It was another breathless bombshell evening last night as media proclaimed that a “Former Trump Aide” said that he believed Trump “may very well have done something during the election with the Russians.” CNN carried a series of bizarre interviews with Sam Nunberg who was refusing to comply with a subpoena from Special Counsel Robert Mueller to produce documents and appear before a grand jury. Nunberg spouted off a series of accusations against Carter Page and others that were immediately picked up as potential confirmation of collusion. However, each CNN interviews made it more and more clear that the network had a virtual freak on a leash. Soon Nunberg denounced Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a “fat slob” and telling her to shut her “big fat mouth.” Nunberg was clearly neither credible nor under control but he drove the coverage for hours as a former aide supporting Russian collusion theories. It was part of our new media: NASCAR journalism where media rushes figures like Nunberg in front of cameras and viewers watch for the inevitable crash. Update: Nunberg now is saying that he will cooperate after all.
I do not blame CNN for running the initial interview. After all, Nunberg was defying Mueller, which is clearly news. However, it quickly became very sad and rather sordid as Nunberg became more and more unhinged. Analysts tried to connect his free-flowing allegations to theories of collusion. In fairness to CNN, various hosts noted that he had an axe to grind against Trump and had not been part of either the general election campaign or the Administration.
Nunberg was fired in February 2014 by Trump but rehired as a communications adviser in February 2015. He was fired against from the campaign in August 2015 and admits that he is bitter about his treatment by Trump.
Nunberg first gave an interview with the Washington Post to proclaim his defiance of Mueller over a wide-ranging demand for emails and communications with President Trump and others. CNN then landed the first of what became a litany of increasing painful interviews – leading to virtual self-immolation before CNN host Erin Burnett. It all made for riveting television at first but soon devolved into little more than a freak on a leash. After CNN ran the Nunberg interviews non-stop throughout the day, Nunberg finally imploded with Burnett who said that he smelled of booze. It was like watching a media euthanasia.
Nunberg was never particularly credible given his short stint as a campaign adviser who was fired for racist postings. From the first interview, he careened wildly between saying that he “hated” Trump to saying that he still supported him. Finally, in his late interview with Burnett, Nunberg effectively destroyed the value of the full day of analysis and admitted that he had no personal knowledge of Page colluding beyond his public work as a consultant in Russia. He also admitted that he had no basis to believe that Trump was aware of the meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower other than his assumptions based on the same news stories that Burnett was following. His bombshell allegations were reduced to “if I had to guess” speculations on issues like the knowledge of President Trump.
The interviews became increasingly repellent to watch. However, Nunberg may have forced the hand of Mueller who may find it hard to walk away from a defiant witness. Nunberg could find himself in jail for contempt if he defies the subpoena from Mueller. He will be called to a show cause hearing and would have to come up with something other than saying that he resented having to go through his emails like a paralegal. Since he is unlikely to claim the Fifth Amendment after speaking for hours with investigators, he would likely be jailed for contempt if Mueller pursues the matter.
While Nunberg dismissed the notion that Mueller would ever try to put him in jail, he could be set for a rude awakening. He would follow the same path as Susan McDougal in the Whitewater investigation. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr prosecuted Susan McDougal and her former husband, Jim McDougal, for fraud and other charges. After securing her conviction, Starr pulled her before a grand jury to testify about the Clintons but she refused. She spent 18 months in jail for contempt.
Ironically, Nunberg may have helped his case with Mueller by destroying any value as a witness. After his appearances on CNN, Nunberg could not take the stand to assert that the Pope was Catholic without jeering from the jury box. However, with subpoenas flying out of the Special Counsel’s office, it may be hard for Mueller to simply ignore Nunberg. Even if Nunberg was not drinking before the Burnett interview, that should serve to sober him up by Friday. If so, he will make his way to the grand jury and start listening to counsel.
In the meantime, Nunberg has made himself into the Martha Mitchell of the Trump era.
Nunberg earned a B.A. from McGill University and graduated from the Touro Law Center in Long Island, New York.