First, Sam Nunberg made plans to meet me for lunch, but canceled at the last minute. So now we’ve made plans for dinner at his favorite Vietnamese spot near his Upper East Side apartment, but when he arrives 20 minutes late, Nunberg says he has already eaten at the same restaurant earlier in the day, and that he is having dinner with his mother later, so no food for him, just one Thai iced coffee after another that he cuts with water from his water glass.
Words tumble out of Nunberg in a torrent, not always cohering into sentences, and occasionally contradicting something he said a few minutes ago. At our nondinner, he apologies for his ADD as he keeps going outside to vape.
Sam Nunberg was a name known only to a small coterie of political journalists until March 5, when it suddenly became inescapable. In a media barrage that will forever be known as The Full Nunberg, the former Donald Trump campaign aide streaked across the media landscape like a falling satellite. First he told The Washington Post that he had been subpoenaed by special counsel Robert Mueller but wouldn’t show up. He then phoned in live to MSNBC’s Katy Tur, telling her that he thought it would be funny if Mueller arrested him for contempt of court and that “Trump may very well have” colluded with Russia during the election. Then he called CNN to assert that Trump didn’t have anything to do with Russia, then CNN again and said that maybe Trump did, actually. He told POLITICO that Trump couldn’t have colluded because he “can’t keep his fucking mouth shut.” It didn’t end there. He repeated variations of his claims on the local news station NY1, then on MSNBC again, where a fellow panelist seemingly convinced him live on air that he would be looking at serious jail time if he didn’t comply with the subpoena, and finally CNN again where host Erin Burnett asked point-blank if Nunberg was drunk. In the meantime, there were interviews with New York, The Atlantic, Vox, The Associated Press and The New York Times.
Political Twitter went nuts. In newsrooms across America, Nunberg vanished from one screen in the TV bank only to reappear on another. Friends feared they were watching a spectacular flame-out, someone having a nervous breakdown in public and determined to go out in a blaze of glory. To Nunberg—or at least to hear him tell it now—it was all carefully choreographed. He was perfectly in control, seizing the chance for time in the spotlight, an out-in-the-cold political consultant cleverly leveraging the media’s hunger for any inside dope about Trump.
Our dinner ended up lasting nearly four hours, and at the end I’m still not sure whether his accomplishment was a triumph or an embarrassment. And at a time when Trump is president—a national spectacle that Nunberg himself helped engineer—I’m also not sure it matters anymore. There’s no question, however, it was a perfect moment for our political-media age: Someone willing to bungee jump without making sure that the knot was tight enough, and a world thirsty to know what he knew about a similarly reckless administration. Was he a crazy man, or a chessmaster?
Everyone who has encountered Sam Nunberg has a theory about him, and nobody is quite sure which theory is right, in part because Nunberg himself is as unreliable a narrator as you can find. He’s known for making up stories to tell the press—and then making up stories about those stories, so coverage turns into a hall of mirrors whose only occupant appears to be Nunberg, or (in better times) his political client.
What drew Nunberg to politics, and to Trump, was Roy Cohn. The actual Cohn was a knife fighter of the legal world, a mentor to the young Trump who inspired the mogul’s punch-back-harder, never-back-down political style. But Nunberg is talking about the Cohn of Angels in America, the one portrayed by Al Pacino, especially the part where he tells his young protege how he would have pulled the switch to execute Ethel Rosenberg himself if he could have—how he leaned on the judge in her espionage case to put that “sweet unpreposessing woman, two kids, boo-hoo-hoo, reminded us all of our little Jewish mamas” to death.
“Was it legal? Fuck legal,” Nunberg says, jabbing his finger in the air and slowing down for a second in his best Pacino impression. “Am I a nice man? Fuck nice! They say terrible things about me in The Nation? Fuck The Nation! You want to be nice or you want to be effective?! You want to make the law, or be subject to it? Choose!”
Nunberg pauses, and resumes his own cadence. “Now, is that good, is that bad, I don’t know, whatever,” he says. “To me that just showed hard grit, tough, you can tell Roy Cohn, obviously Jewish, you know, tough guy, fighter, doesn’t fuck around, was trying to work the system for himself.”
“The idea that that was depicted as being bad,” he says, “that to me was ironic, because by the way, that’s the way the sauce is made. It was like almost Machiavellian to me. But it’s an out-front Machiavelli. He was open about it. On the one hand, you don’t want your enemy to see you coming, but sometimes you want people to think of you as a crazy man.”
