Sam Nunberg is a political operative who was one of Donald Trump’s first campaign staffers, but lasted only a few months before being unceremoniously fired in August 2015. On Monday afternoon, his name became the most popular trending topic in the country on Twitter, thanks to his announcement that he’d be ignoring a subpoena to appear in front of a federal grand jury in the Robert Mueller investigation, and to subsequent insane live interviews he gave MSNBC and CNN. If you weren’t in the business of closely observing the vagaries of Trump’s campaign back when it all seemed like a long-shot stunt, this might be your first exposure to Nunberg. If so, allow us to place today’s antics in their proper context, his rich history of outlandish behavior.
First, let’s revisit the MSNBC interview. It’s notable for several reasons: Nunberg’s assertion that he won’t testify or provide his emails to Mueller (a decision that has him wondering aloud whether he’ll be sent to jail), his aside that his attorney will probably dump him over it, and—for those of us who appreciate creative English usage—his enthusiastic deployment of the distinctly Borat-esque phrase “are you giving me a break!?” when he surely meant either “give me a break!” or “are you kidding me?”
The CNN interview, somehow, was even wilder than the MSNBC one: Nunberg took credit for the border wall idea, doubled down on the idea that he doesn’t have to testify if he doesn’t want to, and asked host Gloria Borger if he could put her on hold and take another call while on the air.
So: who is Sam Nunberg? The first thing you should know about him is that he’s a protege of the notorious political trickster Roger Stone, and it was via a relationship with Stone that he got a job working for Trump in the White House. Every caveat that applies to statements from Stone—the habitual playing fast-and-loose with the truth, the willingness to say any crazy thing for attention—should also apply to his lesser-known associate. Whether Nunberg really intends to rip up his subpoena on live cable TV like he told the Washington Post he would is unclear, but it shouldn’t shock you if he eventually thinks better of it.
You should also know that the reason he is no longer a Trump staffer is because a series of racist posts were discovered in the archives of his Facebook page, including one in which he referred to Al Sharpton’s daughter using the n-word, and another in which he called Barack Obama a “Socialist Marxist Islamo Fascist Nazi Appeaser.” His firing was kind of ironic given his boss’s own history of racist remarks about the 44th president, but that’s neither here nor there. Nunberg’s questionable social media use doesn’t necessarily have any direct bearing on his current moment in the spotlight either, but if you’re gong to cheer him on for calling Trump an idiot, for instance, you should know who you’re dealing with. (Nunberg has said that he didn’t write the posts.)
While Nunberg has made a habit of expressing his personal dislike for the president since his firing, his disdain should be taken with a grain of salt: the put-downs generally come with endorsements of Trump’s policies, and ultimately serve to give the endorsements more weight. Nunberg looks like a guy who begrudgingly supports Trump based on the merits alone and despite their personal differences. The truth is, like Stone, he has probably always been on the president’s side on some level, even after their formal relationship ended. Strip away the goofy bits of today’s interviews that are making headlines, and what you’re left with is Nunberg getting many minutes of free airtime on multiple different networks to express his basic agreement with Trump that the Russia collusion probe is a witch hunt.
After Nunberg’s firing, Trump filed a $10 million lawsuit against him, alleging that he was the source of a memorable New York Post Page Six item about a public shouting match between then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski—with whom Nunberg had been feuding over the direction of the campaign—and spokeswoman Hope Hicks. In a court filing, Nunberg denied leaking the details to the Post, and also conspicuously used the opportunity to accuse Lewandowski and Hicks of having an affair. For Nunberg’s purposes, whether or not the allegation was true is essentially irrelevant (the affair story pops up again in Michael Wolff’s much disputed Trump book Fire and Fury, for what it’s worth). He knew that an illicit campaign romance—and a screaming match between staffers, if he was indeed the Page Six source—would get the press’s attention, and he could use that attention undermine the position of his enemy Lewandowski.
Nunberg has a deep rolodex of journalists; a Politico item once labeled him a “frequent reporter-whisperer.” His conduct around Lewandowski and his firing should be instructive about today’s stunty disavowals of Trump-Russia collusion. He understands how to tell a story the media will pay attention to, and he knows how to sneak the story he actually wants to tell in with it.
On the other hand, in today’s TV interviews he also allowed for the possibility that Mueller has something incriminating on Trump, and spent a lot of time explaining that he’s not complying with the subpoena mostly because he doesn’t want to spend 80 hours talking about his email. Maybe he’s not conniving at all, and we should take him at his word that he’s just a crazy person.