The McConnell Recording: Less Interesting Than Who Made It and Why

Tuesday morning Mother Jones published an audio recording of a private meeting of McConnell campaign staffers along with a transcript. The content of the recording and the way in which it was obtained have been fodder for news outlets on both sides of the aisle.

According to Mother Jones the meeting took place on Saturday February 2nd at McConnell's campaign headquarters in Lousiville, Ky. The audio is about 12 minutes long and contains a run down of various oppo-research on two potential opponents to Senator McConnell in the 2014 election, Ashley Judd and Alison Grimes. Sen. McConnell speaks only briefly at the beginning of the meeting, when he compares the early oppo-effort to "whack-a-mole." 

Most of the recording is a presentation made by an unnamed individual on the various ways in which Ashley Judd could be attacked in a potential campaign. These include her close affiliation with Barack Obama, her carpet-bagging allegiance to Kentucky and her outspoken position on abortion. The tape is punctuated with snippets of Judd's own voice as the group considers various bits of tape the oppo-effort has turned up.

In the main article, author David Corn highlights a couple moments in the discussion when Judd's personal mental history and unusual religious views are discussed. As Corn frames it "they discussed how they could make her seem a true weirdo." For instance, the presenter plays a tape of Judd comparing herself to St. Francis and concluding with the line, "Brother donkey, sister bird." This brings laughter from the group.

Corn correctly points out that "brother donkey" and "sister bird" could be derived from stories about St. Francis. However, the more relevant reference would probably be to St. Francis' Canticle sometimes called the "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon." In other words, Judd may have mangled a familiar reference to St. Francis.

The contents of the recording have not been considered shocking by most news outlets. Later in the day Buzzfeed described it this way "Although perhaps a bit jarring to anyone who's never witnessed a political campaign, even attacks on Judd's mental problems would hardly have been unprecedented, nor were they a new topic. The actress extensively addressed them in her book, for example." Greg Sargent at the Washington Post called the oppo-dump "nasty but not that unusual by oppo research standards." Erik Wemple, also at the Post, called the talk on the tape "bare-knuckled yet fair-game attacks."

Within hours of the publication of the tape, the McConnell campaign announced that they had contacted the FBI to find out how a recording of the private meeting was made. Campaign manager Jesse Benton told CNN "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."

Sen. McConnell and members of his staff have referred to the incident as a "bugging" and compared it to the Watergate recordings, however it's not clear a transmitter of any kind was ever involved. According to Politico, the office was swept for electronic bugs yesterday but none were found.

The tape include many instances of shuffling and mic noise that seem to suggest the recording device was being moved or jostled during the recording. This was noted on Twitter by James O'Keefe who knows something about hidden video and audio recordings.

If a stationary bug (wired or wireless) is excluded as a possibility, the remaining alternatives all seem unlikely for various reasons. First, it's possible someone on McConnell's staff recorded and leaked the audio. However, two individuals with knowledge of the situation indicated that the February 2 meeting took place in a locked office on the 2nd floor of a multi-story building. There were around 10 senior staffers in the room, all of whom have a long history with Sen. McConnell. Neither source believed it possible that someone in the room had made the recording.

Another possibility is that someone in the meeting accidentally dialed a phone and the audio was recorded by a third party who received the call. In this case it's quite a coincidence that the call went to a party willing to leak the tape and that they seem to have caught the very beginning of the meeting.

A third possibility is that someone located just outside the meeting recorded it. A source with intimate knowledge of the situation indicated that the office in which the meeting took place has a back door which is on a hallway leading to the building's elevators. The source agreed it's possible someone with a recording device could have placed it under the door. The problem here is how this person or persons gained access to the building and knew where to place their microphone.

These are the possibilities the FBI will now have to sort through to decide whether or not a crime has been committed. Kentucky is a one-party consent state, meaning that only one party to the conversation has to be aware and consent to the recording. So if the recording was made by someone in the room it's not a crime. However, making a recording using any electronic device without consent is a class D felony. So someone outside the room could face charges. Kentucky also makes it a misdemeanor to disclose any communication made through a violation of the eaves-dropping law.


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