The grinding pressure of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is starting to do strange things to people’s heads.
How else to explain a staggering, reality TV-style meltdown of short-lived Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg on Monday, played out in a batch of cable news interviews, marking the oddest twist of the Russia saga yet?
In a stunning blast of accusations, insults and non-sequiturs, Nunberg vowed to defy a grand jury subpoena, dared Mueller to arrest him and claimed the relentless prosecutor believed that Donald Trump was a Manchurian candidate.
It all unfolded in hour upon hour of car-crash television, in a compelling self-immolation that it was impossible to look away from and provided a reminder of the cast of erratic, oddball characters who drift in and out of the President’s employ – some of whom staffed his campaign and his administration. Trump on Tuesday downplayed suggestions that his White House was in “chaos” but instead had “great energy.”
At times, Nunberg appeared close to the end of his rope, saying he had already spoken to Mueller’s team and did not wish to spend another “80 hours” digging through his communications with Trump aides that had been subpoenaed by the special counsel.
“Screw that,” Nunberg told CNN’s Gloria Borger when asked if he would testify to the grand jury on Friday. “Why do I have to go? Why? For what?”
His defiance risked landing him in jail on contempt charges and threatened to create a sideshow for the straight-laced special counsel while his outbursts were sure to trigger days of news coverage and will therefore likely infuriate Trump.
But though Nunberg’s emotional outpouring might be seen as the ramblings of someone under intense duress, it had enough hints of where the Russia investigation may be heading to worry the President.
“This guy is all over the map,” former FBI special agent Josh Campbell said, dubbing the Nunberg show “the Great Unravelling.”
“Up until this point Mueller’s team has been so tight, we haven’t seen the leaks so it has been very difficult to see what he’s looking for,” Campbell said. “I think it’s incredible, seeing today this episode unfold before our eyes because it gives us that insight into where the investigation is ultimately headed.”
What he said
Nunberg, apparently interpreting questions already put to him by Mueller’s investigators, said for instance that he believes that the special counsel has something on Trump related to the Russian meddling effort on the 2016 election: “I suspect they suspect something about him,” he told Borger.
He also claimed the special counsel is trying to prove that Trump associate Roger Stone colluded with Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks site which is reputed to have links with Russian intelligence.
In another claim that would be highly significant if it turns out to be true, Nunberg claimed Trump knew about a meeting between his son Donald Trump Jr., campaign officials and a Russia delegation offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
“He talked about it a week before and I don’t know why he did this,” said Nunberg, in his second CNN interview, this time with Jake Tapper.
“I don’t know why he went around trying to hide. He shouldn’t have,” Nunberg said.
The President has denied he knew anything about the meeting.
Nunberg also said he suspected that former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page had colluded with the Russians, and said he was a “moron” – though argued that he was too low-level to have much influence with Trump.
While much of what Nunberg said was insulting toward Trump and his staff, he also insisted that the President did not conspire with the Russians during the election, offering a rather backhanded defense of his former boss.
“Vladimir Putin is too smart to collude with Donald Trump,” Nunberg told CNN. “Donald Trump couldn’t keep his mouth shut if Putin colluded with him.”
White House reaction
In the middle of his cable spree, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders delivered her daily briefing and suggested Nunberg was woefully misguided in his allegation that Trump may have committed wrongdoing during the campaign.
“I think he definitely doesn’t know that for sure because he’s incorrect,” Sanders said. “There was no collusion.”
But the manner of Nunberg’s unburdening on cable television and the eye-popping nature of his claims cannot have helped but attract the notice of Trump, an avid cable news viewer, and are unlikely to improve his festering mood over Russia.
In his interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Nunberg slammed the White House, saying the Trump team was doing a terrible job, given the President’s low approval ratings. “They can say whatever they want about me,” he said.
At least part of Nunberg’s motivation appeared to lie in his anger about how he and Stone were treated by Trump – a provocation that may be all but impossible for the President’s twitchy Twitter finger to ignore.
At the White House, Trump’s aides watched the Nunberg interviews in shock, calling them “nuts” and “bizarre,” CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reported.
The outlandish nature of Nunberg’s charges are bound to raise questions about his credibility as a witness and will give the White House an opening as it seeks to discount his claims about the scope of the Mueller investigation.
At one point, Burnett said that she smelled alcohol on Nunberg’s breath. Though he said he had not been drinking, there must be some question about the state of his mind.
But there’s no doubt his appearances also present Trump’s team with a problem, since the President has been prone to his own emotional outbursts about the Russia probe, and any inflammatory reaction on his part will only prolong the story.
Even before the Nunberg meltdown, Trump appeared fixated and angry about the Russia investigation Monday, going further than before in accusing his predecessor Barack Obama of intervening in the 2016 election against him.
“Why did the Obama Administration start an investigation into the Trump Campaign (with zero proof of wrongdoing) long before the Election in November? Wanted to discredit so Crooked H would win. Unprecedented. Bigger than Watergate! Plus, Obama did NOTHING about Russian meddling,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
The tweet was wrong on a number of counts, but it may offer some insight into Trump’s own current state of mind.
More alleged scandals
Trump’s feelings can hardly have been tempered by two other prominent news stories about alleged scandals on Monday related to the bizarre eco-system of scandals and accusations surrounding his campaign and personal conduct.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen complained to friends he had not been reimbursed for a six-figure payment to a porn star alleged to have had an affair with the billionaire-turned-politician.
Cohen previously said he had facilitated a payment to Stephanie Clifford, better known as the porn star Stormy Daniels, but has denied that Trump and Clifford had an affair in 2006, as the paper reported.
For a while Monday, the scene of the Russia election intrigue shifted to Bangkok and a sweltering Thai detention center where a self-styled “sex coach” who claims to have detailed insider knowledge of Russian meddling in the US election told CNN she wants to cooperate with US investigators.
Belarus-born Anastasia Vashukevich claims she has an hour of audio recordings and photos of meetings. She also claims to be the former mistress of Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, and says she witnessed several meetings in 2016 and 2017 between the oligarch and and at least three unnamed Americans.
Back in Washington, what passed for normality in the Trump era went on in the shadow of the Russia storm. Trump met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is himself under a legal cloud, fighting several cases of alleged corruption. America’s allies piled desperate pressure on the White House to try to head of steel and aluminum tariffs promised by Trump that could spark a trade war. And the White House announced that the President will appear alongside Swedish Prime Minister Löfven in the East Room on Tuesday, where he will take questions from reporters.
But March 5, 2018, will forever be remembered as the day of Nunberg TV.