RICHMOND — On his second day on the witness stand, Bob McDonnell, the former Virginia governor on trial for public corruption charges, deftly oscillated between expressing sympathy for his wife, Maureen, and skewering her for poor judgment and emotional volatility.
McDonnell pressed his contention Thursday that the estranged couple could not have conspired illegally.
McDonnell walked the jury methodically through their 38-year marriage, portraying the couple as drifting farther and farther apart as he relentlessly marched to higher office, from the Virginia General Assembly to attorney general to governor.
McDonnell testified that his wife, who looked on impassively under a curtain of gray bangs, was increasingly volatile toward members of her staff, abused his campaign donor lists to help her vitamin business, and was emotionally estranged from him. (The two are now living apart; he said he was staying with his parish priest to avoid a nightly rehashing of the trial.)
The former governor said it was “exceeding my skill set” to manage Maureen McDonnell’s problems with her staff members at the governor’s mansion, who threatened to quit en masse.
The nadir of their marital relations came during Labor Day weekend in 2011, when he returned from a business trip to spend the weekend with his wife and was met with hostility, he said.
In an e-mail made public in court, McDonnell pleaded with her to help repair the marriage but conceded, “I am spiritually and mentally exhausted from being yelled at. I don’t think you realize how you are affecting me and sometimes others with your tongue.”
At one point during his campaign for attorney general, McDonnell said, his political staff told him that his wife had used a campaign contact list to market her NuSkin product line, a move that he called “completely inappropriate.”
“I was very upset,” he testified, but she resisted every entreaty to stop.
The issue is significant because the couple’s legal jeopardy stems from $177,000 in loans, cash, and gifts that a vitamin manufacturer showered on Virginia’s first couple as he tried to promote his nutritional supplement firm, Star Scientific Inc.
Lawyers for the former governor hope to blame Maureen McDonnell for nurturing a crush on the businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., and an obsession with products like his.
But with the help of Bob McDonnell, who at times during his testimony appeared to be choking back tears, they also want jurors to believe that he could not have possibly conspired with his wife to sell his office because of marriage problems that began in the mid-1990s.
The troubles worsened in 2012, he said, with the Virginia Legislature ripped with partisan angst that made budgeting difficult, and his increasingly stressful schedule for the Republican Governors Association, which wanted him to raise $55 million, and as a surrogate for Mitt Romney, who was seeking the White House.
While McDonnell assigned himself loads of blame for the marriage problems, it was all but impossible to avoid the attendant impression of himself as a relentless climber for public service, despite his wife’s increasingly crumbling emotional health.
“Much of it was driven by the fact that I was physically and to some degree emotionally less available,” he said of their travails.