The Monday media tour of onetime Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg delivers an important lesson for newsmakers of the future: When you are ready to go on the record, cable news is there for you. They’ll take your phone call, hear you out, press you with relevant questions and then let you move on to the next cable-news interview.
As this blog noted on Monday, important news broke relating to the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III: Nunberg, who had previously chatted with Mueller’s team, was saying that he’d blow off the subpoena to testify Friday before a grand jury and disregard the wide-ranging request for documents relating to his contacts with Stephen K. Bannon, Roger Stone and a small crowd of Team Trumpers. To get the word out, Nunberg spoke with print outlets such as The Washington Post and the New York Times.
And more memorably, he made splash after cannonball splash on cable news.
“I think it would be funny if they arrested me,” he told Katy Tur on MSNBC.
NUNBERG: Do you think should I cooperate with — should I spend 80 hours going over my emails, Jake?TAPPER: If it were me, I would, I mean, if you’re just asking my opinion, just because, it sounds like pain, but he is the special counsel and he does have the long arm of the law.NUNBERG: Why do I have to produce every email? I talked to Steve Bannon and Roger Stone eight times a day. Do you know what I mean? Why do I have to go over it? Why do I have to produce —TAPPER: Sometimes life and special prosecutors are not fair, I guess. I would cooperate were it me. But, you know, I’m a different breed of cat.Sam, thanks so much. I appreciate you —
He said this to MSNBC’s Ari Melber: “I’m not going to jail. You think I’m going to jail?”
To run through other notable moments, Nunberg voiced his conclusion that the special counsel “may” have something on the president; complained about having to spend insane amounts of time — 80 hours — going through his emails for Mueller; spoke about his loyalty to Roger Stone and how he wouldn’t help the prosecutors “set up” a case against him; and otherwise made a number of outlandish statements that lit up the television for hours.
And after vowing over and over to defy Mueller’s subpoena, Nunberg told the Associated Press, “I’m going to end up cooperating with them.”
Axios honcho Jim VandeHei criticized the round of coverage:
Then people in the media reminded VandeHei that his very news outlet had found the story very newsworthy from the start.
Didn't you guys anonymously print his subpoena without saying where it came from and label it "Mueller's hit list?"— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) March 6, 2018
Indeed, Axios had published “a Grand Jury subpoena that Robert Mueller’s team sent to a witness last month.”
And that first editorial judgment by Axios was the correct one. Documents that come straight out of the most consequential criminal investigation of our time are highly newsworthy. To continue that very logic, so are on-the-record comments from someone who spoke with the Mueller legal team, even if those comments appear unhinged. Brian Stelter, CNN’s media maven, wrote of the ethical questions bearing on the interview spree:
Now an ethical debate is raging in journalism circles. If your source seems drunk or drugged or just plain out of his mind, what is your responsibility? Several of the interviewers expressed concern about Nunberg’s personal welfare on Monday… asking if he wanted to reconsider his position… asking if he’d consulted his lawyer… asking about his family… and, in [Erin] Burnett’s case, even asking if he was under the influence. She said at the end of the interview that she smelled alcohol on his breath. But he denied drinking and said “anti-depressants” were the only meds he was on.
You know something? Nunberg is an adult. He served as an aide in the Trump campaign and was fired in summer 2015 after Business Insider dug up a history of offensive social-media postings. His involvement with the campaign and top Trump advisers was sufficiently thoroughgoing to draw the interest of Mueller. Then he opened himself up to a full round of media interviews.
What are cable-news producers to do? Reject the opportunity to have a fully transparent, on-the-record interview with a guy who has gotten closer to the Mueller team than they’ll ever get? No. They must interview the guy and, in the process, expose whatever erratic behavior he exhibits. This, after all, is one of the fellows who helped Trump get started.