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. UVikingsLost

    Oh my goodness! Wouldn't it serve Mitch McConnell better, since he wants to represent his state in the senate, by actually getting into an exercise program as well as having some plastic surgery tightening procedures to put his best foot forward? Mitch give citizens a better look, so they believe in what you profess.

    April 9, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  2. Gurgyl

    Six terms–very pathetic to these animals. Pass TERM-LIMITS. Period.

    April 9, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  3. NurseLi143

    Time to Ditch Mitch – he's bought or "strongly supported" by the NRA, with a wife who has financial ties to China and a preference for delaying/stalling/filibustering rather than working/compromising to achieve real solutions to the nation's economic issues, plus he's using typical slimeball tactics to discredit opponents while claiming moral superiority. How does he still have his job? Noone likes the thought of being recorded without their permission, especially when their words reveal their dark side – the bible warns all that is hidden comes to light.

    April 9, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  4. Warren

    If anyone has a mental health issue they don't have to look outside the room they were in......

    April 9, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  5. scranton

    It seems the Democrats are taking some pages out of Nixon's old playbook.

    April 9, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  6. John Richard

    Keep digging Mother Jones. Everyone has a closet and they are always filled with the secrets that have to be hidden. Unless he can walk on water and turn water into wine, I'm sure there's something to be found somewhere. I agree with "sniffit" that there's noting wrong with using Judd's own words to cut her campaign hopes off at the knees. If you can't stand the heat, you need to stay out of the kitchen. I also do not believe it's inherently wrong to secretly record these backroom meetings so the voters can get an insight into the mindset of the candidates. As long as both sides continue to win elections by demonizing and viciously attacking their opponents AND we the electorate buy into that strategy, then all is fair in this era of character assassination and spin doctor rhetoric.

    April 9, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  7. Idaglia

    "Never trust a MAN with NO CHIN", my granma used to tell us, ". . . they have NO personality let alone diplomatic statesmanhood".

    April 9, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  8. bugz

    I don't know about you but attacking somebody for their mental health is much higher on the ethics ladder than eavesdropping.

    You are all crooked... who are you trying to fool

    April 9, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  9. Conium

    So much for governmental transparency. What does McConnell have to hide? Oh that's right. He's a turtle!

    April 9, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  10. The Truth

    Way I see it, The American People have the right to BUG all of the OFFICES on the hill to find out just what the hell s going on with our broken system, and vote most of them out!!!!!!!

    April 9, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  11. cboy619

    If you think for one second, this same thing doesn't happen in Democratic circles you're naive.

    Democrats (David Axlerod for example), have fine-tuned the smear campaign game to where we are today.

    April 9, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  12. yogi

    If everything that Republicans are saying in private meetings would become public, the majority country would be so disgusted that the Republican party would cease to exist. Sooner or later the truth has to come out, and to save this country from more damage let it be sooner than later.

    April 9, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  13. cboy619

    Don't think for one second, this same thing doesn't happen in Democratic circles.

    Democrats (David Axlerod for example), have fine-tuned the smear campaign game to where we are today.

    April 9, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  14. The Truth

    I agreed, his comments about mental illness are sickening

    April 9, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  15. wade moran

    Funny how when the Democrats do this, it's just another day at the office, but when a Republican does it, there's Impeachment proceedings.

    April 9, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  16. Constitution

    I guess most of you haven't heard of watergate repubs have been doing this just as long thats why I am Independant and hate both parties as long as we have allegiance to dems or repubs you will never get anywhere

    April 9, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  17. Voter

    She can't take the heat. Burn her early and burn her often.

    April 9, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  18. Yakobi

    This is why democrats are called "hypo-crats". To them, the end justifies the means. Anything illegal they do is fine, but if republicans did the same thing, they'd scream about it for months.
    They are complete and utter hypocrites.

    April 9, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  19. The Truth

    If the NSA is listening to my calls then we should be listening to them behind close doors too!!!!

    April 9, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  20. blackhawkmom

    McConnell running for a SIXTH term. So much for voters and term limits. We need to get rid of old ideas/people in our government.

    April 9, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  21. Sniffit

    "Your memory is bad. Romney smeared himself. Remember the 47% comment recorded by the "invisible" wait staff?"

    Seriously. This "you did this to me!!!!" whining is absurd. It was Mittens's own words that destroyed him...and it's Beaker's own words and his campaign staff's behavior at his direction that is damaging him now. Anyone who believes this was a wire-tapping or some sort of secret bugging operation is a fool. McConnell is throwing out that accusation to deflect from his own malfeasance by abusing the MSM's overt and uncritical willingness to treat accusations as true until disproven. With Mittens, the guy probably thought it would be cool to get some footage of the guy who might become POTUS...then, when Mittens opened his filthy piehole and spewed vitriol at half the country, he probably realized the public should know about it. Same here. Some person who works for McConnell decided that they couldn't stomach his BS any longer. Quite honestly, McConell's deny-and-blame-the-messenger strategy is pretty stupid, draws even more attention to the whole affair, makes him look petty and paranoid, immediately exposes him to the accusation that he "doth protest too much," and will backfire if his accusation is proven wrong. But he can't help himself. Beaker's desperation is showing...we're approaching the part of the skit where he runs around out of control with his hair on fire.

    April 9, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  22. Thomas

    The liberal base will do anything to take folks' minds off of an impending attack by N. Korea to America's mainland...It is coming!!!

    Metel health problems , feeling of impending doom , the need to sleep with your assault rifle and 10,000 rounds under your pillow , the fear that WMDs in Iraq were moved to North Korea in containers labeled as baby milk.
    Or maybe the fear of Korean BBQ at the mall next to KFC .

    Fear and Freedom

    April 9, 2013 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  23. Odo

    WAAAHHHH!!!! They heard what we really think!!!!!!!

    April 9, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  24. KBNJ

    The headline on CNN's front page is "FBI Probing Secret McConnel Recordings". In today's headline-driven political world, CNN shows it's elite expertise in passive-aggressive liberal propaganda.

    April 9, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  25. alakhtal

    During polling for both 2008 & 2012 Ron Paul I distrusted Jesse Benton. Now he’s digging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's GRAVE as re-election campaign manager. He leaked to Mother-Jones In recordings, political operatives huddling at senator's campaign headquarters in Kentucky, discussing potential attack 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.

    April 9, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
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