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. jay wright

    I figure if the NSA can eavesdrop on phone calls and emails without warrants, then why can't everyone?

    Poor "boo hoo" Mitchy. Dude with that much power should say what he means, and not go crying to Big Guvmint when...well, when he actually says what he means, but wants to keep it a secret. Creep.

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

    To Paul: You say Democrats are out of control when the Republicans are wasting their time digging up dirt on someone who had decided not to run for office.

    April 9, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  3. Blackflag

    McConnell is mentally unbalanced too. He believes in a mysterious man who lives in the sky and knows all things and judges people good or bad when they die. That's truly insane.

    April 9, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  4. AZ Girl

    Ok wait, I want to get this right, you are appalled because you were "attacked" in a secret meeting that no one but your staff knew about that was called to talk about ways to "attack" a PRIVATE CITIZEN'S mental health and morals? And since you don't know how the press got the recording you go on the attack (again) and say "you were bugged".

    Wow, you just can't make this stuff up.

    April 9, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  5. Sniffit

    United States Code: Title 18.2511

    Best as I can tell, Kentucky is a "One Party Consent" state. This means that it is legal to record a conversation so long as one party to the conversation consents to it. That party who consents can be the person recording it.

    Bang up job on your research avoidance, CNN.

    April 9, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  6. Whtehawk

    Irony...McConnell's team is upset because someone recorded them plotting on how to smear Judd before her candidacy was confirmed?

    April 9, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  7. Penny Wright

    All Republican Senators sound like Foghorn Leghorn.

    April 9, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  8. ObservantHistorian

    We don't know that Dems did this...they could have, but we don't know. We do know for a fact that Nixon used his connections to torpedo Vietnam peace talks in 1968, because an early end to the war would undermine his campaign We know that Reagan's operatives delayed the release of the Iranian hostages so Reagan wouldn't lose that campaign issue. We know all too well the electoral theft that was George W. Bush's first "election." When it comes to political and electoral fraud, the Dems run a decided second place to the Repubs. I'm not justifying it if it was the Dems – I'm just saying that Republican outrage about almost anything is generally hypocritical nonsense.

    April 9, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  9. Pam from Iowa

    they don't call it "dirty politics" for nothing!

    April 9, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  10. sproketz

    So they blame the left before they've even had an investigation that proves the left was guilty? Maybe it was a news reporter with no agenda, looking for a story? Maybe it was the help that was serving the food? Who knows? But yes, let's just blame the left for it before we've done any work to identify who it was.

    A guy who thinks like that, is a guy I'd never vote for.

    April 9, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  11. jkane sfl the gop national disgrace party will be swept out like the trash they are in2014 ?

    The gop mummy look a like probability bugged himself,just like he fillabustered himself for the free press . What a teabag loser who needs to be kicked out in the 2014 mid terms with the rest of the gop garbage!!!!

    April 9, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  12. DumbasRocks [R]s

    No, really people! [R]s DO have a god-given rights to bear as many high-caliber guns as they wish and to plot in secrecy about how to malign good people who they deem as political enemies.

    April 9, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  13. Romney is Still NOT My Hero

    This guy's name should start with a B instead of an M. He's pathetic.

    April 9, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  14. Chicago Dan

    TO JINSANJOSE: You're wrong on your timeline. The strategy session happened when Judd was still thinking about running. She dropped out later. It just happens that this was leaked by MJ afterwards.

    April 9, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  15. sharon

    I am confused. Mitch wants the FBI to investigate who taped a meeting with his staff talking about how they would bring up issues to destroy a potential opponent? Another case of the republicans trying to take the offensive when their mouths have run away and said things that the public rejects. I hope the people of Kentucky get the election right in '14 and get this man out of office.

    April 9, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  16. SMMcMahon

    Hmmm ... if depression makes someone not fit for office then Lincoln wouldn't have been President. Also, Ulysses S. Grant, James Madison, Rutherford Hayes, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge were thought to have forms of mental illness. Nixon was known for his alcohol abuse. Who knows what all JFK suffered from? This from a study by Duke based on diaries, journals and witnesses.

    BTW, at the University of Kentucky, she majored in French and minored in anthropology, art history, theater and women's studies. She has a Master in Public Administration degree at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard. She has spent a great amount of her time in Public Service, both domestic and international. What, exactly, were Reagan's qualifications before entering government? An actor?

    And, finally, I would like to know what these arbitrary qualifications that people seem to think are necessary before running for office? She is a citizen of United States and meets all other qualifications to run for office. Wouldn't it be nice if we had less lawyers? How about people that have integrity? Do you really think these career politicians are good for this country? Our Founding Fathers did not.

    April 9, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  17. norma jean

    " Oppositon research on Ashley Judd" Wow......that Mcconnell leaves no stone unturned to continue his position of low grade politician. Last we heard it was his "one year term" for our president....this man has NO business in a high ranking position in our government. I wouldn't trust him to mow my lawn!!... Judd had not even said she was running and has now said she isn't but that didn't stop this jerk from starting his little machine!!!!

    April 9, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  18. Babyboomer

    This is nothing like "Watergate". We now live in the era of smart phones that can record every move we make, capture every word we say, send it out in a nano-second to every Facebook and Twitter friend, etc., etc., etc. There is no more privacy or loyalty (for that matter). And if McConnell does get that, then maybe it's time for him to retire... Hmmm...

    April 9, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  19. The Elephant in the Room

    Ashley – your biggest contribution to the defeat of Mitch McConnell was never to run for office. Turn your celebrity FUND RAISING prowess against him and to the benefit of his opponent.

    April 9, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  20. They ought to change from the elephant to the hippo...

    Whahhh... Somebody caught me planning dirty tricks.... Whahhh... How dare they?!?! Whaah....
    Whaahhh... THEY'RE not playing fair!! Whaaah...!!

    April 9, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  21. NotFooledByDistractions

    BWAAAHHHHH!!!! Watergate style tactics. Hey Mr Benton, Mr. McConnell – how about joining us here in the 21st century where just about every adult and child is capable of recording conversations on their cell phones. Bring on the investigation. Can't wait to see Mr. Turtles face when he finds out it's one of his own people that released the tape.

    April 9, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  22. allen

    @Jay Wright-
    So you are perfectly fine with the tactics that Nixon used? Wouldn't have anything to do with political bias would it?

    April 9, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |

    McConnell has it right. That meeting was recorded by 1 of the half dozen people in that meeting. Like I said before, the people that are hurting the republicans are the republicans themselves.

    April 9, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  24. mylife55

    Now Mitch has something new to whine about.

    April 9, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  25. cynthia

    If this isn't irony...they meet to plan an all out attack on their opposition, using dirty tactics, lies and misleading 'facts' and THEY are appalled????? Wow. I hope the FBI is laughing their butts off at the idea they can have the bad guys so cooperative!

    April 9, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
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