The person sitting across from me appears to be the opposite of the diminutive, tightly focused Cohn. There’s something hard to pin down about Nunberg. On one hand, he looks older than his 36 years, dark circles under his eyes suggesting sleepless nights, but on the other he can seem a bit like a child inflated to adult size. Cohn was a ruthlessly successful lawyer who divided his time between New York, Washington and a country house in Connecticut. Nunberg just moved out of his parents’ house. Cohn was a killer; Nunberg, as former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo put it, “is not a backstabbing soulless climber in an arena where that is almost required.” (One friend of Nunberg’s described him more as “a yenta,” someone who thrives on political gossip, true or not, calling friends in the political world dozens of times a day to find out the latest.) Cohn was tanned and dandyish, an aficionado of the plastic surgeon’s scalpel; Nunberg is dressed plainly, in blue jeans and a sweater, though he does plan to stop by the tanning salon before it closes.
“I like to say I am only bad to three people in my life,” Nunberg says. “People that are disloyal to me, people that hurt my friends. Well, OK, four people. People that are disloyal to me, people that hurt my friends, people that hurt my clients, people that my clients hire me to hurt, and myself occasionally, unfortunately.”
He pauses for a moment
“OK, so that’s five. Those are the five people I am bad to.”
Sam Nunberg first crossed paths with Donald Trump on April 2, 1989. It was WrestleMania V. Nunberg’s father is an attorney, and worked with Gerald Schrager, Trump’s longtime real estate attorney and adviser. They were sitting behind Donald and Ivana, and Donald moved the Nunbergs so he could get into a photo shot with some dignitary sitting on the other side of the ring. Nunberg was then a student at Ramaz, an elite private Jewish school on the Upper East Side that counts Michael Mukasey and Philippe Reines as alumni. His mother was a corporate attorney at the white-shoe law firm Wachtell, Lipton, and counted Bain Capital as one of her clients. They were Democrats until the Clinton era—Nunberg interned with Upper West Side liberal lion Jerry Nadler—when the household became, in Nunberg’s words, “Clinton-haters.” He started listening to Mark Levin on the radio.
After college, inspired he said, by the movie Men in Black, Nunberg enrolled in Touro Law School, a fourth-tier, $40,000-a-year law school on Long Island. There he restarted the law school’s Federalist Society, using it to build up a network in conservative politics. When the 2008 campaign rolled around, even though his father had done legal work for members of the Rudy Giuliani administration when they left City Hall, Nunberg volunteered for his rival in the Republican primary, Mitt Romney.
“Mitt was the most conservative candidate in the race. Frankly, he looked the best out of everybody,” Nunberg says. “And going to Touro Law School, if I went to go work for the Rudy campaign, I would be licking envelopes for the students at NYU Law School. I hate to be, but you know what I mean.”
He traveled to Iowa with the Romney campaign, where, he says, he and a couple of other campaign aides concocted a stunt: They would mail anonymous letters to Iowa pastors, warning them that the IRS would come after them if they endorsed Mike Huckabee. The letters were sent from Missouri to make them less traceable.
“It was the first time I made the Drudge Report!” Nunberg says now with evident pride.
In Iowa, he met Jay Sekulow, who leads the American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit founded by Pat Robertson to advocate for Christian values. (Sekulow, a right-wing messianic Jew who also hosts a radio show, is now on Trump’s personal legal team.) Sekulow hired him for the group’s fledgling New York operation, and in 2010, when a Manhattan developer named Sharif El-Gamal attempted to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, Nunberg got his first chance to kick up a dirt storm on the political scene.
The issue was the “Ground Zero Mosque,” a building that was neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque. Anti-Islamic firebrands like Pamela Geller seized on the issue, and tried to whip up public anger at the idea of an Islamic anything near the site of World Trade Center attacks. At ACLJ, there was some hesitancy about getting involved in the issue, and “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is going to be a national fucking issue! It is going to be an international issue!’” Nunberg says.
At a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, Nunberg represented a fireman who was opposed to the construction of the center, and he introduced testimony from his own uncle, who lived near the site. Building the center “would be like removing the sunken ship in Pearl Harbor to erect a memorial to the Japanese kamikazes killed in the attack," Nunberg told me with a big laugh. He was quoting himself. “It became an international soundbite!” (This is true—the soundbite landed Nunberg on NPR, was picked up by a number of newspapers and became part of the official talking points in opposition to the project.)
