Nobody had a worse day yesterday than Sam Nunberg, the former Trump aide who, in a series of interviews on the three major news networks, grew increasingly unhinged as he announced his intention to violate both Robert Mueller’s subpoena to provide emails between him and Trump campaign officials and a scheduled grand jury appearance this coming Friday.
The interviews seemed so out of whack that Erin Burnett of CNN asked if he had been drinking, to which he replied he’d taken nothing all day except his meds. The high point — or low point, depending on how you look at it — came with his appearance on MSNBC’s The Beat with Ari Melber at 6:00 EST, where Melber and attorneys Maya Wiley and Barbara McQuaid did their best to talk some sense into him. The full interview can be watched below:
Nunberg had previously been on The Beat last week after his first round of questioning before the grand jury. Back then, he vouched for the Mueller investigation’s integrity, saying, “It wasn’t a waste of taxpayer money [or] a waste of time for me, either.” What a difference a week makes: yesterday, his motormouth produced a word salad Melber and his guests spent the next thirty-five minutes deciphering. The result was the interview equivalent of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, the movie so awful it inspires shock and awe in all who watch it.
Nunberg’s indignation came from the subpoena’s demand that he turn over more than a year’s worth of email communications with ten campaign aides, including Trump himself, Hope Hicks, and Corey Lewandowski. “I didn’t speak to Corey!” he said. “I despise Corey! If I could find Corey in an alley, I wouldn’t be very nice to him.” He wasn’t kind to Hicks, either, whom he dismissed as “Corey’s girlfriend” and accused her of colluding with Lewandowski to get him fired. Most importantly, he seemed fearful that the investigation would go after Roger Stone, who was recently revealed to be in contact with WikiLeaks during the campaign. The subpoena named him as one of the ten people they wanted emails with. This may have been the source of his erratic behavior, as he accused them of setting up a perjury case against a man he repeatedly called his mentor.
Keep in mind, Nunberg has been promised immunity for his participation in the investigation. There’s potentially nothing that could land him in jail other than violating the subpoena (according to this article, Mueller can’t go after him for skipping the grand jury.) Five minutes into the interview, Melber read him a statute that explained very clearly, “defying a subpoena is a jailable offense…under the rules, the court may hold in contempt any witness who disobeys.” “They’re gonna send me to jail?” he responded. “That’s funny!”
From there, Nunberg pivoted from defending his mentor to claiming that the subpoena was too “wide” (his word) in terms of what it asked from him. “I’m not going to give them every email I have with Steve Bannon or Roger Stone! I communicate with them every day!” Anyone watching this knew something was gnawing at him, which provoked Melber to ask, “Are you feeling OK?” Nunberg insisted he was fine, in the most blatant lie since Donald Trump tweeted “no collusion.”
Ten minutes later, Melber brought in the MVP of this interview, Maya Wiley, a former legal advisor to Mayor De Blasio. With the calmness of a parent explaining to a child why they have to eat their broccoli, Wiley explained to Nunberg not just why he couldn’t violate the subpoena, but how he damaged the case for both his and his mentor’s innocence by doing so:
“I am really quite flabbergasted at the statement that Sam, you don’t believe that there is anything that you would share that would implicate Roger Stone in a crime, and yet you would not actually come forward in front of a grand jury and then repeat statements you made already…That’s rather astounding. The way I’ve seen the subpoena, it seems reasonable.”
She assured him that the subpoena’s request was not “broad,” and did her best to address the stress that investigations like this cause. Nunberg retaliated, accusing the grand jury of bias against Stone before she reminded him that just because they want his emails with Stone doesn’t mean they’re going to use them in a case against him. “It’s not your call,” Melber said. “I’m making it my call!” Nunberg cried, before pulling a classic “what-about” move, asking why they didn’t indict John Podesta’s brother Tony. Wiley laughed at this – I buried my face in my jacket to muffle my groan.
Fortunately, Wiley had the million-dollar-question for Nunberg: why would he violate the subpoena if he kept insisting there was nothing to hide in his emails with Stone? “You would do more service to your mentor by demonstrating that he has nothing to fear if, as you say, there’s nothing in the emails,” she said. But Nunberg couldn’t answer directly, once again denouncing the subpoena as “broad,” and worrying that the grand jury wanted to build a case against Stone – though about what specifically, he had no idea.
In the most groan-inducing moment of the interview, Melber asked if Nunberg had contacted his lawyer before making the talk show rounds. “I have no idea,” he replied. “I think he may have dropped me – I don’t know.” It was at this point that citizens reported earthquakes stemming from Nunberg’s lawyer repeatedly banging his head against a wall.
Wiley, with the reassuring tones of a kindergarten teacher, said, “I think your family wants you home for Thanksgiving, and I hope you will testify.” “Isn’t this ridiculous?” he replied. “No, it’s not,” she said. “It’s so not ridiculous.”
Finally, Melber brought in prosecutor Barbara McQuaid, who explained how Nunberg could legally quash the subpoena, but he refused to listen, bragging that he wouldn’t go to jail before McQuaid outlined why he could face contempt of court charges. Wiley again reminded him that he already had immunity and had no reason not to testify. “Not only that,” she added, “it actually makes it appear that Roger Stone has something to hide because you will not go testify.” “He has nothing to hide,” he said. “Well then go testify,” she responded. “I don’t have 80 hours to spend going over emails,” he retorted. The interview ended shortly afterward.
Although Melber explained later on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell that he had followed up with Nunberg and his father, a lawyer, and that they were walking him through the situation, that wasn’t the impression Nunberg gave the press. In an email to McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, he wrote, “The champ champ does whatever the fuck he wants!” (Champ Champ refers to a UFC fighter he loves.) Another interview that he gave with New York Magazine also portrayed him as a self-satisfied frat boy who thinks a C grade is an A plus — a hallmark of anyone who works with president Trump.
But despite the braggadocio, it may be that Nunberg needs help. If he was drunk and on his meds, as he told Erin Burnett, then he could be a serious danger to himself. This whole thing could be just a performative episode, like the President he used to serve, but it’s equally possible that it’s also a cry for help from someone too scared of telling the truth. Whichever of these possibilities turns out to be true, we won’t learn until he makes a final decision on how he’ll cooperate with Mueller. Or not.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.