At the McDonnell trial, sidewalk visuals drive home the same point as testimony

Each morning, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell arrives at the federal courthouse for his public corruption trial — always with lawyers, sometimes with a daughter, never with his wife.

Each morning, about five minutes later, Maureen McDonnell arrives — always with lawyers, sometimes with a daughter, never with her husband.

Each afternoon, they depart, same scene, played in reverse.

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As the sensational trial nears its end, these sidewalk set pieces have provided a riveted public with daily glimpses of the ­made-for-Netflix drama unfolding inside. And, according to criminal lawyers, they are as likely to be scripted as everything else in a high-stakes legal battle.

McDonnell entrances

The McDonnells move as if cued by a stage manager. The onetime GOP political star enters pavement left, coiffed, confident and glad to see his old friends in the press corps. The scrum moves like a camera-wielding chorus line, a dozen backward-dancing Ginger Rogers to his unstoppable, unflappable Fred Astaire, as he gives bland answers to the innocuous questions and no answers to the tough ones.

“Yes, my family’s been amazingly supportive,” McDonnell, 60, said on his approach to the front door Monday morning. Over his shoulder an apt marquee loomed across Broad Street: Richmond’s National Theater.

Maureen McDonnell, also 60, appears next, usually stern-faced, eyes down, keeping a pinch-lipped silence as her legal team ice-breaks through the clot of cameras and microphones. Earlier this week, after her husband’s entourage had strolled down the block, she made a beeline for the curb and climbed into a waiting burgundy Suburban with an OBX sticker on the window.

The point made, as many observers have noted, is that they are not together, reinforcing days of testimony about their troubled marriage.

“You have the jury very much in mind when you make all these arrangements,” said Houston super lawyer Dick DeGuerin, who counts former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) among his high-profile clients.

Jurors may be instructed to avoid media coverage of their cases, but lawyers assume differently. Even an obedient juror may see a flash of footage from the courthouse entrance before lunging for the remote. Wives and boyfriends may let slip an impression they’ve seen. And some will just cheat.

“If there’s a chink in the armor or a crack in the smile, it’s going to get caught,” DeGuerin said. He hasn’t talked to any members of McDonnell’s defense team, but he assumes that they have laid out the courtroom comings and goings just as they want them.

The McDonnells face a 14-count indictment alleging that they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to bon-vivant vitamin salesman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for $177,000 in sweetheart loans and luxury gifts.

In testimony, Maureen McDonnell has been portrayed as the agitated, estranged spouse who brokered most of their entanglements with Williams.

The two are now living apart, Robert McDonnell revealed last week on the witness stand. On Wednesday, the couple’s eldest daughter, Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky, described growing up in a household filled with tension, with a lonely, depressed mother who eventually developed a “mild obsession” with Williams and a father more devoted to his career than his marriage.

The McDonnells’ sidewalk demeanor, DeGuerin noted, echoes much of the testimony. The former governor is confident and comfortable in the public spotlight, his wife decidedly not.

“That all plays into the story,” DeGuerin said. “She’s not a public official, but she was the one that got them into this.”

There is a distinctly Old Dominion air to the stakeout that greets the McDonnells each day about 9:30 a.m. and sees them off at 5:30 or 6 p.m. Unlike the elbow-throwing, question-shouting media mob at many celebrity trials, the McDonnell scrum of mostly local journalists has been a more collegial inquisition.

Reporters and cameramen close ranks around the governor, but only for a few yards, leaving him and his team to walk on unmolested past the vacant lot to their unofficial base at the Hilton Garden Inn two blocks away. Early in the proceedings, a backward-walking cameraman did trip on a bike rack, nearly toppling. The former governor stopped to pick up his microphone and ask if he was okay.

“Most of us have been covering him for years,” said one of the regulars, who, like several others, asked not to be named. “It’s a great story, and we want to get whatever we can, but I don’t think anyone sees any point in being the pack of jackals.”

In the mornings, the ensemble shuffles to the glass doors, then steps aside for McDonnell to enter.

There, the man who used to be whisked through side doors and referred to as “his excellency,” joins the queue at the metal detector. On the day he first took the stand, McDonnell, in a gray suit and blue tie, emptied his pockets, took off his belt and stepped through. The machine beeped.

“I think it might be the pin on my coat,” he said, stepping back, stripping off his coat and putting it on the conveyor belt.

As the trial has progressed, though, the crowd of reporters, photographers and videographers has thickened, and the atmosphere has grown more strained. One afternoon, a Catholic priest who had been Robert McDonnell’s roommate at Notre Dame stopped on the sidewalk to repeat his testimony: His friend of 42 years was a man of strong moral character.

In that case, a reporter asked, turning to McDonnell, “how did you get yourself into this mess?”

“Well,” McDonnell parried, “we’ve got a couple more days to talk about that.”

The former first lady, too, walks the gantlet of lenses. But she walks it mostly in silence.

Earlier this week, there was only the sound of shuffling feet as the clot escorted the former first lady the 30 feet to her waiting SUV. Only occasionally has a reporter broken the deep hush around the defendant. One afternoon, after her daughter Cailin had broken down on the witness stand, she was asked, “How’s Cailin?”

“Fine,” Maureen McDonnell murmured. Or maybe it was “Good.”

Her husband, by then, had already left.

Prosecutors seem to have noticed the twice-daily cavalcade of estrangement outside the courthouse, and they want the jury of seven men and five women to know it wasn’t always that way. They have displayed, as evidence, photographs from last spring, when the couple strode hand-in-hand into court for pretrial hearings.

“They are fighting an image war right now, and the fight is whether the McDonnells are a couple in distress or are they a fraud,” said Chris LaCivita, a longtime Virginia political consultant who has worked for numerous Republican candidates (although not McDonnell).

When it comes to political defendants, what makes the legal advisers happy may make the campaign consultants go pale. As a rule, they prefer their clients to stand shoulder to shoulder with their spouses rather than back to back.

“Politically, there’s no upside to walking into court every day without your wife,” Democratic campaign consultant Ellen Qualls said. With the sidewalk visuals and Maureen-centric testimony, “he may be winning the news cycle and losing the overall narrative. Would a woman in Virginia ever vote for him again?”

But after decades of political theater, the McDonnells are now following another script entirely.

Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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