Federal investigators have begun an investigation into the source of a audio recording of private strategy sessions earlier this year featuring Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election team plotting against a potential opponent, actress Ashley Judd.
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said Tuesday that the campaign is working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's office in Louisville to uncover who recorded a Feb. 2 meeting in Kentucky – attended by McConnell himself -- which was published earlier today by the liberal magazine Mother Jones.
McConnell's campaign has vehemently denied that anyone from its staff was responsible for the leak, and has begun to pursue a criminal investigation into the matter.
"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," said McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton. "Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Sen. McConnell’s campaign office without consent. By whom and how that was accomplished will presumably be the subject of a criminal investigation."
In the tapes, McConnell and a handful of aides are heard discussing opposition research against would-be Democratic challengers next fall, most prominently Judd. While Judd eventually declined to challenge McConnell for re-election in 2014, the aides were heard on-tape discussing research into Judd's background, including her mental health history and religion.
The FBI confirmed that is has begun an inquiry into the recording through a spokeswoman on Tuesday.
"We are looking into the matter," Mary Trotman, a spokeswoman for the FBI office in Louisville, told NBC News. She said FBI agents have already listened to the recording -- and are "following all the logical steps" to determine if it was made in violation of federal law.
Already, the McConnell campaign -- which has been early and aggressive in organizing the top Senate Republican's re-election effort -- has suggested that the recordings were part of a Democratic smear, although it has not provided any evidence to substantiate that allegation.
"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," said Benton.
Speaking Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill, McConnell insinuated that a liberal group in his home state -- ProgressKY, which launched an incendiary attack on McConnell's wife's ethnicity -- was to blame for a bugging.
"As you know, last month my wife's ethnicity was attacked by a left-wing group in Kentucky," McConnell said. "And then, apparently, they bugged my headquarters. So I think that pretty well sums up the way political left is operating in Kentucky." (A spokesman for McConnell later denied the senator was referring to ProgressKY specifically, but rather, speaking more generally.)
A spokesperson for Judd fired back at McConnell, asserting his research into her mental health history served as a reason to defeat him.
"This is yet another example of the politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington DC," said the spokesperson. "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. Every day it becomes clearer how much we need change in Washington from this kind of rhetoric and actions.”
In a phone interview with NBC News, Mother Jones' David Corn says he and his publication have "no comment" about any FBI investigation into how he obtained the recording of the McConnell campaign's strategy session on actress Ashley Judd.
"This story speaks for itself," Corn said.
The magazine itself added in a statement:
We are still waiting for Sen. Mitch McConnell to comment on the substance of the story. Before posting this article, we contacted his Senate office and his campaign office—in particular, his campaign manager, Jesse Benton—and no one responded. As the story makes clear, we were recently provided the tape 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. We cannot comment beyond that.
While McConnell has won four additional terms since winning his first in 1984, the Kentucky Republican has been aggressively targeted for defeat by Democrats, who argue McConnell is not especially popular in his state, and is to blame for much of the procedural gridlock in the Senate.
NBC's Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro and Michael Isikoff contributed reporting.