FRANKFORT — U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell asked the FBI Tuesday to investigate a secret recording of a private meeting in which he and his campaign aides discussed Ashley Judd's mental health and religious beliefs as possible points of political attack.
In public statements, McConnell accused "the left" of using "Nixonian tactics" to bug his campaign headquarters in Louisville.
"Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Sen. McConnell's office without consent," said Jesse Benton, McConnell's campaign manager. "By whom and how that was accomplished presumably will be the subject of a criminal investigation."
The FBI acknowledged the request from McConnell's campaign but did not elaborate.
The liberal-leaning publication Mother Jones released the recording Tuesday, saying it was obtained last week from a source who requested anonymity.
Judd, a Democratic actress and activist, had considered running against McConnell next year but decided last month not to challenge the Senate Republican leader.
"This is yet another example of the politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington D.C.," said Cara Tripicchio, a Judd spokeswoman, in a statement. "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 recording came from a Feb. 2 meeting to discuss potential opponents to McConnell, including Judd and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
The meeting leader, who was not identified on the recording, contended that Judd is "emotionally unbalanced."
"I mean it's been documented," he said. "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 wrote about her fight with depression in her 2011 memoir.
In a recording played for McConnell and his aides, Judd describes the reactions she sometimes has when returning from trips to other countries.
"The last time I came home from a trip, I absolutely flipped out when I saw pink fuzzy socks on a rack," Judd is heard saying. "I mean, I can never anticipate what is going to push me over the edge."
McConnell's aides laughed.
McConnell was asked repeatedly by reporters Tuesday in the U.S. Capitol whether it was appropriate for his staff members to talk about Judd's bouts with depression as a potential campaign issue.
"Well, as you know, last month my wife's ethnicity was attacked by a left-wing group in Kentucky and then apparently they also bugged my headquarters. So I think that pretty well sums up the way the political left is operating in Kentucky," he said.
McConnell was referring to a tweet earlier this year by the liberal Kentucky Super PAC Progress Kentucky about the ethnicity of his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
During the recorded meeting, a participant compared the campaign's strategy of attacking potential challengers to the game Whac-A-Mole.
"I assume most of you have played the, the game Whac-A-Mole?" the man asks. "This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign. And we're even planning to do it with the Courier here."
That reference was apparently to The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville.
An aide pointed out that Judd was a supporter of President Barack Obama, abortion rights, gay marriage and climate change legislation, and that she was "anti-coal."
There also was discussion of Judd's religion.
"She is critical ... of traditional Christianity," an aide said. "She sort of views it as a sort of vestige of patriarchy. She says Christianity gives a God like a man, presented and discussed exclusively with male imagery, which legitimizes and seals male power, the intention to dominate even if that intention is nowhere visible."
In another instance, the aide played a recording of Judd talking about her religious beliefs: "I still choose the God of my understanding as the God of my childhood. I have to expand my God concept from time to time, and you know particularly I enjoy native faith practices, and have a very nature-based God concept. I'd like to think I'm like St. Francis in that way. Brother Donkey, Sister Bird."
The campaign aides then laughed loudly.
An unidentified man then said "the people at Southeast Christian would take to the streets with pitchforks," referring to an evangelical megachurch in Louisville.
The group later turned to Grimes, who has been mentioned as a possible Democratic challenger against McConnell.
Someone at the meeting said a Freedom of Information Act request had been made about Grimes' activity while in office "through a third party."
"The best hit we have on her is her blatantly endorsing the 2008 Democratic national platform," an aide said. He also claimed "she definitely has a very sort of self-centered, sort of egotistical aspect."
Grimes had no comment on the Mother Jones article.
Dale Emmons, a Democratic consultant and close friend of Grimes, said strategy sessions for campaigns are not uncommon, "but I find the topics discussed in this recording uncommon and over the line."
Emmons said he suspects that a McConnell staffer leaked the recording to Mother Jones with the campaign's knowledge, "so the campaign could use this as a bully tactic."
Asked whether Grimes is going to enter the race, Emmons said, "It's to be determined."
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said McConnell should apologize for insulting millions of Americans who suffer from depression and using taxpayer-funded legislative aides to do opposition research for his re-election campaign.
"Mitch McConnell is desperate to play the victim," DSCC executive director Guy Cecil said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the conservative Super PAC American Crossroads called on liberal groups to disavow the recording.
"We denounce the illegal recording and leaking of private conversations, and today call on liberal aligned groups to confirm they had no involvement in these potentially criminal activities and to denounce and reject dirty campaign tricks like these," said Steven Law, president and CEO of the group co-founded by Karl Rove, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush.
The Associated Press and David Lightman with the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this article. Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.