McConnell campaign demands FBI probe of Mother Jones' secret recording of meeting

Earlier today, David Corn at Mother Jones reported on a private meeting of the Mitch McConnell re-election campaign that focused on strategizing on how to defeat Ashley Judd if she jumped into the race.  The revelations weren’t particularly noteworthy, although Corn and MJ certainly seem to believe they were.  The McConnell team spitballed on attacks on Judd’s public remarks about Christianity and the way it “legitimizes and seals male power,” and her equally public description of her struggles with mental illness.  While the latter may have been an opportunity for a lot of backfire, none of this is terribly unusual, especially since the two examples that Corn highlights are subjects that Judd herself has made public in the first place.  Neither was actually used by the McConnell campaign during Judd’s brief flirtation with the Senate race.

However, the manner in which Corn discovered this may make a lot more news than rehashed episodes from Judd’s public discussions of her life and philosophy.  The McConnell campaign demanded an immediate FBI investigation into the tape recording of the meeting, claiming that it amounts to a wiretap of the campaign itself:

Mitch McConnell’s campaign has accused opponents of bugging McConnell’s headquarters and has asked for an FBI investigation after a recording from an internal campaign meeting surfaced on Mother Jones this morning.

The 12-minute tape reveals McConnell and his campaign staff lampooning then-potential candidate Ashley Judd, whom they call “a haystack of needles” or political liabilities, at a Feb. 2 meeting. Judd has since decided not to run.

“We’ve always said the Left will stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell, but Nixonian tactics to bug campaign headquarters is above and beyond,” McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said in a statement.

He added: “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. 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.”

Corn famously published the Mitt Romney “47 percent” tape, but that was a much different scenario.  While the fundraiser was invitation only, it took place in a public setting and was a political event.  Strategy sessions in campaign headquarters have a much higher expectation of privacy from recording devices.  Had Corn turned a source inside the room to recount what had taken place, that wouldn’t have any real legal implications.

Is this illegal, however? It depends on who did the recording.  If the person was a participant in the meeting and willingly gave it to Corn, then arguably … no.  Federal law (in general) allows for that kind of recording even in private conversation, and Kentucky is a single-person consent state for recordings. Under those circumstances, the recording participant wouldn’t have to alert any of the other parties to the recording.  If someone who wasn’t a participant recorded this (like the bartender in the “47 percent” tape), however, then it’s much different kettle of fish.

In other words, legal action hinges on the source.  If this proceeds, Corn may end up in the same position as Jana Winter, who actually reported on something of substance but has been largely ignored by her colleagues.  I wonder how many of them will rush to Corn’s defense if pressed to give up his source.  I’d bet it will be a lot more support than Winter received.

Oh, and the Washington Post’s evaluation of Corn’s “scoop” is short and sweet:

While the tape isn’t particularly flattering to the McConnell campaign, it seems like standard opposition research. The meeting’s leader plays clips of Judd speaking on issues like Christianity and her support for President Obama. Attendees point out — as other commentators had before them — that Judd’s liberal position on issues like the environment and abortion would likely not endear her to Kentucky voters.

This is going to be one of the most expensive yawners in recent memory for the media if the FBI pursues this investigation.

Update: Changed “secret” to “private” in first sentence. Campaign meetings aren’t clandestine. They’re just not public.

Update II: Daniel Halper’s sources tell him that “fewer than 10 people” were participating in the meeting, and that the likelihood of one of them being the source for the recording is “very, very slim.”  Halper also notes that state law forbids the planting of recording devices for eavesdropping, and that it’s a Class D felony.  That, however, assumes the recording wasn’t done by one of the 9 or fewer participants.

Update III: Count Chris Cillizza among those bemused by Corn’s “scoop”:

The political world is a-twitter over an audio tape obtained by Mother Jones of a private campaign meeting involving Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and his 2014 re-election staff in which the past public statements — and mental health — of his one-time potential opponent Ashley Judd is discussed.

The reality: This is much ado about not much. …

But, this — as any campaign operative will tell you — is the basic blocking and tackling of opposition research that every candidate does both against their potential opponents and against themselves.

The real scoop from the tape? Cillizza argues that it’s the lack of oppo ammunition against the presumed Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes.  Be sure to read it all.

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David Strom 9:31 PM on December 05, 2022