David Zurawik

Sam Nunberg interviews were weird, sad — and righteously newsworthy

CNN host Erin Burnett interviews former Trump aide Sam Nunberg.

I have seen a lot of strange things on cable TV the last 25 years, but the journey through live interviews that former Donald Trump aide Sam Nunberg took Monday on MSNBC and CNN was one of the strangest and saddest.

By the time he got to Erin Burnett’s show at 7 p.m. on CNN, there wasn’t much left of Nunberg. What he didn’t do to himself in live interviews saying “screw that” to a subpoena from special counsel Robert Mueller, the Trump White House was doing to him off-stage reportedly telling cable news hosts and producers he had drinking and drug problems.


“So, Sam, I have to ask one other thing. it’s an awkward question to ask,” Burnett began. “We talked earlier about what people in the White House were saying about you — that you were drinking or on drugs ... Talking to you, I have smelled alcohol on your breath.”

“Well, I haven’t had a drink,” he replied.


’You haven’t had a drink?” Burnett asked. “So, that’s not true … So, let me just give you the question again, You haven’t had a drink?”

“My answer is no.” he said.

“Anything else?

“No. No. (Pause) Besides my meds. Antidepressants. Is that OK?”

As much as I am angered and repulsed by many of the people like Nunberg whom Trump has surrounded himself with, I felt sad watching him at that moment. Clearly, he is a troubled guy.

But in a deeper sense, seeing him unravel reminded me that peoples’ careers, families and lives get destroyed amid Washington battles like the one now being waged by Trump against Democrats, the press and anyone who would defy him.

I would urge anyone watching the Trump presidency as soap opera or reality show to read the 1959 political novel, “Advise and Consent,” about a vicious battle over a secretary of state nomination, to see how partisan, ugly, sad and deadly things can get. The genre here is tragedy — not because of the decidedly unheroic Trump, but because of the deadly damage caused to others caught in his undertow.

Watching Nunberg, I felt a little like I did when I finished that book.


Two things need to be said about what happened with Nunberg on cable TV Monday, because there is going to be debate about what he did to himself and what happened to him on CNN and MSNBC.

First, all the interviews I saw — from Katy Tur and Ari Melber on MSNBC to Jake Tapper, Gloria Borger and Burnett on CNN — were righteously newsworthy.

This is important, because by early evening, voices on the right were saying it was wrong to bring someone as troubled as Nunberg on live TV. They were once again trying to make it about the mainstream media instead of the investigation of Trump.

But it was not wrong in any way to bring Nunberg on for such interviews. When a former aide to someone who is now the president says “screw that” to a subpoena and calls the special counsel a “moron,” as Nunberg did in announcing his intention to defy the order, it’s news, folks. News with a capital “N.”

Nunberg should be under a spotlight, and a news organizations should take as many interviews as they can get with him to try and find out what it is that makes Mueller think he warrants a subpoena — and makes Nunberg think he can defy it. In the interviews I heard, Nunberg’s main reason seemed to be that he believed it was “unfair” that he was being asked to turn over a large numbers of emails and answer so many questions when Hillary Clinton’s aides were allegedly treated much better in probes related to her. Seriously.

Through the afternoon, he kept asking his interviewers what they thought Mueller would do to him for his defiance. Those questions further drove the mounting social media frenzy.


Burnett did nothing wrong in that interview. Given what Team Trump was saying about him and what was on social media, she had to ask about alcohol.

I had never heard a news interviewer say she or he smelled alcohol on the breath of the person they were interviewing, but good for her. It made that interview feel real in a way cable TV with all its makeup, fine clothes and great grooming rarely feels.

And weep not for Nunberg as a public, political figure. He was fired from the Trump campaign in 2015 because of racist messages found in one of his social media accounts. (He said they were not his.)

And he acknowledged once again today that his “mentor” is Roger Stone, who for my money is one of the shadiest political operatives in post-World-War-II American political history. The line from Roy Cohn to Richard Nixon and Trump runs straight through Stone.

Forget shadiest. Let me say what I really think. Dirtiest and most dangerous are better adjectives for the political waters within which Nunberg was taught to swim by Stone.

Making Nunberg’s whole, strange, cable TV trip even stranger, by the end of the night, he had dropped most of the defiance and was saying he probably would co-operate with Mueller.


It surprised me that I was saddened in watching Nunberg wilt under Burnett’s questioning. But she did the work of journalism in asking the questions that she did.

And the kind of politics Nunberg learned from Stone and once practiced on behalf of Trump don’t fare very well when they come face to face with journalism.