There was a Republican primary for governor going on in New York, and Nunberg decided to see who’d be willing to take it on as a campaign issue. He says he took the story to the front-runner, former Congressman Rick Lazio, but his campaign team was ambivalent about it. Then he took it to Carl Paladino, a Buffalo developer running a long-shot campaign, and someone who had promised to take a baseball bat to Albany’s entrenched political class. Paladino seized on the issue immediately, promising to use eminent domain to prevent the building’s construction. He won the primary by 24 points.
As Nunberg tells the story, he kept going, and took the issue national. He says he began calling the White House desks of news organizations like AP and Reuters from an undisclosed number, leaving harassing phone messages asking, “You chicken shits, when are you going to ask [White House press secretary Robert] Gibbs about the ground zero mosque?”
Eventually someone did, and Gibbs responded that the White House didn’t want to get involved in local decision-making. But later, President Barack Obama did mention it. At a gathering at the White House the Friday evening before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Obama said he believed "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan.”
“It was at the Iftar dinner!” Nunberg says. “Are you fucking kidding me?! That was like manna from heaven.”
It is hard to know how much of this account—or the Huckabee letters, or meeting Trump at WrestleMania—is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit. The checkable facts largely check out, but Nunberg is known as someone willing to traffic in untruths with reporters. “He likes to spread lies,” said one associate of Nunberg’s. “He loves to see some lie he told get into print. He thinks it’s hilarious.”
Most famously, he made up a story about Chris Christie fetching cheeseburgers for Trump on the campaign—an anecdote that made its way into The New Yorker and which he said was justified because “I despise Chris Christie. So I kept going around telling every reporter watch that fat-ass go buy hamburgers for Trump like a good little bitch.” (To try to track down the true story of the story is to enter that Nunberg hall of mirrors: He claims to have made up the story, but also, in his telling, it doesn’t count as making it up since it turned out to be true. A Christie spokesman vociferously denied the account, and the reporter who first brought the story to light, Ryan Lizza, then with the The New Yorker, stands by it and has denied Nunberg was his source, and for that matter, so has Nunberg.)
Nunberg tells me his favorite book is Trust Me, I Am Lying by former American Apparel media stuntman Ryan Holiday. “There is something about manipulating media that I love. It’s like Katy Tur said: ‘Who is Sam Nunberg? You gotta talk to him. Occasionally, he will give you something that is true, but usually you need to confirm it with three other people.’”
Still, he has limits.
“I have never, nor would I ever, lie to [Washington Post reporter Robert] Costa or to my Magela.”
I’m sorry—your who?
“My Magela. I call Maggie Haberman [of The New York Times] my Magela. You know, like Mamela. Maggie is like my aunt.”
“I don’t know if she feels that way, actually.”
The person who really connected Nunberg with Trump is the man who he cites as his mentor: Roger Stone, the legendary dirty trickster of Republican politics, with a massive tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face across his back. Nunberg became enamored of Stone for appearing, at least, to have orchestrated the downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. (Later, when Spitzer attempted a comeback run for New York City comptroller, Nunberg and Stone trolled him mercilessly, convincing a woman who claimed to operate a brothel that Spitzer frequented to run against him as a Libertarian, and bringing black socks—which Spitzer was said to keep on during his liaisons—to the victory night party of his opponent.) During the ground zero mosque controversy, he says, he met Stone at a bar during the New York state Republican convention. Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, was working for Paladino. That same summer, Trump offered to buy the site where the ground zero mosque was supposed to be built for $6 million, a move that was dismissed by the developer’s attorneys as a “cheap publicity stunt.”
Nunberg says it was Stone who arranged for him to meet Trump for the first time. It was 2011, and Stone and Jonny Daniels, a PR agent who counts Benjamin Netanyahu as among his clients, wanted Trump to visit Israel in the run-up to another possible presidential campaign. Nunberg told him about their family connection and about meeting him at WrestleMania years before, and Trump hired him as a political jack-of-all trades, printing out news articles, keeping an eye out for political gossip, doing research and writing, handling the press and later mapping out a way that Trump could run as an independent in 2012.
Until he was broomed out four years later, Nunberg never left.
Trump had been a clownish figure around New York for most of Nunberg’s childhood, someone more famous for talking about sex with Howard Stern than trying to stir up populist anger against the Washington swamp. Most people in the elite Upper East Side world of private schools and corporate law firms—the world Nunberg inhabited—rolled their eyes at the thought of Trump, if they thought of him at all. Nunberg, though, was intrigued by the brashness and the airbrushed glamour.
