GREENSBORO, N.C. — A former adviser to John Edwards recounted Wednesday how the former presidential candidate’s now-deceased wife indignantly confronted her husband, baring her chest in front of staff members the day after a tabloid reported that he was cheating on her.
During a session at Edwards’ corruption trial that saw his 30-year-old daughter flee the courtroom in tears, Christina Reynolds described how a very upset Elizabeth Edwards stormed away from her husband in October 2007, then collapsed in a ball on the pavement outside a private airplane hangar. Reynolds and another woman guided the anguished wife into a nearby ladies room to compose herself, but she soon returned to the private hangar to again confront her husband.
In front of several staff members, the woman who had endured grueling treatments for breast cancer took off her shirt and bra, exposing her chest.
“‘You don’t see me anymore,’” Reynolds quoted Elizabeth Edwards as screaming. “He didn’t have much of a reaction.”
As staffers scrambled to cover up Edwards’ wife and huddle her into a car, Reynolds heard the Democratic candidate use a cell phone to call his wife’s doctor to ask for help.
Edwards then boarded a waiting jet and took off for his scheduled appearance in South Carolina, Reynolds said.
She testified that Elizabeth Edwards had known about her husband’s affair with Rielle Hunter before The National Enquirer made it public. Hers was the most stirring testimony of the day at Edwards’ trial on corruption charges, as prosecutors worked to build a timeline of the affair and efforts to cover it up.
Shortly before Reynolds began her account of what happened that day at the Raleigh airport, Edwards turned to his daughter Cate, a lawyer who has been seated in the front row for much of her father’s trial.
“I don’t know what’s coming,” Edwards was heard saying. “Do you want to leave?”
She responded to him in a whisper, grabbed her purse and walked out, wiping away tears. Edwards was heard saying, “Cate, Cate” as she left. She returned to court about a half hour later, after a brief recess.
Shortly before her testimony about the airport argument, Reynolds recounted that Elizabeth Edwards asked her over to the couple’s gated estate near Chapel Hill in the summer of 2007 to tell her that her husband had confessed to an affair the prior year.
“I was very surprised by what she told me and I didn’t want it to ever become public so the kids wouldn’t have to know about it,” the former aide said.
Reynolds, now 37, had worked on John Edwards’ successful U.S. senate campaign in 1998 and had quickly bonded with his wife. Both women grew up in military families and had moved around a lot as children. Reynolds worked as the research director and a senior communications adviser to the 2008 presidential campaign and recently joined the board of the educational foundation named for Elizabeth Edwards, who died in December of 2010.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign-finance violations. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted on all counts.
At issue are payments from wealthy donors used to help keep his pregnant mistress out of public view. Edwards’ attorneys have said he didn’t know about the money.
Earlier Wednesday, jurors heard from another aide who discussed topics ranging from the night the candidate met his mistress to how he charmed the wealthy donor whose money would be used to cover up the affair.
Josh Brumberger, now 33, was having drinks with Edwards in the bar of an upscale New York hotel in February 2006 when they were first approached by Hunter. He frequently traveled with Edwards and said it was not unusual for strange women to come up to him. The former aide said he politely helped extricate the candidate from the conversation.
Sometime later, Brumberger saw Edwards returning alone from dinner and surrounded by a group of women that included Hunter. He ran outside to once again politely get his boss out of the conversation.
“My normal bag of tricks included, ‘Got a big day tomorrow, got to rest,’” he recalled.
Weeks later, Brumberger said, the woman began traveling with Edwards to film behind-the-scenes footage. At the time, Edwards had yet to declare his candidacy.
Brumberger couldn’t place her at first, but within days he realized that she was the woman from the hotel. Hunter was paid through a political action committee supporting Edwards.
“It was a cause of concern,” the former aide testified, adding that he told Edwards the new videographer “looked a little nutty.” He said he Googled Hunter’s name and found her personal web site, the contents of which he described as “sex, drugs, rock n’ roll astrology.”
Brumberger said his misgivings grew after Hunter demanded to travel with Edwards on private jets, rather than commercial flights like other staff and consultants.
“Ms. Hunter felt she pretty much had an all-access pass to everything,” he said. “I disagreed.”
Brumberger said he attempted to bar Hunter from the flights, but the candidate overruled him.
Edwards also ordered Brumberger to make sure the PAC paid for Hunter’s health insurance, unheard-of for a consultant not on the full-time staff. Concerns were also raised among senior staff that Hunter didn’t appear to know much about shooting video. Tapes filmed by Hunter played for the jury showed shaky camera work where those speaking were sometimes not in focus or not in the frame at all.
“It was shoddy and unprofessional,” Brumberger said.
Brumberger also described accompanying Edwards on his first trip to the Virginia estate of donor Rachel “Bunny” Mellon in December 2005. The visit unfolded pleasantly with her recounting her visits to the Kennedy White House, where she helped plant the rose garden.
Soon after, the wealthy heiress made the first in a series of substantial donations to Edwards’ political committees and his anti-poverty foundation that would eventually total more than $6 million.
Prosecutors said Edwards used money from Mellon, who’s now 101, and another wealthy donor to hide the mistress. Edwards’ attorneys have said he didn’t know it was being used to hide her and that another former aide, Andrew Young, spent much of it on his dream house.
Brumberger described how Edwards and his associates made efforts to stay in touch with Mellon, including calling on her birthday and sending flowers. Brumberger said that it was typical for Edwards to have “call time” with major donors.
Months after the first meeting with Mellon, Brumberger was traveling with Edwards when he called her on her birthday from North Dakota. Brumberger sent Young — a key adviser — an email that it had gone well.
“JRE called. Bunny is still in LOVE,” Brumberger wrote in the email, referring to Edwards by his initials.
After the email was displayed in court on Wednesday, prosecutors asked Brumberger what it meant.
“I believe what I meant by that is Ms. Mellon was still supportive of Mr. Edwards’s causes,” Brumberger testified to laughter in the courtroom.
Prosecutors have said Mellon offered under-the-table cash to cover Edwards’ personal expenses after the candidate was embarrassed by media reports that campaign funds were used to pay for $400 haircuts.
Weeks later, Hunter informed the candidate she was pregnant. According to the account in Young’s 2010 tell-all book about the affair, Edwards was unable to access his own money to support Hunter without his wife, Elizabeth, finding out. So, Young says, Edwards decided to take Mellon up on her offer.
For most of 2006, Hunter traveled with Edwards for months to meetings across the country, as well as on an overseas trip to Africa.
Concerned about the affair, Brumberger said he twice tried confronting his boss. After Edwards made no effort to send Hunter away, Brumberger said he talked to two senior staff members.
Edwards learned of the meeting and confronted Brumberger in a private lounge at the Chicago airport just before the men were supposed to board a plane to China.
Using expletives, Edwards began yelling and his face turned red.
“He said he couldn’t trust me anymore,” Brumberger recounted. Edwards informed the aide that he might be fired.
Brumberger said he quit, instead.
“I told Mr. Edwards I was no longer interested in working for him,” Brumberger said. “I was kind of in shock.”
It was almost exactly a year before news of Edwards’ affair began to tumble out in the heat of the Democratic primary campaign.