(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.
“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 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 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, 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,” she said in a statement issued by her spokesman.
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 descibed 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.
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