One night in 1996, because the Yankees clinched their first World Series in 18 years, Donald J. Trump was presiding over a masquerade ball at his sprawling Westchester County property.
Mr. Trump supposed to transform the house, a limestone mansion known as Seven Springs, right into a golf membership, and he had recruited one of the county’s best-connected legal professionals to assist him do it: Albert J. Pirro Jr. The costume get together was a lavish fund-raiser for Mr. Pirro’s spouse, the Westchester district lawyer, who greeted dozens of masked visitors in her personal putting get-up.
Jeanine F. Pirro had dressed as Queen Isabella of Spain.
“I was at the ballgame with George Steinbrenner, and it was great, just great,” Mr. Trump informed an attendee on the time. “But this is just great, too.”
At the time, Ms. Pirro appeared destined for political stardom. Her fiery type had earned her a spot on the nationwide TV circuit as a pundit on the O. J. Simpson case. The New Yorker was getting ready a fawning profile, full with Helmut Newton portrait. A run for lieutenant governor was within the offing; a United States Senate seat not out of the query.
But fates diverged for the luminaries within the room that night time. Mr. Trump by no means obtained that golf course, although he ultimately discovered success in larger endeavors. Mr. Pirro would go to jail for tax evasion, tailed by rumors about Mafia ties and revelations that he fathered a toddler out of wedlock.
And Ms. Pirro fell to earth. Though she was by no means charged, her husband’s crimes broken her political hopes; a Senate run in 2005 collapsed after she stumbled over her announcement speech. Later, she admitted to trying to wiretap Mr. Pirro’s yacht to catch him in an affair. (The couple are now divorced.) She scratched out a second act in daytime TV, hosting a low-rated courtroom show with C-list guests like Joey Buttafuoco. Another series, “You the Jury,” was canceled after two episodes.
And yet Ms. Pirro, 67, is in the midst of a late-in-life renaissance — as improbable and as polarizing as any of the twists in her unusual career.
Banished to a Siberia time slot — Saturday at 9 p.m. — Ms. Pirro has used an unrelenting defense of President Trump to put her weekly Fox News show, “Justice With Judge Jeanine,” at the heart of the national political conversation.
Stymied in her hopes for a Senate seat, she now has a direct line to the president. Her thunderous monologues calling for the imprisonment of federal prosecutors, or accusing the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, of treason, attract a devoted audience — not least in the West Wing, where Mr. Trump, a regular viewer, urges his millions of Twitter followers to tune in.
“She was in the right place at the right time with the right approach, and she’s taken advantage of it,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s lawyer and a frequent guest, who shared a table with Ms. Pirro at Mr. Trump’s 2005 wedding to Melania Knauss.
Despite the Saturday time slot, Ms. Pirro averages an audience of more than two million viewers an episode. That’s more than the average number of people who watch the MSNBC host Chris Hayes on weeknights. “Saturday Night Live” parodied her on “Weekend Update” last month.
The president has taken notice. “I like being on air with your beautiful ratings,” Mr. Trump told Ms. Pirro when he called in for a chummy interview in October, one of three he has granted the host.
If “Meet the Press” is aimed at the Washington establishment, “Justice With Judge Jeanine” is red meat for the Make America Great Again set. “Judge Pirro has understood the MAGA movement since Day 1,” said Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager.
Her reputation among pro-Trump conservatives has only grown since March, when she was suspended by Fox News after questioning the patriotism of Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, asking on air if the Muslim lawmaker’s religious beliefs undermined her loyalty to the United States. The remark prompted protests at Fox headquarters and a rare intramural rebuke by the network, which renounced her comments.
Ms. Pirro has a history of remarks deemed Islamophobic, declaring in 2015 that “we need to kill them, the radical Muslim terrorists hellbent on killing us.” But if the suspension was meant as punishment, it served only to supercharge her support from Mr. Trump, who tweeted a rallying cry: “Bring back @JudgeJeanine Pirro.”
Ms. Pirro never apologized. When she made her return on March 30, her show drew 2.56 million viewers, beating the competition on ABC and CBS.
For those who view Ms. Pirro as a camera-hungry opportunist — an accusation that has followed her from her days as a local prosecutor, when she sought out appearances with national TV hosts like Geraldo Rivera — her recent success is evidence of a willingness to bend principles for fame.
