Editor’s note (Sept. 10, 2019): This story was published in September 2014. It recently received renewed attention when Sanford announced his intention to run against President Donald Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination. The story and headline remain as published in September 2014; the only update made to this page since then has been the addition of this editor’s note.
Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina surprised the political world Friday with his announcement that he was ending his engagement to the woman with whom he had an extramarital affair, the revelation of which stunted his rising-star career five years ago.
But in interviews last spring, Sanford and his fiancée, María Belén Chapur, indicated that a relationship born in a stew of infidelity, 21st-century politics and Twitter-enhanced cable-news sensationalism had, perhaps inevitably, sustained damage.
During the intervening months the relationship collapsed as the two argued over a wedding date, Chapur said in an interview Saturday. Chapur said Sanford had asked to delay the marriage by two more years, when his son Blake would no longer be a minor and a divorce fight over visitation rights would be moot.
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“I’ve already been five years waiting and two years since the engagement,” she said.
Chapur was speaking from Paris, where she had just spent a week with Sanford.
“We had a great time here, we were like in a honeymoon,” she said. “I thought that he might tell me, ‘OK, let’s put a date, end of 2015.’ But that didn’t happen. That’s why I wrote to him, ‘I had a spectacular week, you know I love you, but I don’t want to continue in the category of mistress, and if we continue like this I continue in that category, and I can’t bear it anymore. It has been really painful to me.’”
She continued: “His response was, ‘24 months. If not I’ll say goodbye and I will look for you in 24 months.’” She said she had asked him to make their break public, but that Sanford did not warn her before announcing it on Facebook on Friday, catching her off guard. “I learned it from the press today,” she said Saturday.
And so ends, apparently, one of the strangest publicly litigated affairs in modern political history.
Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina, was hardly the first major American politician to get caught cheating on his wife. But his affair was of a nature that drew added attention. It even spawned a new euphemism for extramarital affairs: Hiking the Appalachian Trail.
That was what Sanford’s staff had initially said he was doing when, in June 2009, he went inexplicably missing from his governor’s post for several days. In fact, he had left for Argentina to visit Chapur, attempts to save his marriage, and his plans for a possible presidential campaign, notwithstanding.
Upon Sanford’s admission that he was pursuing an affair in Argentina, Chapur went into a prolonged period of hiding. In her first interview in the United States, with The New York Times Magazine last spring, Chapur said she went to such lengths to avoid reporters that she once left her apartment building in the trunk of a neighbor’s Peugeot.
Even after Sanford announced their engagement, in August 2012, they never swung into a regular routine.
Just a few months later, Sanford decided to run in the special election for the congressional seat vacated by Tim Scott, the Republican whom Gov. Nikki Haley had tapped for the seat left open by Sen. Jim DeMint’s early retirement.
Sanford’s aides believed that the voters he was courting would not be ready to accept the woman for whom he ended his marriage, even if they were ready to forgive him his own sins. So Chapur largely stayed out of view. “He needs to put he was engaged to me, but at the same time he needed to hide me, so that was an issue,” Chapur said Saturday.
When Sanford clinched the Republican nomination, Chapur surprised him at the victory party. Sanford’s ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, angrily told The Washington Post at the time that it was the first time that their son Bolton had met Chapur and that he and another brother in attendance were “visibly shaken.”
Then Chapur more or less went back into hiding, until Sanford’s general election victory.
In her interview with The Times Magazine last spring, Chapur described her time apart from Sanford as extremely difficult, though she also portrayed it as a form of penance, given that “we started in the wrong way.”
At the time of that interview, Sanford had been appearing publicly with Chapur more often. During the interview, Chapur relayed her elation over a recent visit the two had made to a parade in South Carolina, where, she remarked that women and men alike appeared to embrace her position at Sanford’s side. It had led her to conclude, “It was worth it, because people realize that it was a love story at the end of the day.”
Yet, come June, Chapur was back in Argentina and Sanford was busy working in Washington. There was no wedding date and their future seemed unclear.
In his Facebook post Friday, Sanford indicated one major issue in the delay was the ongoing wrangling with his ex-wife over the terms of their divorce.
The Associated Press reported this month that Jenny Sanford had filed a motion seeking to prohibit either parent from having Blake stay overnight in the presence of anyone “who could reasonably be construed as a paramour.”
“No relationship can stand forever this tension of being forced to pick between the one you love and your own son or daughter,” Mark Sanford wrote in his Facebook post. “And for this reason Belén and I have decided to call off the engagement.”
Chapur said Saturday that she did not buy Sanford’s explanation that his divorce was standing in the way of their marriage, and that he should not “leave blame on Jenny.” Chapur said she felt as if she had been cast aside now that Sanford was back in political office (he will face no major challenge this fall).
“I think that I was not useful to him anymore; he made the engagement thing four months before the elections,” Chapur said. “So this is not about his son, this is about his career and his ambitions.” Sanford, she said, “truly was the love of my life.” But, she added, “In 24 months, what was it going to be?”
Sanford had no comment. But on his Facebook page he wrote, “Maybe there will be another chapter when waters calm with Jenny, but at this point the environment is not conducive to building anything given no one would want to be caught in the middle of what’s now happening. Belen is a remarkably wonderful woman who I have always loved and I will be forever grateful for.”