred of decency

    April 9, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  24. matt

    Will they be discussing why McConnell got kicked out of the army, and his beard/wife?

    April 9, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  25. Strategic Bob

    the idea of McConnell questioning the mental health of anyone is beyond preposterous. the chinless wonder (as in "I wonder what stupid idea that traitor McConnell will come up with this week.") is not in any position to question anyone's mental health, patriotism, intelligence, or any of a raft of other positive personal attributes.

    April 9, 2013 10:43 am at 10:43 am |
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