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Former Edwards aide testifies about wife’s outrage at donor

2d witness says candidate knew of coverup funds

Jennifer Palmieri, former spokeswoman for John Edwards, had become close friends with Elizabeth Edwards.

GREENSBORO, N.C. - A former campaign spokeswoman for John Edwards testified Wednesday that his wife angrily confronted a key donor about the man’s support for the presidential candidate’s pregnant mistress in 2007 at a hotel in Iowa.

Jennifer Palmieri also said she eventually distanced herself from Edwards after he acknowledged the affair in an August 2008 television interview but was not truthful about the baby he had with his mistress. The former aide later on the stand at Edwards’s corruption trial while discussing her friendship with Elizabeth Edwards.

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Prosecutors indicated they will wrap up their case Thursday without calling the mistress, Rielle Hunter, to testify.

Palmieri testified the candidate had called her to the Davenport, Iowa, hotel room where Elizabeth Edwards was arguing with campaign finance chairman Fred Baron and his wife about their financial aid to Hunter.

Palmieri had become close friends with Elizabeth Edwards, and John Edwards hoped her presence could help calm the situation. Palmieri is now the deputy communications director for President Obama.

That day in October 2007, Palmieri said Baron’s wife, Lisa Blue, admitted to Elizabeth Edwards she had flown Hunter to Los Angeles for a shopping trip.

“You’ve got to hold your friends close and your enemies closer,’’ Palmieri quoted Blue as telling the enraged wife. Blue said that Hunter was a “loose cannon’’ who could have exposed the affair to the media, Palmieri said.

At the time, a tabloid was publishing an article about the affair, and Palmieri said the campaign was absorbed with keeping the story from crossing over into the mainstream media. Edwards had told his wife he had a brief fling with Hunter but that he had ended the affair many months earlier, according to earlier testimony.

In fact, Edwards had continued the affair and Hunter was then pregnant with his child. A close aide to Edwards, Andrew Young, had rented the mistress a home a few miles away from the Edwards family estate in Chapel Hill. The candidate had kept the arrangement secret from his wife.

How much John Edwards knew about the money spent on Hunter to cover up his affair is a critical question at his trial. Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts of campaign finance violations related to about $1 million in secret payments from Baron and 101-year-old heiress Rachel “Bunny’’ Mellon.

Edwards has denied knowing about the money, much of which was used to hide the pregnant mistress as he campaigned for the White House. Baron flew Hunter across the country in his private jet, paid for stays in luxury resorts, and secured a $20,000-a-month rental mansion in California.

Earlier Wednesday, campaign speechwriter Wendy Button retook the witness stand after testifying the previous day about help she provided Edwards in drafting a statement during the summer of 2009. He intended to come clean about his lies regarding the affair and admit paternity of his child with Hunter, she said.

Edwards went through 13 drafts of the statement, getting feedback from his lawyers and a wide-ranging group of friends that included the actor Sean Penn, Button said. Edwards did not release a statement admitting paternity until January 2010.

Button testified that Edwards admitted to her during that summer he knew all along that Baron had been supporting his mistress and baby. The girl was born in February 2008, a few weeks after he suspended his presidential campaign after poor showings in the early primary states.

That contradicts what Edwards has said about his knowledge of the money, most notably in a written statement and nationally televised network interview from August 2008.

On Wednesday, Edwards’s defense lawyer, Abbe Lowell, admitted his client had “lied quite extensively’’ in that interview by saying he had only a brief sexual relationship with Hunter and denying he fathered her baby.

Palmieri said she had advised Edwards against doing the interview, which came shortly after tabloid reporters photographed Edwards visiting his mistress and baby at a Beverly Hills hotel.

“I said I did not want him doing the interview if he was going to lie,’’ she said. “Even I didn’t believe what he was saying.’’

But Palmieri said Edwards decided to go ahead anyway after his wife drafted a public statement for him denying the baby was his and pressed for its release. She said Elizabeth Edwards still believed her husband was not the father, and Palmieri tried to dissuade her of that.

In an attempt to mitigate the damage from the planned interview, Palmieri said she selected ABC’s “Nightline’’ as the venue for the interview because the news show was going up that night against the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on rival NBC, which was expected to get far bigger ratings.

After Edwards lied repeatedly in the interview, Palmieri said she asked a friend of Edwards’s to deliver him a message that she did not want him to call her for help anymore.

She did see him occasionally because she remained friends with Elizabeth Edwards, who eventually separated from her cheating husband. Palmieri was with the Edwards family when Elizabeth died in December 2010 after her long battle with cancer.

Palmieri broke down as she described how her friend was not able to speak in her final days but had earlier told her about one of her greatest fears.

“She was concerned that when she died, there would not be a man who loved her there,’’ Palmieri said.

The statement caused Edwards, who had shown no reaction for much of his former spokeswoman’s testimony, to drop his head and put a hand to his face.

Asked by one of Edwards’s lawyers if the husband was also at Elizabeth’s bedside in her final hours, Palmieri dabbed away tears with a tissue.

“John was there,’’ she replied.

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