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. TruthAndConsequence

    Democrats turned on each other after Sen. Tom Eagleton, McGovern's vice presidential nominee, advised of his mental health issues and dropped him flat – that after McGovern assured the public he was "1000 percent" behind Eagleton. Mental health issues are ALWAYS a concern for high office--and, certainly, a political concern. In Eagleton's case, he had served in many political offices in Missouri for years where his mental health issues did not seem to impede him. But, the stakes are too high in a Presidential election....all that power and all those jobs in the offing.

    April 9, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  2. v_mag

    Did anybody make the gun control connection? Smear Ashley Judd about her supposed mental health problems, but for heaven's sake, don't do mental health background checks on people who want to buy murder weapons!

    April 9, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  3. DirtyHeat

    @Thomas – Yes they should, if she has mental health issues that could effect her perfomance.

    @RS – So you would be okay with having lets say a sociopath as president because their mental health shouldn't be our business? You would be okay with having someone who may not be mentally stable as your senator? Sorry but I wouldn't be okay with that.

    April 9, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  4. The REAL Truth...

    Regardless of how this got out, the fact is that Mitch's team was planning a smear campaign strategy against a PRIVATE CITIZEN who had not even declared an intention to run against him. And the Obstructionist Party wonders why intelligent voters are running from them in droves????

    April 9, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  5. tv22

    Sorry folks but that's politics. Believe it or not, if someone is mentally unstable and says it publicly, that is going to come up in any campaign they enter, no matter what party they are in. I'm sure there are 100s of these conversations going on every day between campaign staff and candidates. But illegally recording it is against the law as we learned with Watergate.

    April 9, 2013 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  6. Kita

    As someone who has never liked illegal wiretapping; I don't support what was done to McChinless here. Democrats were up in arms when Nixon's people did this to them, and whoever did it here should be ready for the outrage/inquiries.

    As someone who has never liked McChinless; I think he and his campaign were being a regular pack of assholes. He regularly whines about the lack of bipartisanship, and here he is plotting partisan attacks against someone who was only THINKING of running. I understand the idea of "opposition research" to find out who you might have to debate, but working on smear ads like that..

    April 9, 2013 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  7. Name lynn

    Mitch the people have you to, checking into your back ground, an whatever else the people can pull up. keep your head up an sometimes keep your mouth close @ time.

    April 9, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  8. John

    In my case not only do they listen, they leak out information to shill and the media. Anything that I say in private is often used in news stories on the internet or anywhere in the media. They have a tendency to want to reshape the way people think, so that their thinking is less creative, less ambitious, less questioning, less rational, less logical in essence they want to define what is or what isn't "correct thinking", which basically is thinking that is beneficial to them and their cronies.

    April 9, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  9. Sarah H

    McConnell is increasingly distasteful.

    April 9, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  10. WIMPY38

    Isn't the same guy who made it his mission to make POTUS Obama a "one term president"? Sounds like he took a page from Malcom X-"by any means necessary"

    April 9, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  11. mindcrime

    If we're evaluating mental health, we should start with the people who can't seem to separate church and state.

    April 9, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  12. Bubba Einstein

    Same trick that Karl Rove used to get George Bush elected Governor. Claim Bugging when in fact it is your own staff that leaked it.

    April 9, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  13. Jimh77

    6th term, NO! It is time for you to go get a real job you done screwed America long enough.

    April 9, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  14. Debbie

    Stop whining. Stop leaking false info for publicity. And as far as spying goes...you voted for the Patriot Act...you know...spying on US citizens. Get over yourself.

    April 9, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  15. Homer Simpson

    DDDDOOOOHHHHHH, stupid high tech voice recording thingy

    April 9, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  16. mklsgl

    Our party/dysfunctional family is so divided that it would not surprise me if the FBI investigation results determine that it was someone connected to someone in that "very private, closed, locked conference room."

    April 9, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  17. Paul

    Democrats will go to any length to win. They're out of control.

    April 9, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  18. Nuclear Warheads

    President Bush Illegally Wiretapped the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, Senator Rockefeller in a hotel room when he was on an overseas mission with the State Department. So what's the big deal?

    April 9, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  19. Homer Simpson

    They leaked the story, a way of bringing up her mental issues, without bringing up her mental issues

    April 9, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  20. Malory Archer

    just askin

    Your memory is bad. Romney smeared himself. Remember the 47% comment recorded by the "invisible" wait staff?
    another illegal recording that should have resulted in an arrest and trial of the criminal.


    Actually it's only "illegal" if it's just a voice recording. That there was also video makes it perfectly legal. Odd, but true.

    April 9, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  21. Brathead

    I hope McConnell gets voted out of office. As a resident of Louisville, KY his time is done. He is no longer looking out for the interests of the people that voted him into office. I'm sorry, but I have a huge problem when he stated his #1 goal was to make sure Obama was a one term president. Really? This was your #1 priority? I would think issues such as the economy, etc are far more important. Besides, you failed your #1 goal when Obama got re-elected. Come on KY, lets vote him OUT! Time for a change. Oh and GO CARDS! Hopefully our girls can do it again tonight!

    April 9, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  22. lonewolf

    Very disgusting! Unfortunately this is how dirty American politics has become. What is even more disgusting is how some try to justify all of this.

    April 9, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  23. Malory Archer


    Democrats will go to any length to win.


    Can you PROVE it was a democrat who did it? Until you can, you really shouldn't accuse because you'll most likely be wrong and embarrass yourself.

    April 9, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  24. us_1776

    It's called a mole.


    April 9, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  25. Say What?

    Some might call it bullying....

    April 9, 2013 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
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