Toward the end of court on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced it would rest its campaign-finance corruption case against former Senator John Edwards the next day. Prosecutors said they would call just three more witness: two federal agents and a wealthy Democratic Party operative named Leo Hindery, who served as senior economic policy adviser during Edwards’s aborted campaign for president in 2008.
Note that as they wrap up their case-in-chief against the former senator one name remains conspicuously absent from their witness list: Edwards’s mistress Rielle Hunter.
After this announcement, as the lawyers and spectators gathered their belongings to slowly file out of the room, John Edwards rose from the defense table with an incredulous look on his face and said to one of his attorneys, “That’s their case?!” The smirking reaction to the prosecution’s nearly three-week-long presentation was overheard by at least two reporters standing in the row behind the defendant.
Wednesday’s most powerful witness at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C. was from the Obama White House, a reminder that national politics is at the core of this trial and that the political money game is played at the highest level. Dressed in a stylish emerald-green sleeveless dress, the witness settled into the witness box and informed the jury that she was Jennifer Palmieri, deputy communications director for President Barack Obama. She then explained that she had served as Senator John Edwards’s press secretary beginning in 2004 and was a very dear friend to the late Elizabeth Edwards.
Palmieri testified that in August 2007, after the National Enquirer began to report that Edwards was having an affair with a staffer, she confronted her boss. “I said to him at some point, ‘Don’t think that if this is true that you can survive it.’” But the politician continued to deny the story. A few months later, when the senator’s staff caught wind that the Enquirer was set to print an even more damaging story—this time revealing a photo of a very pregnant Hunter and reporting that she had moved to Chapel Hill to be near her lover, John Edwards—Palmieri said she was floored.
“What was your reaction?” prosecutor David Harbach asked.
“Relatively mind-blowing,” she answered. “I was pretty shocked.”
Palmieri said she counseled the politician not to sit for an interview with ABC News on August 8, 2008 to try to tell his version of the Enquirer story—especially “if he was going to lie,” as she put it. “I had to tell him even I didn’t believe him. It made no sense.” And she was shocked to learn that Edwards wanted only to admit that he carried out a brief affair when Elizabeth was in remission from her cancer.
“To invoke her illness at all, in a way that would be sympathetic to him, was a mistake in my view,” Palmieri said.
A decisive moment for the veteran political operative arrived after the full scope of the scandal had blossomed. John Edwards had been trapped and photographed inside the Beverly Hilton Hotel where he had gone to visit Hunter and his infant daughter. The Enquirer had run pages of photos and stories about the incident. Yet even after that, Palmieri said Edwards was still denying paternity and talking to her about delivering an antipoverty speech at the upcoming Democratic National Convention. He also spoke of being a viable candidate for vice president or attorney general in the Obama administration.
“I told him that both of those options were gone long ago, that he was deluded to think otherwise,” Palmieri said. “Someone had to be very frank with him. Neither of those things was possible.”
After that conversation, Palmieri sent word that she wanted out, and never wanted John Edwards to call her again. “I believed John was continuing to lie, trying to drag me into it, and I just did not want to be a part of it,” she said. She added that she never believed Andrew Young’s false claim that he was the father of Hunter’s child. But Palmieri was still there for Elizabeth as her friend struggled with the confusion and pain of battling both cancer and the slow drip of ugly revelations about her husband’s cheating ways.
“Obviously she was very upset about the charges and stories. She just wanted to get her family out of this intact, get it behind them and go back to private life.”
The most emotional testimony of the trial to date came when the defense attorney began to ask Palmieri about Elizabeth Edwards’s final days.
“She expressed to me concern ... that when she and John separated ...” she said as her voice faltered. In the silence, jurors looked up from their notebooks. Palmieri continued after a beat, her voice wavering with emotion. “She was very worried that when she died ...” and there was another long pause punctuated with a sob from the witness. “ ... that there would not be a man around who loved her. I told her I would be there.”
At the defense table an emotional Edwards rubbed his eyes—hard—with his left hand and then sat with his eyes closed as if hoping to block out the reality of the moment.
Indeed, when Elizabeth Edwards died in early December 2010, Palmieri was at her side. And as the jury has previously heard, so was John Edwards. The question that hung in the air was, did Elizabeth have a man who loved her at her side when she died?
The day had begun with the cross-examination of Edwards’s former chief speechwriter Wendy Button. Defense lawyer Abbe Lowell attempted to paint the soft-spoken Button as a “collaborator” with Andrew Young, but his efforts seemed to fall flat. Several hours later, the day’s testimony concluded on another murky note. The airport manager for the Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport (not far from Edwards’s North Carolina home) was called to the stand to talk about the defendant’s use of his remote general-aviation services. Dan Danieley confirmed he had seen the Senator arriving there in a private Falcon 2000 aircraft with the tail number N1929Y in August 2010.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Alan Duncan asked Danieley about an April 25, 2011, event in which an FBI agent had called the airport and told him Senator Edwards was expected to land there soon. Danieley said he heard sirens in the background of the call and realized he was on the road as they spoke. Danieley had seen a news helicopter overhead and remembered the federal agent who called had told him he was worried that he wouldn't get to the landing strip in time to meet Edwards. In the end, Edwards was a no-show for the waiting plane with the tail number N1929Y, and later that day both the FBI and an IRS agent arrived to interview him.
“Why was the FBI and the IRS tracking this aircraft ... racing down the highway to get there?” attorney Duncan asked.
“He did not tell me and I did not ask,” the airport manager replied.
Danieley’s testimony ended the day with a mystery, but it may soon be solved—two federal agents will be among the prosecution’s final witnesses to take the stand tomorrow.