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. shawski2013

    Good to know he is so paranoid! Hahaha!

    April 9, 2013 10:44 am at 10:44 am |
  2. Lee

    Progressives are just taking a page from the James O'Keefe playbook. Not a big fan of leaks, GOP?

    April 9, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  3. rs

    "the Left will mstop at nothing..."

    Hmmmm. Which party is trying to suspend the popular election of U.S. Senators by overturning the 17th Amendment? Which party has taken the most insidious and dramatic steps to curb voting rights? Which party wants a poll tax on families whose college-aged students vote?

    The GOP is simply full of hypocrital fools and knaves.

    April 9, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  4. shawski2013

    Good to know he's so paranoid! Hahaha!

    April 9, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  5. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- TAKE BACK THE HOUSE

    He was ready to run a smear campaign. Republicans will stoop to any level to maintain/obtain power. Mitch has a bigger problem on his hands. He signed on to that letter not to hold a vote on any of the gun reforms proposals. That there alone will do him in next year. Bye Bye Mitch! Your days of obstruction are coming to an end.

    April 9, 2013 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  6. Lynda Watson

    So glad it Mother Jones, because they will stay on the story!

    April 9, 2013 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  7. n222s

    What is pathetic is those on the left (and on the right when the tables are turned) believe their people are so honest and wonderful that they would never stoop to dirty tricks to demonize their opponents. Since we're bringing up Nixon, lets go back to LBJ. Google texas senate race and box 13. They didn't call him Landslide Lyndon for nothing.

    Oh...and how about the whispers about McCain. That he collaborated. Or the whispers regarding Palin's Down's Syndrome child. Naw...nobody on the left EVER pulls out dirty tricks. Oh yeah, Romney beat on a gay kid who...who hasn't been proven to be gay nor is he around to speak for himself.

    Does the right pull this stuff? Of course. Don't be a complete idiot and believe the left's hands are clean either.

    April 9, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  8. Mark

    So ... the right formulates a plan to attack the opposition over mental health. Not exactly the moral high ground.
    The left violates campaign privacy laws in recording a private conversation and making it public. Not exactly the moral high ground.
    Business as usual in Washington ...

    April 9, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  9. Sniffit

    Wake up call Kentucky!

    April 9, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  10. winchester74

    Why is the truth always such an anathema to Republicans ??? If they want to diagnose anyone's mental health – McConnell should be first on the list.

    April 9, 2013 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  11. DB


    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.

    No, kid...we're "crying foul" that he's now pretending to be a victim because we found out about it. If you're going to sit there and tell us that making up lies about the mental health of your opponents is "just part of politics," then so are these kinds of recordings.

    April 9, 2013 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  12. Justin

    Throwing out the "left will stop at nothing" card was lame. It's not like they made it up for one and two, people on the right engage in the same tactics.

    April 9, 2013 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  13. rs

    The GOP has been reduced to the thinking level of your typical liberal arts college fraternity. They are through!

    April 9, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  14. DB


    So ... the right formulates a plan to attack the opposition over mental health. Not exactly the moral high ground.
    The left violates campaign privacy laws in recording a private conversation and making it public. Not exactly the moral high ground.

    You're assuming "the left" made the recording. I wouldn't assume that at all. I think it was one of his own campaign staffers that was disgusted by the tactics they were planning to use against her.

    April 9, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  15. Sniffit

    Gonna pour me a big bowl of Schadenfreude Flakes now...nom nom nom nom nom...they stay crunchy in conservative tears.

    April 9, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  16. g.r.r.

    It is very doubtful that it was a bug. Far more likely, it was a leak. And my guess is that McConnell wants the FBI to find the person, even though that is NOT their job.

    April 9, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  17. Pete

    This goes to show how maniacal the republican party is and what they'd do if put on the defensive knowing one of darlings was being challenged and might be defeated soon in midterms..It's been suggested that Ms Judd would be a good challenger for McConnell who if you don't know basicly bought his last election spending well over 10-1 margain to gain control of his seat once again and even then he just barely won didn't he folks!Just think want lurks in the republicans minds when midterms come up like rats stuck on a sinking ship wondering wether to sink with it or swim,the decision sits with these arrogent ,bigotted old men doesn't it,sleep well republicans you'll need all your strength at midterms we happily warned yah again haven't we!!

    April 9, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  18. Jimmy

    The Wizard gets angry when the curtain is pulled.

    What's interesting about all this is that these people have no clue how horrible they are really being. In their minds, everyone else is being just as evil as they are. They come up with some ploy that they need a underhanded, backroom deal for that requires them to whisper to each other in private and they are picturing everyone else doing the same.

    Republicans are like serial burglars that won't stop robbing people because they figure that everyone else is robbing them, and when the police come to arrest them they get angry that the things they've stolen fair and square are to be taken from them.

    April 9, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  19. tony

    The Acorn videos were faked, but Mitch voted to cut their funding anyway.

    Now this recording is honest and who is the bad guy suddenly????

    April 9, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  20. Bob

    This very illegal even when it's under the guises of the best interest of the nation. If this has been published it shows guilt. How could anyone condone these actions in anyway. Organizations, be them the government or private need to be held accountable for violating the rights of US citizens.

    April 9, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  21. ED FL

    It is about time that Mcconnell [the Kentucky horse Poop cleaner ] getslooked over on some of his Stupid policies and procedures. He needs a tour before the FBI in Washinton DC to really see what type of dealings he gets away with or tries to bypass legal procedure.He is in over his head in a real world and needsto be checked out thoroughly.

    April 9, 2013 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  22. Marie Anti

    LOL. Old Mitch is scared of a woman. If you can't beat them down with low wages, or deny their right to remove a fetus from their bodies might as well smear their reputations. Ho Hum Mitch.

    April 9, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  23. Donna

    The person that recorded Romney did so in violation of the law. Once it become known who did it, they should have been arrested and charged. But were they? No. It is clear that laws are a joke and only enforced on a whim. Get rid of them or enforce them consistently. This is turning into a Banana Republic.

    April 9, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  24. DirtyHeat

    DB – If the recordings were obtained illegally then McConnell has every right claim he is a victim. And who said anything about making up lies about her mental health? She has a history of depression and has been diagnosed as being bipolar. Those wouldnt be lies, but they would be legitimate concerns that the public should be made aware of if she is running for public office.

    April 9, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  25. James PDX

    While it is reasonable to question a candidate's mental health, it's more reasonable to question their moral health. And there is no question that McConnell completely lacks the latter of the 2.

    April 9, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
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