The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘You’re not going to save anybody’: What the last person to rebuff an independent counsel subpoena would say to Sam Nunberg

Then-first lady Hillary Clinton talks to the media before testifying in front of a grand jury about the Whitewater matter in Washington on Jan. 26, 1996. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)

Refusing to comply with a subpoena from the Russia probe’s special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — as former Trump aide Sam Nunberg has vowed to do — could have real consequences. Susan McDougal, a former business partner of President Bill Clinton, spent 18 months behind bars for civil contempt after she refused to testify before a grand jury investigating the Whitewater real estate scandal.

She said in an interview Monday she would not do anything differently — though Nunberg should know that being incarcerated is no joke. She said she was moved from facility to facility and spent a good deal of time in isolation.

“It is not an easy thing to do,” McDougal said. “You don’t just go sit and work out in the afternoons.”

Former Trump aide Sam Nunberg called before grand jury, says he will refuse to go

McDougal’s case is decades old now, though it is a useful parallel, given Nunberg’s threat Monday. McDougal, like Nunberg, became something of a celebrity when she refused to cooperate with independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who was then investigating the Clintons in the Whitewater case. In September 1996, a judge ordered her jailed for refusing his order that she answer questions about the Clintons before a grand jury. By then, she herself already had been convicted of fraud in a related case.

McDougal said Monday she did not comply with the subpoena because by that time, she had lost trust in investigators — who she claimed had offered her a break in sentencing if she were to implicate the Clintons. She said she had told them she had nothing to offer and was alarmed that “they kept pushing me to say something to save myself.”

“I wasn’t going to be bullied,” she said. “I was not going to live my life that way.”

McDougal, 62, who now works as a supervisor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said her situation, though, is slightly different from Nunberg’s. Briefed by a reporter about what Nunberg had said Monday, McDougal said she thought she had seen him on TV previously suggesting he knew things that might be of interest to Mueller.

“Why would he do that, and then not cooperate?” she said. “The difference is, I didn’t know anything.”

McDougal, who considers herself an “Obama Democrat,” said if she were to give Nunberg advice, it would be, “retroactively, if you don’t want to testify, don’t go on television and do these teaser interviews.” She said she would also tell him, if he thinks he is going to stop Mueller and his team from doing something, “they’ll do it anyway.”

“You’re not going to save anybody,” McDougal said. “If they have done something, you’re not going to save them.”

McDougal said she would ultimately spend 22 months in prison — 18 for the contempt and four for her fraud conviction — before a judge ordered her released to her parents. Years later, Clinton pardoned her as one of his final acts in office.

Sam Nunberg said on March 5 that he is refusing to appear before a grand jury investigating Russian election interference. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)