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Mitch McConnell versus Mother Jones

A remarkable CNN scoop:

The FBI has been asked to investigate how Mother Jones, a liberal magazine, obtained a recording of political aides meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell discussing opposition research on Ashley Judd, McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said 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.
In a statement, McConnell campaign manager Benton said that “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.”

The recordings obtained by Mother Jones are here; they show the McConnell team debating the use of tactics that are nasty but not that unusual by oppo research standards.

Note CNN’s use of the passive voice: The FBI “has been asked” to investigate Mother Jones. The article doesn’t tell us who asked the FBI to probe this, and there’s no indication in the article that CNN asked the McConnell campaign whether they’d requested the investigation.

I asked Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn, who wrote the story, for comment. He told me: “We reached out to McConnell’s Senate office and his campaign office, including Jesse Benton in particular yesterday, and didn’t hear back from them. Lawyers for Mother Jones vetted the story.”

An FBI spokesperson, Jenny Shearer, declined to confirm or deny that the request had been made of the FBI. Typically, in such situations, the agency won’t specify who made such a request, whether it was made, or how seriously it’s being taken. Theoretically, then, a campaign can ask the FBI to investigate in such a situation, and then leak to the press that such a request has been made. Result: A story from an outlet like CNN saying that someone “has been asked” to investigate, with no indication of who did the asking.

We don’t know if that’s what happened in this case, but it’s possible. I asked McConnell’s Senate and campaign offices for clarification; his Senate spokesman, John Ashbrook, referred me to campaign spokesman Jesse Benton, who has yet to reply.

The suggestion by the McConnell campaign that Mother Jones engaged in “Watergate-style tactics to bug campaign headquarters” is intriguing; it constitutes a suggestion that Mother Jones broke the law. To my knowledge, the McConnell campaign didn’t provide CNN with any evidence of this. (The Mother Jones story only says that a “recording” of the strategy session “was obtained by Mother Jones.”) It’s a serious charge, and if it were made without evidence by the campaign of the Senate minority leader — perhaps the most powerful Republican elected official the country — it’s a big deal.


UPDATE: Mother Jones sends over a statement asserting that it did not make the tape. From the statement:

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.