Bloomberg’s White House correspondent called former Trump aide Sam Nunberg’s blitz across cable news “the OJ White Bronco chase of the Mueller investigation.” At first, I thought this was a ridiculous comparison. The O.J. White Bronco chase wasn’t just gripping television (like Nunberg’s meltdown), but vastly important to the outcome of the O.J. Simpson saga. Sam Nunberg stopped working for Donald Trump in 2015, so it is difficult to ascertain what he really knows about Russian meddling in the 2016 election—but that’s the point behind Robert Mueller’s subpoena that Nunberg dragged across the cable news landscape. Nunberg is just one of many rocks that Mueller wants to overturn in order to figure out what happened.
I wrote a quick recap yesterday with videos of Nunberg’s first two crazy cable news hits, as he made waves by stating that “I think that [Trump] may have done something during the election.” He said the Russia investigation is bunk, but based on Mueller’s questioning of him, there may be something in Trump’s finances that Mueller is zeroing in on. The white Bronco chase is an apt comparison, as this is the first glimpse inside the Russia investigation where the veneer of anonymous reporting and the opacity of our courts were removed, and we relied solely on raw testimony from someone in direct contact with Mueller’s team. This was simply a man who had been pushed to the edge, and he lashed out, revealing a line of inquiry within Mueller’s investigation by flapping a subpoena around for all to see.
Now, the only hard evidence that Nunberg delivered yesterday was the content of the subpoena. Mueller wants him to hand over all documents pertaining to the following people:
Carter Page, Corey Lewandoski, Donald Trump, Hope Hicks, Keith Schiller, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon
This is a pretty shocking development, because minus Carter Page, this is a snapshot of Trump's long-term inner circle (Hicks, Schiller, Cohen) and his campaign's inner circle (Manafort, Lewandoski, Bannon). Mueller sure seems to be probing what President Trump knows. That newsworthiness does put it near the level of an O.J. Bronco Chase, but it does not match it because Nunberg seems to be a minnow in the larger Trump picture, and everything he alleged is less than certain. Plus, people who knew Nunberg called into CNN to tell them that he had been drinking, and in a moment that turned this entire saga from sardonic to solemn, Erin Burnett basically asked him if he was drunk live on air.
Ultimately, this looked like a man under an extreme amount of stress acting it out along with some personal demons in public. We've all been in a situation where we don't know what to do—where the anxiety seems to be tearing reality apart before our very eyes—but most of us are lucky to have this happen in private or with trusted contacts. Given the rumors around Nunberg's drinking, it's more than fair to question whether it was ethical to put Nunberg on TV yesterday, but it was far from an easy decision.
Not only did Nunberg provide the most dramatic saga that cable news has experienced in quite some time, but he was talking nonstop about an investigation we know very little about. Plus, even though he is a lower-level operative, he is still firmly connected to a serious power player in Trumpworld, so he is a somewhat credible figure on that front. He calls longtime Trump advisor Roger Stone “a mentor” and a “father figure.” Given the difficulties ascertaining Nunberg's trustworthiness (we should operate from the presumption that he has very little), let's try to break down what Sam Nunberg was saying yesterday.
What The Hell Was That?
First, let's recap Nunberg's blitz across cable news (all times EST).
1. The media scrum began in the morning with The Washington Post reporting that he will not comply with a subpoena to testify in front of a grand jury, with Nunberg saying “Mr. Mueller should understand I am not going in on Friday. Let him arrest me.”
2. Around 3 pm, he went on Katy Tur's MSNBC show to repeat the message above, and kicked off the serious media blitz by accusing President Trump of wrong-doing.
3. Immediately after his hit on MSNBC, Nunberg appeared on CNN to reiterate that “I suspect that [Mueller] suspect[s] something about [Trump].
4. At 4 pm, he appeared on Jake Tapper's CNN show and accused Carter Page of colluding with the Russians.
5. At 6 pm, he appeared on Ari Melber's MSNBC show and took a flamethrower to the White House, telling Sarah Huckabee Sanders to “shut her mouth” (capped by declaring that he was indeed threatening to escalate the situation if she were to disobey his command), ripped Trump over his low approval numbers, accused Corey Lewandoski of gaining the campaign manager position through “fraud,” and called Trump an “idiot” over his actions in the wake of James Comey's firing (he approved of Comey's dismissal though). Nunberg's overall message was clear: Roger Stone is being targeted by this investigation, and he will not be a party to it.
6. Around 7 pm, he capped his TV night on Erin Burnett's CNN show—repeating his pledge to defy Mueller's subpoena and protect Roger Stone.
7. Around 8 pm, Nunberg phoned The Atlantic's McKay Coppins, saying “I pulled a Roger Stone!” He ended his conversation with this exchange. Per Coppins:
“Have you thought this through?” I pressed him. “Are you actually willing to go to jail over this?”
“I've thought it through, and I don't think Mueller's willing to send me to jail,” he said. “If Mueller sends me to jail, I will laugh and I'll be out within two days.”
How would you pull that off? I asked.
“Because I'll give him my fucking emails!”
Despite all this political theater, reports surfaced after his cable news blitz that Nunberg was going to try to comply with the subpoena—he just wants a narrower scope. One name that he wants off the subpoena is Carter Page. He claims to have never had contact with him, so it's a bit strange to demand that Mueller remove his request for all communication between Nunberg and Page if there is no communication to send Mueller's way.
Not to mention, Nunberg may have unwittingly given away the game to the rest of us. This was clearly a rescue mission to drag Roger Stone away from Robert Mueller's investigation, and by stating that he and Roger were wronged by the Trump camp and that he never had any contact with people like Hope Hicks, Carter Page, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, Nunberg may have let us know who is radioactive in Mueller's eyes. Remember, everything Nunberg is telling us that he knows is based entirely off Mueller's line of questioning.
Given that Nunberg views Roger Stone as a demigod, we can question his general intelligence and indict his gross political character. A lot of people will try to read into this and look for distractions or whatnot, but Occam's Razor (the simplest explanation) is that Nunberg is backed into a corner and he's doing everything he can to get himself and his mentor away from an investigation that he believes includes someone who “colluded with the Russians” and a president who had “advance knowledge” of the famed Trump Tower meeting with the Kremlin-connected lawyer.
Another not so subtle message from America’s new favorite buffoon is that complying with Mueller’s investigation is expensive. My conspiratorial mind makes me wonder if this is all one big decree from Roger Stone to Donald Trump: pay your bills or singers will sing. I mean, who else is a cable news blitz like this targeted at?
In case you were feeling sorry for Nunberg, here is a reminder of the kind of person he advertises himself as on Facebook.
Nunberg attached himself to one of the scummiest operators in the history of Washington: Roger Stone. He willingly worked for Donald Trump for four years (stating that Trump wanted to run for president in 2011, which is a detail that’s vital to Mueller’s investigation). He tried to emulate Stone’s dirty tricks through Steve Bannon’s Breitbart infrastructure. You can think that someone needs help and is also undeserving of much sympathy. By his own accounts, Nunberg is in good spirits and denies that his cable news blitz was fueled by booze.
This was bizarre, and given Nunberg’s lack of credibility, the whiff of alcohol reported by Erin Burnett and Roger Stone’s presence overhanging all of this, it’s hard to come up with any cogent explanation for what the hell cable news broadcasted yesterday. Nunberg’s motivations are difficult to gain any insight into, but the subpoena is not. We know for a fact that Mueller’s investigation is probing Trump’s inner circle using subpoena power, and that should send chills down everyone’s spine in a White House defined by the kind of boorishness displayed yesterday by Sam Nunberg.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.