“I couldn’t imagine many of those comments coming from the person I knew,” said Mayo Bartlett, a lawyer who served under Ms. Pirro as an assistant district attorney. “After 9/11, there were a lot of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate crimes, and I had the green light from her to prosecute those cases. We stood with that community when they were really being targeted.”
A daughter of Lebanese-American parents, Ms. Pirro was raised Catholic in blue-collar Elmira, N.Y. Her mother was born in the United States, but spent much of her childhood in Beirut, where she later met Ms. Pirro’s father, a veteran of the United States Navy, after World War II.
“I learned to fight from my mother,” Ms. Pirro wrote in a 2003 memoir. “She impressed upon me throughout my childhood that I had to fight for myself, and I had to help those who were not strong enough to fight for themselves.”
Inspired by “Perry Mason,” Ms. Pirro dreamed of becoming a prosecutor, eventually starting one of the country’s first domestic-violence prosecution units. She was a centrist Republican in deep-blue New York, praised by Democrats like Geraldine Ferraro.
Now the Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling for Ms. Pirro to be fired. Ibrahim Hooper, the group’s communications director, pointed to the arrest last week of a man who threatened to kill Ms. Omar. Ms. Pirro, he said, “contributes to the toxic atmosphere in which that kind of violent behavior rises to the surface.”
Ms. Pirro declined to be interviewed for this article. In response to Mr. Hooper’s comment, Fox News referred to its prior statement condemning Ms. Pirro’s remarks about Ms. Omar, the Muslim lawmaker.
On the air, Ms. Pirro has echoed comments from her past, particularly when she attacks the investigation into possible ties between Mr. Trump and Russia, which she recently called “the biggest scandal in American history, bar none.”
In 2006, under investigation for bugging her husband’s boat, she called the inquiry a “witch hunt.” During Mr. Pirro’s trial in 2001, she denounced prosecutors for “a desperate attempt by them to bring me in this wherever they can.”
Although Ms. Pirro signed the couple’s joint tax return, she maintained she was unaware of her husband’s misdeeds. His trial dredged up embarrassing details about the Pirros’ spending, like a $1,800 wrought-iron pen for Ms. Pirro’s two Vietnamese potbellied pigs, Wilbur and Homer.
Fox News started “Justice With Judge Jeanine” in 2011. The show got a boost in 2015 from “The Jinx,” the popular HBO documentary about the real estate scion Robert Durst. As district attorney, Ms. Pirro reopened an investigation into the disappearance of Mr. Durst’s first wife. Though she never brought charges, Ms. Pirro later trailed Mr. Durst to his murder trial in Texas and spoke on TV so frequently about the case that she earned a gag order from the judge.
Ms. Pirro’s book “He Killed Them All: Robert Durst and My Quest for Justice” was called a gift to Mr. Durst’s defense lawyers by her critics, who faulted her attacks on investigators involved in the case. Relatives of Mr. Durst’s slain wife challenged some of the book’s claims. And the co-author, Lisa DePaulo, sued Ms. Pirro, saying the host forced her to perform menial tasks and tried to include material that she knew to be untrue. (The lawsuit was dismissed last month.)
On Instagram, Ms. Pirro presents a sunnier view of her life. She poses with her standard poodle, Sir Lancelot, and offers glimpses of her Westchester estate, which is outfitted Trump-style with imported marble. David Hebert, who served as a spokesman and assistant district attorney under Ms. Pirro, said in an interview that Ms. Pirro rose from setbacks “like a phoenix” and wished that critics knew her as “generous, kind, thoughtful.”
“We did a lot of work in the district attorney’s office reaching out to people who are disadvantaged and disenfranchised, to women and children and immigrants,” recalled Mr. Hebert, who is now the city manager of Oakland Park, Fla. “We made a special point of communicating on a regular basis with people who were not legal that they should not fear law enforcement.”
On Saturday, Ms. Pirro opened her Fox News program by lamenting the number of immigrants attempting to enter the United States. “One hundred thousand in one month, brought in just this past month,” she declared. “That’s what I just said — 100,000 in one month. That’s bigger than the town that I grew up in.”
In an interview, Mr. Giuliani was asked if he thought it unseemly for Ms. Pirro, a former prosecutor, to describe Justice Department leaders as potential traitors plotting a coup.
“Who better to criticize them,” Mr. Giuliani replied, “than someone who knows how it’s done?”
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.
Thank you for subscribing.
Something went wrong.