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Former Trump aide Nunberg vowed to defy Mueller, then signals he might cooperate after all

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)

Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg publicly defied the Justice Department special counsel on Monday, announcing in an extraordinary series of media interviews that he had been subpoenaed to appear in front of a federal grand jury investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election but that he will refuse to go.

“Let him arrest me,” Nunberg told The Washington Post in his first stop on a media blitz, saying he does not plan to comply with a subpoena from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to hand over emails and other documents related to President Trump and nine current and former Trump advisers.

“Mr. Mueller should understand I am not going in on Friday” to the grand jury, he added. It is unclear what actions Mueller might take if Nunberg does not appear.

In a remarkable act of rebellion, Nunberg seized the national media spotlight for much of Monday afternoon to denounce Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” and to detail what he said he had learned about the probe from his private interview last month with Mueller’s team. He at times sounded nervous and self-doubting, openly questioning his legal fate. And by Monday evening, he signaled a possible shift, telling the Associated Press he might cooperate with Mueller after all.

Nunberg, a top political staffer for Trump in the run-up to the campaign, was fired in 2015 and has since existed on the fringes of Trump’s orbit as a consultant. White House officials on Monday attacked his credibility and characterized his media appearances as unhinged.

Following his interview with The Post, Nunberg called in live to MSNBC, CNN and other networks for lengthy phone interviews — a spectacle reminiscent of Trump routinely calling into cable television control rooms during the 2016 campaign.

Nunberg said repeatedly that he believes Mueller is trying to build a case that Trump was “the Manchurian candidate.” He said that he suspects Mueller has concluded that Trump “may have done something,” based on the questions he was asked by the special counsel’s team.

President Trump has weighed in on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election time and time again. Here's a look at how he can limit the probe, and what Congress is trying to do about it. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Washington Post)

The line of questioning, Nunberg told MSNBC anchor Katy Tur, “insinuated to me that [Trump] may have done something, and he may very well have.” He added: “Trump may have very well done something during the election. I don’t know what it is. I could be wrong, by the way.”

‘You’re not going to save anybody’: What Susan McDougal would say to Sam Nunberg about rebuffing a subpoena

Nunberg said that the special counsel had sought to persuade him to testify against another former Trump adviser, Roger Stone, on collusion with Russians, but he said he would not because Stone has been a friend and mentor to him.

Nunberg nursed an old grudge against campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and was unsparing in his criticism of the White House staff and the president himself.

He complained to The Post that Trump had treated him, as well as Stone and others, terribly and would eventually regret it. He later said during an in-person evening appearance on MSNBC: “I wanted Trump to lose. I thought it would be funny.”

In one of his CNN interviews, he said Trump sometimes acted like “an idiot,” noting that he met last year with Russian leaders inside the Oval Office, where he shared classified intelligence.

“Granted, Donald Trump caused this because he’s an idiot,” Nunberg told CNN anchor Jake Tapper. “Who the hell advised him to allow those Russians in the Oval Office?”

Refusing to comply with a subpoena from the special counsel could have serious consequences. Susan McDougal, a former business partner of Bill Clinton, spent 18 months behind bars for civil contempt after she refused to testify before a grand jury investigating the Whitewater real estate controversy during Clinton’s presidency.

McDougal said in an interview Monday that 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.”

McDougal questioned why Nunberg was appearing on television 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.”

At the White House, officials quickly sought to distance the administration from Nunberg, who has not been in Trump’s good graces since his firing in August 2015 over racially insensitive Facebook posts. Aides in the West Wing voiced frustration that Nunberg had thrust Russia back into the headlines while also laughing at what they considered his lack of discipline.

Asked at her afternoon press briefing to respond to Nunberg’s suggestion that Mueller may have incriminating information about Trump, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “There was no collusion with the Trump campaign.”

Sanders also played down Nunberg’s importance. “He hasn’t worked at the White House, so I certainly can’t speak to him or the lack of knowledge that he clearly has,” she said.

Nunberg fired back with a tirade about Sanders to NY1, the New York cable news channel: “If Sarah Huckabee wants to start debasing me, she’s a joke. Okay, fine, yeah, she’s unattractive. She’s a fat slob. Fine. But that’s not relevant. The person she works for has a 30 percent approval rating, okay?”

The Fix: After speaking with The Post, Nunberg talks to MSNBC, CNN in even more unfiltered interviews

Several of Nunberg’s friends grew concerned about him as the day went on and tried to call him and beg him to stop, but he was not responsive, two of these people said.

This is not the first time Nunberg’s credibility has been questioned. Nunberg admitted in Politico in November that he made up a story about then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fetching McDonald’s food for Trump to embarrass Christie — a claim that went viral after it was reported by the New Yorker.

Nunberg, who lives in New York, forwarded to The Post an email listed as coming from Mueller’s office asking him to appear in front of a grand jury in Washington on Friday. He also shared with The Post a copy of what appears to be a two-page attachment to his grand-jury subpoena seeking documents related to Trump and nine other people, including emails, correspondence, invoices, telephone logs, calendars and “records of any kind.”

Among those that the subpoena requests information about are departing White House communications director Hope Hicks; former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon; Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen; Lewandowski; and Stone. Also on the list are Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman who faces numerous charges of money laundering and tax evasion, and Rick Gates, a former campaign aide and Manafort partner who has pleaded guilty to lying and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

“I’m not spending 80 hours going over my emails with Roger Stone and Steve Bannon and producing them,” Nunberg told The Post. “Donald Trump won this election on his own. He campaigned his a-- off. And there is nobody who hates him more than me.”

Nunberg added: “The Russians and Trump did not collude. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is too smart to collude with Donald Trump.”

Stone responded to Nunberg’s comments in a text message Monday: “I was briefly part of the Trump campaign and [have] been the President’s friend and adviser for decades and would expect that Mueller’s team would at some point ask for any documents or emails sent or written by me. But let me reiterate, I have no knowledge or involvement in Russian Collusion or any other inappropriate act.”

Nunberg told The Post that he was planning to go on Bloomberg TV and tear up the subpoena.

But he soon changed his plans. Later Monday afternoon, Nunberg called into MSNBC for a lengthy, live interview with Tur. Minutes later, he called into CNN, where Gloria Borger interviewed him. And the next hour, Nunberg was on CNN again, this time with Tapper.

Relative to the restrained comments or flat-out silence of other witnesses in Mueller’s investigation, Nunberg’s interviews were provocative. Nunberg told Tur that his lawyer is “probably going to dump me,” prompting Tur to ask, “Are you ready to go to jail?”

And as he wrapped up the MSNBC interview, he asked Tur, “What do you think Mueller is going to do to me?”

Nunberg sounded similarly skittish on the phone with Tapper and appeared to have second thoughts about his decision to defy Mueller.

“Should I spend 80 hours going over my emails, Jake?” he asked.

“If it were me,” Tapper replied, “I would. . . . It sounds like a pain, but he is the special counsel.”

Ashley Parker and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.