Normally, attorneys tell their clients who have been subpoenaed to keep their mouths shut. Of course, these are not normal times. No part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion from the Trump campaign has been normal. On Monday, former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg may have provided its most surreal turn of events yet.
Nunberg, a relatively peripheral Trump campaign figure, announced he had received a subpoena from Mueller’s grand jury. In a series of bizarre, whiplash-inducing interviews to follow, Nunberg at times declared President Trump both guilty and innocent of collusion, accused other campaign figures of playing footsie with the Russians, and pledged to tear up his subpoena on live television. Then, by the end of the day, he had backtracked completely, saying he’d cooperate with the investigation.
The revelation that Nunberg had been subpoenaed came after reports that Mueller had issued subpoenas last month seeking documents from several witnesses about communications relating to Trump campaign officials. The subpoenas demanded all communications mentioning or including familiar Mueller targets, such as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former adviser Rick Gates, both under indictment, and well-known figures like former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, and former advisers Carter Page and Roger Stone, the latter of which was a close friend of Nunberg’s.
Interestingly, though, the subpoenas do not mention other Mueller targets more closely connected to purported collusion-theory figures. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former adviser George Papadopoulos, both also under indictment by Mueller’s grand jury, didn’t make the list reported by NBC News or Axios, both of which had access to the subpoenas. Nor did the subpoenas mention Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner, both of whom have come under suspicion for their exceedingly reckless June 2016 meeting with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya to gather dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Nunberg made it known that he, too, had been subpoenaed for his records, and that he had no intention of complying.
“Screw that,” Nunberg told CNN’s Gloria Borger. “Why do I have to go? Why? For what?” Nunberg demanded, insisting that he wasn’t defying Mueller out of a sense of loyalty to his former boss. “I’m not protecting him,” Nunberg declared, “but he didn’t do anything. You know what he did? He won the election.” Although Nunberg made clear that he felt he hadn’t gotten enough recognition for that success. “I came up with the wall,” he told Borger, “I came up with the Muslim ban, I came up with everything to attack Jeb Bush, all that stuff.”
Nunberg wasn’t finished. Speaking with NBC’s Katy Tur, Nunberg suggested that Mueller does have something significant on Trump. “I think that he [Trump] may have done something during the election,” Nunberg said, adding, “but I don’t know that for sure.” Nunberg later said he’s “not a fan” of Trump’s and that the president had “screwed us over during the campaign,” but that Trump was correct about Mueller’s probe being a “witch hunt” — even though he had just suggested that Trump might have something to hide.
Still, Tur reminded Nunberg that he had cooperated with Mueller earlier in the month, sitting down for interviews. Why would a subpoena for records be a breaking point? Nunberg then accused Mueller of trying to bury Stone by linking him to WikiLeaks, the site that published the hacked DNC emails that prompted the original FBI investigation. “I’m not going to cooperate when they want me to come into a grand jury for them to insinuate that Roger Stone was colluding with Julian Assange,” he declared to Tur. “Roger is my mentor. Roger is like family to me.”
Almost immediately afterward, Nunberg spoke live on CNN with an increasingly bemused Jake Tapper, pinballing from one claim to another. This time, Nunberg explicitly accused Carter Page of collusion with Russians, at one point calling him a “scumbag.” In a moment of irony, Nunberg told Tapper, “I think that Carter Page is a weird dude. I don’t think he should have been involved in that campaign.”
Later, when Tapper tried to end the interview, Nunberg raised a rhetorical legal question. “Do you think I should cooperate?” he asked, wondering why he should spend another “80 hours” producing material for Mueller. “Sometimes life and special prosecutors are not fair,” Tapper dryly noted, but Nunberg wasn’t done. “I’m definitely the first person ever to do this, right?” Nunberg asked as the interview ended.
Not quite. Susan McDougal also refused to cooperate with a special counsel subpoena in the Whitewater investigation in 1996, telling the grand jury, “Get another independent counsel and I’ll answer every question.” McDougal insisted that the Whitewater investigation was corrupt, but that didn’t keep her from getting an 18-month sentence for contempt of court — including eight months in solitary confinement.
In a final interview with The Associated Press Monday night, Nunberg seemed to have come full circle: “I’m going to end up cooperating with them,” he said.
It’s tough to believe that Mueller would be able to make much of Nunberg, regardless of his antics on Monday. Nunberg’s connection to the campaign ended well before Mueller’s interest in records begins. The subpoenas demand communications starting from November 2015, but Trump fired Nunberg in July 2015. Plus, his media tour this week has undermined whatever credibility he had as a witness. While we still don’t know what Mueller might have uncovered, nothing that has been made public shows an underlying predicate for criminal collusion or obstruction of justice, at least not on Trump’s part — and the lists in these subpoenas suggest perhaps that’s true of the other suspects in the media’s collusion theories.
If Nunberg keeps calling in to media talk shows, though, he might earn a contempt charge at the very least, if he doesn’t incriminate himself in other ways — and you can bet Mueller’s keeping close tabs for that very purpose.