John Edwards and the Mistress: A Breakdown of One of America's Most Sensational Scandals

An inside look at one of the most sensational sex scandals in American history.

ByABC News
November 11, 2013, 2:19 PM
John Edwards speaks at his campaign headquarters in Las Vegas, Jan. 18, 2008.
John Edwards speaks at his campaign headquarters in Las Vegas, Jan. 18, 2008.
Frank Polich/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Nov. 12, 2013— -- John Edwards was once a titan in the Democratic Party, one who, just seven years ago, was considered a top contender for the White House, until he was caught in one of the most sensational sex scandals in American history.

The scandal, which involved an illicit affair with a 2008 presidential campaign aide, followed by a love child and an intense cover-up, would be Edwards' undoing. His career in professional politics would be over.

It started in 2006. Many thought Hillary Clinton was damaged goods and Barack Obama, then just a rising star in the U.S. Senate, was too green for the 2008 democratic presidential nomination. The young, charismatic Edwards, having already established himself on the national stage as then-Sen. John Kerry's vice presidential candidate for an unsuccessful 2004 bid for the White House, was rapidly looking like the next president of the United States.

At the time, Edwards' greatest political asset was his wife Elizabeth, a breast cancer survivor and a doting mother to the couple's four children.

Ahead of the 2008 election campaign, Edwards traveled the country to drum up support for a presidential run, when he met a feisty unknown actress and movie producer named Rielle Hunter. According to Hunter, their love affair began with a California hotel encounter.

"So he rounded the street corner and it came out of my mouth, 'You're so hot,'" Hunter told ABC News in an interview last year.

Former vice presidential candidate's mistress regrets "wrong, selfish behavior" in 2006 affair.
Former vice presidential candidate's mistress regrets "wrong, selfish behavior" in 2006 affair.

Rielle Hunter on Edwards' Affair: 'I Believed I Could Help Him'

Eventually, Hunter told ABC News, that she went to a hotel room with Edwards, and she said he persuaded her to sit with him on the hotel room bed. After sleeping together, Hunter said she didn't expect the affair with Edwards to continue.

"Chances are high this was, I'd be left with memories. That was it," she told ABC News in 2012.

But the man who would soon be a candidate for president decided to pursue Hunter, risking it all to be with her.

"We could not get enough of each other on the telephone," Hunter said. "If we were not together, we would be talking on the phone about four hours every night. We couldn't hang up."

Edwards hired Hunter to make a behind-the-scenes film of the campaign, a perfect cover for their secret affair to continue while they were on the road together. But nine months after Hunter joined the campaign, their illicit bliss was shattered when Elizabeth Edwards heard a cell phone ring. It turned out to be the secret cell phone John Edwards had been using only to talk to Hunter. Elizabeth called back the number.

"And I said, 'Hey, baby.' Click," Hunter told ABC News.

When Elizabeth Edwards confronted her husband, he told her that Hunter was just a one-night stand, but their affair continued, even when Elizabeth's breast cancer returned, this time, incurable. On March 22, 2007, Edwards stood next to his wife when they announced at a joint-press conference that her cancer was back and what it would mean for his presidential campaign.

"We're going to always look for the silver lining," Elizabeth Edwards told reporters at the time. "It's who we are as people and we will continue to do it."

But behind that public front of a family united in tragedy, Elizabeth suspected her husband was still having an affair.

Caught between a dying wife and a demanding mistress, all while running for president, Edwards didn't need additional drama. But in May 2007, Hunter revealed she was pregnant with his child.

"He was cussing her out, calling her crazy and saying that she had sworn to him that she was physically unable to get pregnant and that he just felt like he had been set up," Young told ABC News. "He tried to convince me to convince Rielle to have an abortion."

Then in October 2007, the phone rang at the office of a tabloid newspaper, The National Enquirer. Barry Levine, the editor of the Enquirer, told ABC News that one of their reporters took a call from a friend of Hunter's, who had been "telling her friend that she had met a man who was married that she had fallen in love with."

Suddenly, the Enquirer had a story that Edwards, the family man running for president as his wife was dying of cancer, had a mistress on the campaign trail.

"We obviously worked with the Enquirer, trying to convince them not to run it," Prince said.

But the Enquirer ran its story, although it didn't mention Hunter by name or its source for the information. Edwards continued to campaign -- and sleeping with Hunter. Then, on Dec. 19, 2007, with the crucial 2008 Iowa Caucuses drawing near, the Enquirer published a follow-up -- a photo showing a pregnant Hunter.

According to Young, Edwards devised a plan to have Young claim to be the father of Hunter's baby.

"He wanted me to issue a statement claiming paternity for Rielle's child," Young said.

The issue was, not only was it not true, but Young is married.

"When he asked me, I, I really about fell over. 'How could John Edwards ask you to do that?'" Young's wife, Cheri Young, told ABC News in a 2010 interview.

Andrew and Cheri Young: John Edwards Came First in Our Marriage

Even Hunter said she thought the idea that Young say he's the father of her child was ludicrous.

"'Insane,' that was my reaction," she told ABC News last year. "'That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard. Nobody will buy that.'"

Nevertheless, they went along with Edwards' plan, and people did buy it, largely because no one wanted to believe Edwards could possibly be cheating on his wife. Meanwhile, Young said he was receiving money from wealthy donors to keep Hunter and her baby out of the public eye.

"Money was no object. You know, we were living in mansions, flying around in jets," Young said.

On Jan. 30, 2008, Edwards announced he was suspending his campaign for president, but it wasn't until after Hunter gave birth to a baby girl that the last of Edwards' lies about the affair were exposed.

Finally, on Jan. 21, 2010, nearly two years to the day after suspending his presidential campaign, Edwards came clean and, in a statement, he admitted to being the father of Hunter's baby. Edwards' admission came a week before Young was scheduled to appear in an ABC News interview.

That same month, Edwards separated from his wife, Elizabeth. After learning the truth about the affair, Elizabeth Edwards began divorce proceedings but died on Dec. 7, 2010 before the papers came through.

In 2011, John Edwards was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly using hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds to hide Hunter during the 2008 presidential race. The following year, he was acquitted on one count of violating campaign finance rules and a federal judge declared a mistrial on five other criminal counts after the jury came back deadlocked. The Justice Department decided to not retry the case.

With his political career over, Edwards is working to renew his license to practice law.

Hunter went on to write a tell-all memoir about her affair with Edwards entitled, "What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter, and Me," which was released on June 26, 2012. On the day her book was released, Hunter announced during a sit-down interview on "Good Morning America" that she and Edwards were no longer together.

Rielle Hunter, Tired of 'Hiding,' Split With John Edwards

Just last month, Hunter publicly apologized for the affair in a Huffington Post column ahead of the release of her newly updated memoir.

"I behaved badly. That may seem obvious to you but it's taken me a long time to admit that, even to myself," she wrote. "I hurt Elizabeth and her kids. I hurt her family. I hurt John's family."

Edwards and Hunter's daughter, Quinn, is now 5 years old.

ABC News' Nick Watt contributed to this report