(NEW YORK) — Sen. Mitch McConnell was prepared to go after Ashley Judd as “emotionally unbalanced,” according to secret audio tapes of the Republican’s strategy session, but the release of those tapes have prompted an FBI investigation into who may have bugged the senator’s office, his campaign said Tuesday.
“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,” McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton told ABC News.
“Senator McConnell’s campaign is working with the FBI and has notified the local U.S. Attorney in Louisville, per FBI request, about these recordings,” Benton said. “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.”
The Senate Minority Leader described the tactics used against him to reporters outside his office in Kentucky Tuesday as “quite a Nixonian move.”
“This is what you get from the political left in America,” McConnell said. “Much like Nixon in Watergate, that is what the political left does these days.”
McConnell’s office said the FBI is investigating how the senator’s campaign office was bugged and who gave the tapes to Mother Jones magazine.
Spokesman Paul Bresson of the FBI told ABC News, “We can confirm that Sen. McConnell’s office reported it and we are looking into the matter.”
In the meantime, the McConnell campaign is trying to fundraise off the topic as well as blame the media. A message on their campaign website urges donors to give to “Stand with Senator McConnell against the liberal media’s illegal and underhanded tactics.”
The tape of the Feb. 2 strategy session — released by Mother Jones magazine — recorded McConnell and his aides devising tactics for discrediting actress Ashley Judd who at the time was widely expected to enter the U.S. Senate race to take on McConnell. She has since decided not to run for office. But while Judd was mulling the race, McConnell’s staff was strategizing that the best way to hurt her candidacy would be to highlight her past struggles with depression and her religious views, according to the tapes.
In the meeting, according to the tape, McConnell is heard saying, “I assume most of you have played the game Whac-A-Mole? This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out.”
Mother Jones said the recording was provided to them last week “by a source who requested anonymity.” In a statement they said they “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,” the statement reads.
On the recording you can hear the aide who led the meeting excited at the possibility of a Judd candidacy: “I refer to [Judd] as sort of the oppo research situation where there’s a haystack of needles, just because truly, there’s such a wealth of material.”
They then delve into Judd’s mental health, which she has spoken about openly for years including in her 2011 autobiography.
“She’s clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced,” the aide says. “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.”
They also played recordings of Judd, laughing at times at some of her past comments. The aide also suggests they should go after Judd’s religious beliefs with an aide saying, “She is critical…of traditional Christianity” as well as being “anti-sort-of-traditional American family.”
Judd’s office released a statement decrying what it called the “politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell.”
“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 statement said.
McConnell refused to answer reporters’ questions in Kentucky this afternoon about whether an opponent’s mental health or religious beliefs are fair game in a political campaign.
Judd wasn’t the only person discussed. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is still deciding whether to enter the race, was also targeted in the meeting.
The aide says they will go after Grimes, 34, for “blatantly endorsing the 2008 Democratic national platform” and said the Secretary of State “definitely has a very sort of self-centered, sort of egotistical aspect.” Their evidence was that Grimes “frequently” refers to herself in the third person.
A longtime Democratic operative in Kentucky who is also a Grimes ally and adviser, Dale Emmons said he doesn’t “know anyone in my party who would do anything like that [bug McConnell’s office]. I’m confident our party would not advocate something like that.”
The Kentucky Democratic Party released a statement saying they have no idea “how this may have happened.”
Emmons believes that the finger pointing the McConnell campaign is doing should be pointed right back at themselves, saying he thinks they may have released the tape themselves to discourage others from entering the race.
“He’s willing to huff and puff and try to blow the house down. He wants people to think he’s the big bad wolf,” Emmons told ABC News. “(McConnell) wants to run against anybody, but himself even if it’s a phantom like they are alleging. As long as Mitch is not the issue he’s having a good day and the people of Kentucky are having a bad day because he’s our senator.”
During last year’s presidential campaign, Mother Jones obtained a video of Republican candidate Mitt Romney saying 47 percent of Americans were “dependent on the government.”
But unlike the “47 percent video,” this recording did not take place at a large fundraiser or public event. Instead it was a small private strategy session.
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