McDonnell Trial: Close Aide Describes ‘Diva-ish’ First Lady

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The former Secretary of the Commonwealth described a “strained” relationship with the “diva-ish” former first lady of Virginia when she took the stand Monday in the federal corruption case against ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his wife.

Janet Vestal Kelly, whom the Washington Post described as perhaps the governor’s closest personal friend in the administration, was the second witness called to testify by the defense. The prosecution had rested its case against McDonnell on Thursday.

Kelly testified that the governor was an “extraordinarily gracious man” who never asked her to appoint a donor or friend to a job or board position, according to the Post. She had less kind words for the first lady, whom she said she was “personally very fond of” but found hard to work with by the close of McDonnell’s 2009 campaign for governor.

“My relationship with the first lady had deteriorated beyond the point of common sense,” Kelly testified, as quoted by the Post.

She became emotional at a later point in her testimony, tearfully cautioning that she didn’t want to “pile on” the first lady before describing her as “very difficult, very demanding, very diva-ish,” according to the Post. Kelly then noted that she persuaded the entire Executive Mansion staff to abandon a plan to quit en masse in early 2012, testifying that she believed the first lady was “pathologically incapable of taking any kind of responsibility.”

The defense has cultivated that image of Maureen McDonnell as extremely demanding throughout the trial, perhaps most notably when the governor’s former chief of staff was prompted to acknowledge that she’d called the first lady a “nut bag” in interviews with prosecutors. Former Executive Mansion director Sarah Scarbrough also testified earlier in the trial that the governor “was in denial about Mrs. McDonnell’s mental capacity.”

Kelly reinforced that narrative Monday, testifying over prosecutors’ objections that “there were concerns that she was suffering from mental illness,” according to the Post.

Another strategy the defense has adopted is portraying the McDonnells’ marriage as being so broken by 2011 that the two couldn’t have conspired together to promote businessman Jonnie Williams’ dietary supplement company in exchange for gifts and loans. Kelly’s testimony suggested that the marriage may have been somewhat rocky.

Kelly said it made her curious when she saw the couple holding hands in public and testified that she thought “the substance of the marriage didn’t seem to back that up,” according to the Post. When asked by the defense whether she thought the governor loved his wife, however, she responded “Sure, I think he loved his wife.”

She also provided some support for the defense’s argument that Maureen McDonnell had a “crush” on Williams. Kelly testified that Williams and the first lady had been “kind of flirty” on a flight to South Carolina that she spent with them in 2012.

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