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. Patti in Dallas

    It doesn't sound like Watergate-like shenanigans by "the left" to me at all. It sounds to me like one of McConnell's own campaign operatives recorded the conversations and then willingly gave it to Mother Jones to expose. Perhaps a McConnell campaign operative who was disgusted by the smear tactics being planned.

    It's a huge assumption to "blame" "the left" for the existence of any recording of unsavory morally-bankrupt campaign tactic and its conveyance to an investigative media outlet. My very first thought was that it came from someone who could not stomach the plan inside the McConnell campaign, period.

    April 9, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  2. Chris L.

    While I don't agree with the tactic AT ALL, it's a matter of free speech. This type of conversation happens in every single campaign office in the country, so for all of the "holier than thou" people who are shocked (SHOCKED!) to hear something like this needs to take the rosy sunglasses off. As horrific as it may be, people have the right to free (read: unrecorded) discourse and conversation. This right does not end when you are voted (yes, he was voted in several times) into office.

    April 9, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  3. Boo

    And yet Kentuckians will still vote for this guy....WE NEED TERM LIMITS! I am sick to death of these career politicians.

    April 9, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  4. talldarkfree

    Interesting how McConnell is committed to obstructing the POTUS and 90% of Americans when it comes to background checks of the mentally ill as it relates to guns and gun purchases, but he's all FOR a background check on a potential candidate running against him. Last I checked, mental health issues are NOT a prerequisite to being elected to office. If this WAS the case, I'd think half of the Congress wouldn't qualify!

    April 9, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  5. Guest

    Another well rounded liberal candidate in Judd. The entire party is a joke.

    April 9, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  6. watchfuliiiii

    Ever hear the expression you can't cheat an honest man. You would only worry if there was something to hide. I think this guy serves the Republican party not America. Reminds me of a lawyer for the ciggarette companies.

    April 9, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  7. Sum Yung Gai

    It will be awesome when the FBI concludes that it was someone within McConnell's campaign who recorded and leaked the conversation.

    April 9, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  8. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Demands to investigate those that discovered the malfeasance?
    Time for me to go back to Excel.

    April 9, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  9. soooooo

    watergats style tactics huh, betcha dude is gonna be peeved if/when he finds out that it was a staffer that leaked it

    April 9, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  10. sammy750

    McConnell is a traitor to the American People, He should be defeat before he defeats the USA. This guy stands for nothing of evil for the USA and the people. Those who run against extremist McConnell will have a tough fight. He surrounds himself with evil and big money.

    April 9, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  11. John Bergstrom

    Let's see, Watergate, if I remember, began with Republican burglars breaking into a psychiatrist's office to steal material to use in attacking a Democrat, and here, Republicans were discussing using mental health issues to attack a Democrat, so yes, there is some "Watergate" resonance, but not the kind the spokesperson intended. As far as the possible issue of somebody bugging Republican campaign offices, that might warrant a tsk tsk, but I can't see it as a big deal. The right to privacy in a therapist's office seems pretty important, the right to privacy of a political operative discussing campaign strategies, not so much.

    April 9, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  12. Mike Texoma

    A resounding defeat for McConnell in 2014 would pop open more than a few eyes, and be the best thing that could happen to the Republican party

    April 9, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  13. PJ

    And McConnell is following this up with Act II – he is joining in the gun control filibuster plans. He is "meaner than a
    junk-yard dawg."

    April 9, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  14. tonyl

    This is old trick by the GOP right wing and Slick McConnell. Blame the messenger instead of the message.

    April 9, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  15. sammy750

    Of course the conservatives and Republicans are the biggest attack dogs. But they think they are right to suppress the people. Voters in Kentucky, needs to understand that McConnell is a traitor and will do anything to win and take control of the state and also the Senator. McConnell one of a few Republican traitor of the USA

    April 9, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  16. Duane Allen

    Here we go... McConnell taking a play right out of Karl Marx's playbook: distract attention from the fact you're exposed for being engaged in a secret smear campaign of your opponent by creating a secondary matter which makes you the victim and moves the spotlight away from the real offense. This is the REAL Republican party... again in full view and caught once again... plotting sleazy attempts to discredit your opponent. They can't win on the merit of their ideas and service record so will stoop to the lowest forms of deviance without a thought to serving a higher moral imperative. Fact is, McConnell is demonstrating just how patently sleazy he is despite his pseudo-christian, pseudo-moralistic posturing.

    April 9, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  17. Michigan_Joe

    If you have nothing to fear or cover up, then why probe others about what you said? Seems that maybe more information is due to be exposed. If you have nothing to conceal, why all the paranoia?

    April 9, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  18. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    I would like to know the mental state of teapublicans. A month ago 138 teapublicans voted against the Violence Against Womens Act, only to put out misleading ads and statements on their web page shortly thereafter claiming that they voted for the bill and then saying to their constituents for example, "this is why we voted for this legislation." You can google this on the Huffington Post. Then you can judge their character, integrity and mental state.

    April 9, 2013 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  19. sammy750

    I wish the Liberals would provide the voters with the real McConnell. The traitor of KY and the USA. McConnell cares less about this nation. But he cares about his big pension, health care and what he can steal from this nation. McConnell is all about POWER, suppressing the people of KY.

    April 9, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  20. rl

    Exactly, my bet is on one of McConnell's own making the recording and then either to expose his corrupt boss and his minions or to try to point an accusing finger at Mother Jones for illegal activities. It could be either one. This is the same old gop trick.

    April 9, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  21. n222s

    I'm done with you CNN. I will never visit your site again. I make an innocuous post about politicians on the left and the right being corrupt because we don't make them pay for it at the ballot box. And my comment is taken down. Unfrickin believable.

    Yeah, I know, you'll live without me. However, that attitude towards your audience seems to have paid off so well, particularly on TV. Or is that too much "to the point".

    The sad thing is you don't see your posts/headlines/stories as being corrupt.

    Why did I go to your site in the first place? Because I want to get perspectives from all sides, left, right and in the middle. And it doesn't matter what side you take on an issue. Just stop presenting yourselves as arbiters of what is good and just and accurate when it comes to the news.

    Case in point; the headline about whether Margaret Thatcher was good or bad based upon tweets. I don't recall such a headline when Robert Byrd died. The man recruited for the Klan. FACT. Used the "n" word on national TV in the 90's. FACT. Don't you think those FACTS would have led to a good versus evil headline? Naw. Not the corrupt CNN. To you keepers of the faith he was the "conscience of the Senate". An actual description of him by a Dem senator. Who, in good conscience EVER recruited for the Klan?

    Good luck with driving away your customers. I'll go back to MSNBC and Fox News. Honestly, they only pretend to be unbiased. They aren't so deluded as to actually believe it. As is CNN.

    April 9, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  22. Dyan S

    Seriously politics in America has to be one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen.

    April 9, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  23. KY Republican

    I think both parties are repulsive & disgusting... The whole thing needs to be overhauled, and not by the politicians either, but rather by the people who struggle everyday to get by.

    April 9, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  24. TM

    It wasn't too long ago that the Grand Old Tea Party was making a HERO out of some clown playing dress-up secretly recording a conversation at an ACORN office. What is the difference now? Other than this recording WASN'T edited before being released to the press.

    April 9, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  25. caribel

    I recall former President Bill Clinton in an interview talked about if we could only be around to hear how Republicans on the Hill talk when they think they cannot be heard.

    April 9, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
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