Harrowing Testimony

Ex-Staffer Claims That Elizabeth Edwards Knew About John's Infidelity

Not only did the candidate's wife know about his affair, she suffered a harrowing public meltdown, testified an ex-staffer.

Cheryl Senter / AP Photo

Elizabeth Edwards stood on the tarmac of a private jetport at the Raleigh-Durham airport on October 11, 2007. She and her husband, presidential hopeful John Edwards, had arrived in separate cars with their separate staffers. He was bound for an event in South Carolina. She was on her way to a campaign event in Iowa.

But according to eyewitness Christina Reynolds, Elizabeth was "very upset, she was very vocal." She screamed at her husband, collapsed momentarily, then stormed at John and yelled something to the effect of, "You don't see me anymore!!" And, said Reynolds, in a stunning move, Elizabeth Edwards then "took off her shirt and her bra" in a humiliating effort to command attention from the husband she feared was cheating on her—again. Reynolds, a close personal friend of the late Mrs. Edwards, says she and another female employee watching the drama unfold rushed forward to cover Elizabeth. Then they took her home.

During this eighth day of testimony in the John Edwards campaign-corruption trial, the jury seemed stunned by this horrifying story. At the defense table, Edwards covered his flushed face with his hands. His daughter Cate had rushed from the courtroom when she knew this story was about to be told, as her father called after her, "Cate ... Cate ... Cate."

It was one of those moments in a courtroom when no one wants to look at anyone else. The judge called for a 15-minute break and Edwards barreled toward the door, ignoring his elderly parents sitting in their regular front-row seats. Ten minutes later Edwards returned to the courtroom, still visibly upset and said in a stage whisper (perhaps designed to be heard by reporters just two rows back): “That was so wrong! That was so wrong! This is supposed to be a campaign-finance case!” Then he plopped down in his chair at the defense table, still piqued that his former senior communications adviser, Christina Reynolds, had been allowed to tell the humiliating story in open court.

Reynolds also revealed that even before the National Enquirer first reported on the affair in October 2007, Elizabeth had called her into her bedroom one day “and told me that Mr. Edwards had had an affair in late 2006 but that he said it was over. [Now] she believed it might still be going on because she found a cellphone that wasn’t his.”

A second former employee in the Edwards orbit, 33-year-old Matthew Nelson, also testified about marital strife he once witnessed while driving the couple from their Chapel Hill, N.C., home to Raleigh. An aide named Miles Lackey was sitting in the front passenger seat.

“Elizabeth Edwards got heated and emotional. She was pawing—awkwardly pawing—at her husband and asking, 'Is this what you do together in the car in New York City?'" Nelson said he took it to be a reference to mistress Rielle Hunter. “Mr. Edwards was encouraging her to calm down. He said, ‘Don’t do this in front of our friends.’ She said, ‘They are not our friends, they’re our staff.’”

It was disturbing testimony but central to the federal case against the former politician. The defense has argued that nearly a million dollars from two wealthy Edwards donors was used to hide the girlfriend, Rielle (who became pregnant in May 2006), so the cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, wouldn’t find out or be humiliated by the affair. The testimony from Reynolds and Nelson seemed to make clear that Elizabeth Edwards already knew about the infidelity. The testimony may bolster the government’s position that Edwards ordered the money spent to save his floundering campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008.

The nine-man, seven-woman jury hearing the case in the federal courthouse in Greensboro also heard from a third ex-campaign staffer named Josh Brumberger. Brumberger is unique in that he was with the former senator the first night Rielle Hunter came sashaying into their lives. Brumberger was with Edwards at New York’s Regency Hotel in February of 2006 having a drink with a campaign supporter.

“Miss Hunter approached and asked if Mr. Edwards was Mr. Edwards … I think Mr. Edwards said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I tried to excuse us from that conversation to get us to return to our conversation … I always tried to be as polite as possible.” Although there was no testimony to the jury about this point, it has been reported that Edwards and Hunter were intimate on this very first evening. Brumberger was quoted in the bestselling book Game Change that he thought the woman was “trouble from the get-go.”

When Hunter became a videographer travelling with the campaign several months later, Brumberger said he was surprised to see her and looked her up on Google to find out more. He found her website “was a lot of sex, drugs, and astrology. I’m pretty sure I told Mr. Edwards that Miss Hunter looked a little nutty. I think he agreed.”

On at least two other occasions Brumberger said he flatly told the candidate they had a “perception problem” with Hunter traveling with them so often and Edwards’s flirtatious behavior towards her. “She did not fade into the background as staff usually do,” Brumberger said with a grin and a shrug of his shoulders. On one trip to Austin, Texas, in 2006 he discovered Hunter at the Driskill Hotel early one morning coming out of an elevator that did not go to her floor. She was dressed in what the witness called “overnight apparel.” Edwards ultimately became enraged at Brumberger when he learned his young staffer had expressed his concerns about Hunter to two very senior aides. Edwards confronted him at an airport lounge as he waited for a flight to China.

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“He was pretty ticked off … upset and red-faced,” the 33-year-old testified. Asked what Edwards said to him, Brumberger paused, took a breath and replied, “He said to me if I thought he was f--king her why didn’t [I] come to him and tell him to stop f--king her? I said I thought I had!”

As the defendant and his 30-year-old daughter, Cate, left the courthouse for the day, and as the ever-present cameras captured his every move, one reporter called out, “Mr. Edwards, what was your reaction to the testimony about the effect your affair had on your wife?”

John Edwards didn’t pause or turn around to answer. He simply slipped into the back seat of his waiting SUV and disappeared behind the darkly tinted windows.