There have been some surreal television moments over these first 14 months of the Trump administration, but Monday’s slow-motion meltdown by former campaign aide Sam Nunberg might take the cake. In a series of bizarre and increasingly disturbing live interviews, Nunberg said he wouldn’t comply with a subpoena from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, suggested—without evidence—that other campaign staffers and perhaps the president himself had colluded with Russia, and asked several cable news hosts for legal advice. As Nunberg’s self-immolation carried on, some observers even questioned whether it was ethical to keep putting him in front of viewers.
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The chaos began with a piece posted by The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey at 2:30pm, in which Nunberg said, “Let him arrest me,” referring to the special counsel. He then spoke with MSNBC’s Katy Tur, giving a rambling, 17-minute on-air interview. He lamented the time he would have to spend poring over emails demanded by Mueller and claimed not to be concerned about the consequences. Referencing collusion, he added that “Trump may very well have done something during the election.” Toward the end of the interview, a stunned Tur called the comments “remarkable.” When Nunberg asked her what he said that was notable, Tur continued, “Everything is remarkable about it, Sam…It’s all unbelievable, I’d say.” Nunberg then asked her what she thought Mueller would do to him.
Over the next several hours, Nunberg appeared with CNN’s Gloria Borger, Jake Tapper, and Erin Burnett, MSNBC’s Ari Melber, NY1’s Josh Robin, and spoke to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! News, The Associated Press, and The Atlantic. Journalists were glued to the appearances, as Nunberg laid out his communications with several members of the Trump campaign and administration, and called the president an “idiot.”
This is insane.
— Lydia Polgreen (@lpolgreen) March 5, 2018
Nunberg, who was fired by the Trump campaign in 2015, is a protégé of Roger Stone, and many saw Stone’s self-promoting fingerprints on Nunberg’s bizarre media circus. As the day wore on, friends of Nunberg expressed concern about his health. CNN’s Erin Burnett asked Nunberg if he’d been drinking, saying, “Talking to you, I have smelled alcohol on your breath”—leading some journalists to question whether new outlets should continue putting him on air. Despite the concerns, it’s hard to imagine any newsroom turning down an interview with a former campaign aide who is facing a subpoena and willing to talk.
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By evening, Nunberg appeared to walk back his initial defiance of Mueller’s subpoena, telling the AP that he “going to end up cooperating” with the investigation.
Below, more on the full Nunberg,
- A captivating performance: “It’s an uncommon moment when all of Washington and its hordes of media organizations all seem to be just staring, aghast, at one story,” writes CNN’s Hadas Gold. “But Monday afternoon was one of those moments.”
- Taking it all in: The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Adam Goldman have an overview of Nunberg’s day. “It began with a subpoena,” they write. “It ended with a question about whether its recipient was drunk on live television.”
- What does it mean?: The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake analyzes the serious nuggets to emerge from Nunberg whirlwind media tour.
- Ethical debate: Mediaite catalogued some of the critical responses to CNN’s decision to put Nunberg on the air.
Jay Solomon tells his side of the story
“It’s not just the end product of your journalism that has to be coated in Teflon, but every stage of your reporting. Process, as much as content, has to be beyond repute,” writes former Wall Street Journal star reporter Jay Solomon. “If you err, as I did, it can cost you both your reputation and your career.”
Solomon’s abrupt firing last June, following reports that he had become too cozy with an Iranian-born arms dealer, was one of the strangest media stories in recent memory. Then it receded from view, drowned in a tide of Trump coverage. Now, nearly eight months later, Solomon writes for CJR about the targeted hacking campaign and ill-advised yachting expedition in Monaco that cost him his job.
While denying that he ever engaged in business with shady characters, Solomon takes an honest look at his errors in accepting gifts and not keeping his editors informed of all his actions. At the same time, he cautions that journalists, especially those on the national security beat, need to be wary. “In an age when every communication you have with a source, every conversation, and every text can be hacked, scrutinized, and used to discredit you and your work, it is more important than ever not just to be ethical, but to make sure that you take steps to ensure that you will appear to be even when your messages are stolen and misused by hostile powers,” he writes.
Solomon tells me that for the first few months after the news broke last summer, he was “almost comatose,” trying to figure out what transpired. Writing now, he says, is an attempt to sort out “what mistakes I made and what lessons I learned.” When I asked him what’s next for his career, Solomon said, “Before anything else, I had to write this to get the truth out there. I guess I’m still trying to figure out if I’m toxic in [the media] environment. I hope not.”
Other notable stories
- ESPN has a new boss. James Pitaro was named president of the Worldwide Leader and co-chair of Disney Media Networks on Monday. Pitaro formerly led Yahoo! Media, including Yahoo! Sports, and most recently headed up Disney’s consumer products and interactive media group. He’ll be working on developing a new strategy for a company still dominant in its field but facing a run of negative press as consumer habits change.
- More jobs news: Patrick Healy has been named politics editor at The New York Times. Previously deputy culture editor, Healy is tasked with “building a team for the midterms and the looming 2020 presidential election,” according to a NYT press release.
- Nice Poynter spotlight on Brandy Zadrozny, the librarian-turned-journalist who has contributed to several scoops for The Daily Beast. Zadrozny recently announced that she is headed to NBC.
- Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo has an optimistic look at the early days of the new Rolling Stone. He writes that new owner Jay Penske has a chance to flip the script on the usual tale of a once-great magazine sold off as a shell of what it once was. Penske, Pompeo writes, has infused the magazine with energy (and cash), hiring new writers while keeping Jann and Gus Wenner on board.
- For CJR, Matthew Kassel looks at the Asbury Park Press, New Jersey’s “mighty watchdog” that consistently punches above its weight. Kassel examines how the paper “manages to keep swinging, consistently publishing important public-service work during a time of local media contraction.”
- Must read: The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer profiles Christopher Steele, the man behind the Trump dossier. It’s the best look I’ve seen at the ex-spy who tried to warn the world about Trump’s ties to Russia, and how his dossier ended up in media reports.
ICYMI: Edit tests are out of control, say journalists in search of jobsPete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.