Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday accused a Kentucky Democratic super-PAC of bugging his campaign office and asked the FBI to investigate.
McConnell lashed out at the group Progress Kentucky after the release of a recording from a Feb. 2 meeting between the senator and his aides in which they debate the merits of attacking actress Ashley Judd’s mental health, views on religion and attitudes about family.
“That’s what the political left does these days.”
McConnell had sparred in February with the group when one of its tweets suggested the senator supported sending jobs to China because he is married to Elaine Chao, a former Bush administration Labor secretary, who was born in Taiwan.
McConnell and Democrats alike denounced the tweet as racist and inappropriate, and the group eventually apologized.
Progress Kentucky’s executive director, Shawn Reilly, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
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McConnell’s campaign has asked the FBI to investigate the recording, which was leaked to Mother Jones.
In it, McConnell aides describe Judd as “emotionally unbalanced” and talk about highlighting her personal history of depression in a potential Senate campaign.
Judd had been considering a 2014 bid against the Senate minority leader but opted against running last month.
“This is yet another example of the politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington, D.C.,” a spokesman for Judd said Tuesday. “We expected nothing less from Mitch McConnell and his camp than to take a personal struggle such as depression ... and turn it into a laughing matter.”
McConnell did not respond to repeated questions about whether it was appropriate to attack a candidate’s mental health or religion. He appeared testy when responding to reporters on Capitol Hill, repeating his accusation that Progress Kentucky was responsible.
“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,” McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said in a statement.
“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.”
McConnell can be heard on the recording telling his campaign aides they are in “the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign,” saying to hit anybody who sticks their head up.
One aide can be heard describing Judd as “clearly … emotionally unbalanced.”
“I mean it’s been documented,” the aide says. “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.”
“Jesse” presumably refers to Benton, although it is not clear from the recording.
The McConnell aide leading the strategy meeting charged that Judd “views [traditional Christianity] as sort of a vestige of patriarchy” and said she is “anti-sort-of-traditional American family.”
Judd documented her struggles with depression and mental illness in a candid autobiography All That is Bitter & Sweet. In it, she detailed her molestation and troubled childhood. Judd checked herself into a mental health treatment center in 2006 to work through her depression.
Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, denounced the recording and called on Democratic groups to distance themselves from the leak.
“Secret recordings, private conversations leaked, reports of bugs — these Watergate-era tactics have no place in our campaigns,” Moran said.
He urged the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Kentucky Democratic Party and left-leaning organizations “to state for the record that they had nothing to do with these illegal acts.”
Moran also demanded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) denounce the release of the recording.
Reid said that he had only seen early reports of the recording and that he wasn’t involved in its creation.
“I know I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Reid said.
Other Democrats said the McConnell campaign was looking to shift focus away from the content of the recording.
“This is an embarrassing effort to distract from the issue of a leading GOP pol raising someone’s long ago mental health issues,” DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse tweeted.
Guy Cecil, executive director of the DSCC, said McConnell is “desperate to play the victim” and should apologize for making light of depression.
“It is beneath the office of Minority Leader to engage in this kind of trivial politics,” he said in a statement.
“The DSCC doesn’t know if this tape came from a disgruntled Senate staffer who was forced to dig up dirt on their boss’ potential opponents or another source, but its content is a clear example of how Mitch McConnell is the living, breathing embodiment of everything that is wrong with Washington.”
Within a few hours of the tape’s release, McConnell’s campaign launched a fundraising effort, promoting a tweet directing supporters to a donation page.
“Breaking: Liberals wiretap McConnell office,” the donation page read. “Stand with Senator McConnell against the liberal media’s illegal and underhanded tactics.”
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Daniel Logsdon denied any involvement in the recording or release of the audio.
“I certainly do not know anything about how this may have happened,” Logsdon said.
The progressive group American Bridge suggested McConnell’s campaign may have engaged in political activities on taxpayer funds, which is illegal under campaign finance law.
In the recording, the McConnell aide praises the work of several congressional staffers. Congressional staff members are barred using office time and resources to work on campaign efforts.
“McConnell caught using taxpayer money to do [opposition] research on candidate’s mental health and religious beliefs. Blames Democrats. Typical,” the group said on Twitter. The left-leaning Mother Jones last year released a secret recording of a fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in which he stated that 47 percent of people in the U.S. consider themselves victims and are dependent on the federal government.
It was later revealed that a bartender at the Romney event brought a camera to the fundraiser and surreptitiously recorded Romney’s remarks.
The McConnell controversy harkens back to a dispute between Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) several years ago over an illegally taped conversation between Boehner, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other lawmakers. McDermott received the recording, which he subsequently passed on to several media outlets.
Boehner sued McDermott for what he characterized as violations of his First Amendment rights. He ultimately won both legal fees and tens of thousands of dollars in damages from McDermott, who also received a formal rebuke from the Ethics Committee for passing along the tape to reporters.
— Updated at 8:26 p.m.