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Blaming the flirtatious wife? Ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell’s trial turns tabloid

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Jan. 21, 2014: Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks during a news conference in Richmond, Va., accompanied by his wife, Maureen. (AP)

As governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell was a savvy southerner often talked about as a hot Republican presidential prospect for 2016.

Now he’s fighting to stay out of jail.

The fall-from-grace narrative is a classic one, a rising-star politician who accepted lavish gifts from a rich businessman seeking help from state government. But this tale had a twist: McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, was a key go-between with the executive, Jonnie Williams.

In a Richmond courthouse, the former governor has mounted an eye-opening defense, saying that his wife was smitten with the guy while their own relationship had collapsed.

I guess desperate times call for desperate measures.

Call it the broken marriage defense: Bob McDonnell says he’s innocent because his wife—who is also on trial—was flirting her way into a sleazy relationship with Williams. And Maureen is on board with the legal case.

“Jonnie Williams was larger than life to Maureen McDonnell,” said her attorney, William Burck. “But unlike the other man in her life, Jonnie Williams paid attention to Maureen McDonnell.”

In fact, she had a “crush” on him—and some might view the relationship as “inappropriate,” said Burck. Maureen and Jonnie Williams exchanged 1,200 texts and phone calls during this period. She and her husband, meanwhile, were “barely on speaking terms.” And he plans to introduce an email in which Bob McDonnell urged his wife to “help save the marriage.”

Lawyers said that Maureen, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader, grew to hate her husband and the situation “broke their marriage apart.” The pressures were such, they said, that “another man could invade and poison the marriage.”

This strikes me as a fairly audacious attempt to save the former governor’s skin by blaming the mess on his wife. He was an upstanding leader while she was swooning over this Jonnie fellow. She was the one who really wanted the gifts. The problem with this defense is there is also evidence that implicates Bob McDonnell as a player in this scheme.

Williams, who has already changed his story once, ran a company that made a nutrition supplement that he wanted Virginia to promote.  It just so happens that he gave Virginia’s first couple $150,000 in cash, loans, vacations, golf outings and gifts. 

Williams took the stand yesterday and delivered what seemed to me smoking-gun testimony, at least if the jury believes a guy who has already changed his story once. He described Maureen McDonnell telling him in a meeting, "‘I have a background in nutritional supplements, and I can be helpful to you with this project with your company. The governor says it’s OK for me to help you, but I need you to help me with this financial situation."

Kind of sounds like a quid pro quo. And if that weren't enough, Williams said he sought and obtained a meeting with the governor: "He’s the bread winner in the house, and I’m not writing his wife checks without him knowing about it.”

The largesse included catering for the wedding of the McDonnells’ daughter. And Williams financed a New York shopping spree in which Maureen spent $11,000 at Oscar de la Renta, $5,685 at Louis Vitton and $2,604 at Bergdorf Goodman. The purchases also included two sets of golf clubs and a silver Rolex inscribed “71st Governor of Virginia.”

Meanwhile, the governor asked a top state health official to meet with Williams and allowed the businessman to use his mansion for a launch party for a pill made by the company (that by the way wasn’t approved by the FDA).

But let’s face it: What’s driving the media interest is the newly disclosed salacious side of the story, the one in which staffers referred to Williams as the first lady’s “favorite playmate.” It’s hard to know what’s more riveting: the details of the couple’s dysfunctional marriage and Maureen’s alleged flirtation with Williams, or the weirdness of the couple using this argument to beat the rap.

The Washington Post, which broke many details of the story, has highlighted this 2009 email from Maureen McDonnell to her husband’s aide after Williams offered to buy her an inaugural gown: “We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!”

In Tuesday’s testimony, a former Williams assistant said “she helped make arrangements for Bob and Maureen McDonnell to spend Labor Day weekend at Cape Cod with Williams and his wife and two other couples where they enjoyed golf, a sailing trip and dinner at restaurants. When asked by the governor's office, Fulkerson valued the weekend for the McDonnells at more than $6,000. Fulkerson also helped arrange a trip for one of the McDonnell daughters and a girlfriend to Florida that same weekend.”

Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times Dispatch writes of the couple’s “body language”:

“The two routinely make separate entrances at the fortress-like federal courthouse on East Broad Street…McDonnell coolly greeted his wife ahead of Tuesday’s proceedings. They were expressionless as defense sketched a portrait of their marriage.”

All this, he says, is very different from “the image Bob McDonnell advanced as a candidate for governor. To blunt his controversial graduate school thesis – it decried working mothers, cohabitation, homosexuality, and premarital sex – McDonnell ran television commercials in which his wife and five children were front and center.

“In one ‘Leave to Beaver’-esque advertisement, Bob and Maureen were a model of suburban contentment, sitting in front of a trim house as their smiling, chattering kids bounded out the front door, with one of the twin boys cheerfully demanding the keys to the family car. Now, several of those children are witnesses at their parents’ trial.”

If nothing else, this trial dramatizes the difference between the image that some politicians and their families present to the public and the sad reality of their private lives. But it also shows that tabloid allegations don’t always come from the media; sometimes they surface when defendants are trying to save themselves.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.