As of midday Monday, most people had never heard of Sam Nunberg. Before the day was over, he was practically a legend.
The former campaign aide to President Trump did a marathon round of interviews with news outlets that attracted attention as much for what Nunberg said as how he said it: Oddly, erratically, and quite possibly inebriated.
“Talking to you, I have smelled alcohol on your breath,” CNN anchor Erin Burnett told Nunberg during her Monday evening show, roughly his sixth broadcast of the day and his third just on CNN.
Nunberg denied it. She pressed, “No, you haven’t had a drink today?”
His reply: “I haven’t had a drink.” He insisted he’d only taken antidepressants.
It was a day that raised questions about the ethics of TV news programs booking a newsmaker who may not have full control of his faculties — even as the significance of Nunberg’s story appeared to diminish.
Nunberg began the slaloming course of his media blitz with the extraordinary claim that he would ignore a subpoena issued by a grand jury hearing evidence from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. He dared Mueller to arrest him, complained about the hassle of pulling together the emails Mueller is seeking, and averred that Mueller may have “something” on Trump.
Over the course of several media appearances, he also called White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “a fat slob” (he apologized for that on Tuesday), and said former Trump adviser Carter Page had been “colluding with the Russians.” At one point, in what sounded like a stunt straight out of pro wrestling, he threatened to rip up the subpoena on live TV.
Then, by the end of the day, he recanted his defiance, and said he would play ball with Mueller’s grand jury.
Nunberg’s sudden march to fame, or whatever it was, began Sunday night when the news site Axios reported that it had reviewed a grand jury subpoena to a witness the site didn’t identify.
But it didn’t take much sleuthing for reporters and cable TV bookers to figure out the identity of the subpoena-ee: Nunberg, a chatty but intermittently accurate source with connections to the denizens of TrumpWorld, including the nine current and former Trump advisers mentioned in the subpoena referenced by Axios.
By Monday morning, Nunberg’s phone was ringing with interview requests. In the early afternoon, he first told The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey that he would defy Mueller’s subpoena, setting the tone for the day’s story line. “Let him arrest me,” he declared. The New York Times soon followed with its own interview.
But Nunberg would probably not have become a trending topic on social media without the power of television. A series of cable interviews — first via phone with MSNBC’s Katy Tur and CNN’s Gloria Borger, and later in studio with several MSNBC and CNN hosts — revealed Nunberg to be a fidgety, peevish and slightly bizarre character.
“I think [Trump] may have done something during the election, but I don’t know that for sure,” he told Tur in a rambling 17-minute interview that included Nunberg’s assertion that, had he been involved in Trump’s campaign in its latter stages, he would have invited “Bill Clinton’s illegitimate black child” to the first debate involving Trump and Hillary Clinton as a media stunt.
The Tur interview was done more or less on the fly; Tur had spoken with Nunberg on Sunday night, at which point he gave her no indication that he intended to defy the subpoena. While on the air Monday, she spotted The Post’s headline saying he now intended to disobey it; she called Nunberg and booked him for a phone interview on the spot.
Nunberg was only getting warmed up. He taped a phone interview with Borger, then appeared on Jake Tapper’s program on CNN, Ari Melber’s MSNBC show, and was interviewed at length by Erin Burnett on CNN. Before the day was over, he squeezed in interviews with Bloomberg News, the New York One cable channel, Vox, Yahoo News, New York magazine, and the Associated Press.
Through it all, a question about Nunberg began growing: Was he drunk?
Fox Business reporter Charlie Gasparino talked to Nunberg off the air during the day but determined that Nunberg was too impaired to be interviewed on air. He later told network host Liz Claman, “I asked him three times whether he was sure and is he of sound mind to do [interviews]. He told me he was drinking.” A Fox News Channel spokeswoman said her network tried to secure an interview with Nunberg but he did not respond.
Journalists rarely use material from people they know to be intoxicated or mentally impaired, and the known instances of live TV interviews with drunk people are few. The issue is fairness: Would a person say what he or she said if they were fully sober?
On the other hand, Nunberg, who is a lawyer, has dealt with the media many times before, which suggests he wasn’t naive in doing interviews on Monday. His involvement in Mueller’s investigation also makes him undeniably newsworthy.
Still, given the suspicions expressed by Burnett and Gasparino, the wiser course may have been to tape an interview with Nunberg rather than airing it live, wrote Andrew Seaman, the chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. Doing so “would give journalists, editors and producers more time to evaluate the accusations he made during the interview. They could also put his statements into context,” he said, adding, “In many cases — including this one, I think journalists can do better.”
As is, Nunberg thought better of his day’s statements at the end of his long media tour on Monday. In his last interviews, he reversed himself. “Of course, I’m going to cooperate” with Mueller’s investigation, he told New York magazine, thereby undermining the reason the media found him newsworthy in the first place.