By Wade Rawlins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - John Edwards seemed more like "a spectator than a participant" at a 2007 meeting during which his wife, Elizabeth, railed at two political donors for maintaining ties to his mistress, according to testimony on Wednesday at the former senator's trial.
Jennifer Palmieri, a former campaign advisor who is now White House deputy director of communications, said Elizabeth Edwards was angry after learning that Fred Baron and his wife, Lisa, had flown Rielle Hunter to Beverly Hills for a shopping spree and were continuing a relationship with her.
"Rielle was a loose cannon and Fred and Lisa thought it was important to keep the relationship going," Palmieri said, in describing the 2007 meeting at a hotel in Davenport, Iowa, at which she was present.
"Elizabeth just wanted Rielle out of their lives entirely," she said.
Edwards, 58, is accused of violating federal election laws by soliciting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign contributions, mainly from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, as he pursued the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The federal government contends that the one-term North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee sought the money to conceal the affair, knowing revelations that he was cheating on his cancer-stricken wife and had fathered Hunter's child would destroy his campaign.
At issue is whether Edwards knew details about efforts by campaign supporters to keep the affair from being publicized during the campaign, or only became aware of them much later, as his lawyers have claimed.
The government says the money should have been reported as political donations because it was meant to protect Edwards' image and candidacy. The defense argues that the payments were from one private third party to another and should not be characterized as campaigned contributions.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count if convicted. The trial is in its third week of testimony.
Prosecutors said they expected to conclude their presentation on Thursday and submitted a list of their final witnesses, which did not include Hunter.
Palmieri told the court that the October 2007 meeting was an emotional scene and she was summoned to help calm down Elizabeth. The Barons took the position that it was important to maintain contact with Hunter, though there was no hint that Hunter was already pregnant.
Edwards himself said little. "He seemed more like a spectator than a participant," she said. "I found it unnerving."
When the campaign got notice that the National Enquirer was preparing to publish an article about the affair later in October 2007, Palmieri recalled telling Edwards, "Don't think if this is true that you'll be able to survive this."
Palmieri said Edwards still harbored hopes of speaking at the Democratic National Convention and being named attorney general, even after he was caught by tabloid reporters at the Beverly Hilton in July 2008 visiting Hunter and their daughter.
"I told him both of those options were gone a long time ago, and he was deluded to think otherwise," she said.
She testified that she worked with Edwards on the statement he issued at the time of an ABC Nightline interview in August 2008. In it, Edwards admitted the affair but not that he was the father of Hunter's baby.
She said she suspected that Edwards was not telling the whole truth and severed contact with him after the ABC Nightline interview.
Palmieri said she resumed contact with him in December 2010 shortly before Elizabeth Edwards died of cancer. The couple was separated by then.
Palmieri said she was at Elizabeth Edwards' bedside during her last days. She became emotional as she recalled Elizabeth expressing fears that she would die alone "without a man around who loved her."
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Xavier Briand)