He started dressing like Trump in flashy suits and ostentatious ties. He watched how would-be presidents and potentates came to kiss the ring at Trump Tower, and how Trump dealt with critics. Nunberg says he and Stone started dictating tweets to Trump’s longtime assistant Rhona Graff, and Nunberg would map out on a spreadsheet a running tally of what Trump tweeted about to make sure his business and brands got enough airplay. When Jon Huntsman pointedly refused to supplicate himself before Trump like other rivals to the GOP nomination in 2012, Stone and Nunberg counseled Trump to go on the attack. “@JonHuntsman has zero chance of getting the nomination,” Trump tweeted. “Whoever said I wanted to meet him? Time is money and I don’t waste mine.”
“It blew up!” says Nunberg. “It was on ‘Entertainment Tonight,‘ it was in People Magazine. People were saying that Huntsman was Trump’s new Rosie.”
When no one believed that Trump would actually run for president, let alone could win, Nunberg believed. “To him, Donald Trump hung the moon,” Caputo said
Caputo, a veteran political adviser to Trump, looks at Nunberg with an almost older-brother like affection, and he gives Nunberg significant credit for helping lay out the themes and the approach to the campaign that would launch Trump to the White House. “His DNA was all over the Trump campaign. Corey [Lewandowski] may have set him up to win, and [Paul] Manafort got him through the convention and Kellyanne [Conway] got him over the finish line, but none of that would have happened if it weren’t for Sam.”
Nunberg says the idea of a border wall with Mexico was his, inspired by watching how Paladino and Lazio approached the idea of the ground zero mosque. “Well, I don’t know, maybe we need to let some of these people in, maybe we put some of them in the back of the line, maybe we do this, maybe we do that,” he said in his best impression of an immigration squish. “No, fuck that! We are building a wall and we are deporting them all. Trump’s a builder anyway. And you get Mexico to pay for it! It’s like one of his licensing deals!”
As it happened, Nunberg barely survived into the campaign. He lost his job with Trump in August 2015 when Business Insider published a series of racist Facebook posts Nunberg had written eight years before, including one in which he called Al Sharpton’s daughter a “n---!” Nunberg admits to writing them, and knows it was a mistake. He blames their excavation on Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager who he said had it in for him from the beginning.
Afterward, Nunberg fell into deep and lasting depression. He says he had trouble getting out of bed, and couldn’t read or work. He credits Steve Bannon with helping him get back on his feet by giving him a bit of work, as well as the GOP operative Arthur Schwartz.
“That was bad. That a very hard experience. And I wasn’t good to myself. I don’t want to get into it but I wasn’t. It took therapy, and it took help from other people,” he says, “and I will admit that. And there is nothing wrong with that. But I wasn’t good to myself. I wasn’t.”
Nunberg watched from the sidelines as the political animal he helped feed made it all the way to the White House. As the Russia investigation intensified, he was cut off from old friends like Bannon and Stone. And as the White House whipped through personnel changes, Nunberg, whose life is political gossip, found himself less and less in the know. He would occasionally appear on the record or on background in stories about Trump when the perspective of a “former campaign aide” was needed, but even those calls had begun to dry up.
When Nunberg was subpoenaed by Robert Mueller in the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the campaign, “It brought stuff back in. At the same time I was getting these calls [from bookers and reporters] and it is almost like I am manic.”
“So imagine, holy shit, I was called a low-level part-time consultant and suddenly I am pulling of one of the greatest media days of all time.”
He views March 5 as a form of therapy, and as an unqualified professional success
“This is a fact: When I did Ari Melber he won in total viewers and the demo. When I did Erin Burnett, she won in total viewers and the demo,” he said, reiterating a point he brought up to me repeatedly. (He later texted me, unprompted, with a screen grab of the ratings on the date in question.) “Did you notice there was one station I didn’t go on that day? Fox. You know why? They are the only ones that never invited me on before. That day, I had like eight invitations from them to come on different shows, and I can show them to you.”
Friends were convinced Nunberg was drunk on air, and were emailing and texting television producers and hosts to get him off. Burnett asked him about it on air, telling him that she could smell alcohol on his breath. “She says to me, ‘Are you on something?’ And you know what I wanted to say? ‘Yeah, I am on something—I am on your show, giving you ratings like you never had before.’”
The affair set off a round of media finger-wagging, with some political journalists suggesting—at the urging of Nunberg’s friends—that it was unethical to put him in front of all those television cameras. He was having some kind of psychotic break, he was drunk on the attention, or he was just plain drunk.
Nunberg isn’t having any of it. He’d had a drink the day before, he says, and went to his favorite bar afterward, the preppy New York enclave Dorrian’s Red Hand, but all he had that day was his antidepressant medication.
