Several snippets of the audio from the February strategy sessions were published Tuesday by Mother Jones magazine, along with a lengthy article. The recording, obtained from an unnamed source, included McConnell aides discussing ways to politically damage actress Ashley Judd, who at the time was talked about as a possible McConnell challenger. The aides suggested going after her mental health and views on religion.
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said Tuesday that the senator’s office is “working with the FBI” on the issue and has notified the U.S. attorney in Louisville at the FBI’s request.
“We’ve always said the Left would stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell, but Watergate-style tactics to bug campaign headquarters are above and beyond,” Benton said in a statement Tuesday. “Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Senator McConnell’s campaign office without consent. By whom and how that was accomplished presumably will be the subject of a criminal investigation.”
The campaign, on Twitter, later accused opponents of “illegally wiretapping” the office.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also urged liberal and Democratic groups to denounce the tactics.
“Secret recordings, private conversations leaked, reports of bugs — these Watergate-era tactics have no place in our campaigns,” he said.
The FBI declined to comment.
Judd had been seriously considering a challenge to the Senate Republican leader in Kentucky until she opted against running last month. The McConnell team meeting covered in the Mother Jones article reportedly took place on Feb. 2.
The advisers could be heard discussing possible avenues of attack against Judd, one of which concerned her mental state.
“She’s clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced. 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,” one strategist said.
One aide also said Judd is “critical … of traditional Christianity.”
“She sort of views it as sort of a vestige of patriarchy,” the aide continued. “She says Christianity gives a God like a man, presented and discussed exclusively with male imagery, which legitimizes and seals male power, the intention to dominate even if that intention is nowhere visible.”
At the beginning, McConnell could be heard saying: “I assume most of you have played the, the game Whac-A-Mole? This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out.”
The meeting was evidently a preliminary session to toss around ideas. The campaign ultimately never had to deploy any of them, as Judd decided not to run.
But the allegation that the meeting was recorded and released without the consent of the campaign could present a significant legal issue.
It is reminiscent of the 1996 scandal in Florida where Democratic activists taped a cellphone conversation with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich picked up by a police scanner. The conversation was passed to Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., who later admitted he leaked it to the media.
McDermott was sued by Rep. John Boehner — now the House speaker — who eventually won a court judgment against McDermott.
Fox News’ Mike Emanuel and Mike Levine contributed to this report.