“People told me I was used and abused. I knew what I was doing. I could have stopped it any time if I wanted to,” he said. “I heard someone on TV say, ‘Oh Sam, he’s an unbelievable attention-seeker.’ There you are, sitting on fucking TV and you are telling me I am the attention-seeker.”
Nunberg thinks Trump probably appreciated his television tour—the brashness of it, for one, and the fact that he was able to command so much media attention for one night.
It was he said, a way to communicate with Trump, too. To say, “Why do I have to be drawn into your bullshit? I don’t do anything to you. I want you to be successful. You know, I have a weird relationship with him. Maybe one day I can, maybe one day not. I like him. Why do I have to be drawn into his bullshit?”
When Trump fired him, as Nunberg recounts it, he told him it wasn’t just the Facebook posts. He told Nunberg, “Every few months there is something new with you.”
If Trump did indeed tell that to Nunberg, he was right. Even cast into the outer darkness of the Trumpian orbit, Nunberg sees himself as a political operative of the highest order, always hatching, or getting embroiled in, something new. “There aren’t that many people at my level, I can tell you that,” he said when asked about which current political professionals he admires. Like Trump, and like Cohn for that matter, Nunberg never forgets. It’s been 2½ years since he was fired, and he remains at war with anyone who he thinks slighted him, ever.
When the Drudge Report published the news that Trump had named Brad Parscale his 2020 campaign manager, it was the same day that it was announced that Jared Kushner was losing his security clearance and that top Kushner aide Josh Raffel was leaving the White House. Nunberg, who considers Kushner a leftist who leaked to Drudge, sent an email to Drudge with the subject line, “Sorry Asshole.”
“Your little escapade failed,” Nunberg wrote. “The Parscale announcement doesn’t outdo Raffel leaving and your crush losing his security access. Fuck you sellout bitch hypocrite. You useless aggregator. Go shoot yourself up with more drugs. Warm regards, Sam.”
And Nunberg continues to be at war with Lewandowski. He told me with evident pride that he orchestrated the story of Lewandowski and Hope Hicks’ argument that landed on Page Six in New York Post. “We are like high school mean girls. The whole Trump circle. We fight and we try to kill each other and then some of us make up in a week and some of us don’t and some of us will always hate each other.”
Trump and Nunberg haven’t talked since December 2015, Nunberg says. That’s when Gawker published Trump’s cellphone number, and Trump accused Nunberg of leaking it. (Nunberg thinks Lewandowski did it just to undermine him, so that Trump would be forced to abandon his cellphone and Nunberg would be unable to communicate with him.) He wrote Trump a letter after he was elected, telling him how proud he was of the president. Trump wrote a nice note back.
“I said a lot of bad things that day when I was stressed out [on television.] He did give me a lot of chances, and if it was up to him I would be on that campaign. He is not a bad guy. He is actually a sweet guy, frankly. He has a heart.”
Caputo says all of the people from the early of days of the Trump for president gambit are “like an island of misfit toys. Sam is the jack-in-the-box.
“He left his heart in Trump Tower,” Caputo said. “I just hope he finds it someday.”
Unlike some others who fell out of Trump’s orbit, Nunberg has nothing to fall back on—no job on Wall Street, no Kennedy School post waiting for him. He can’t, or won’t, leverage his former access to the White House to get work. He has a small consulting business that has only three clients for now, all of whom he declined to name. Nunberg listens to Preet Bharara’s podcast to find out what’s going on in the Russia investigation—and if he gets wrapped up in it further, it will cost him tens of thousands of dollars. Someone who just got back on his feet could easily find himself knocked off them again, and his star turn before the klieg lights doesn’t appear to have helped matters much.
The lure of those lights, however, is not something he has been able to avoid. In fact, Nunberg’s media tour has slowed down only slightly since that Monday. He was on Ari Melber the next day, and ABC radio, and CNN, and was fielding requests throughout our conversation. They get less and less attention though, just another talking head talking his way through the news of the day. After his star turn digging in against Mueller, he quickly reversed himself and said he would in fact cooperate with the special counsel.
Our dinner, such as it was, ended sometime around 10 p.m. He kept checking the mirror, wondering if he needed to get to the tanning salon, if his face was too red for TV. His mother kept calling, and he kept on pushing back their dinner, eventually canceling it, saying he was being interviewed for a profile. “Why don’t you shut that stuff down?” she wanted to know. Eventually he had to go. The tanning salon was about to close, and he needed one more turn under the lights.