As we spoke, Nunberg alternated between this unalloyed bravado and a kind of meta amusement at the media frenzy his performance had commanded. He seemed to take special pleasure in speculating about how Mueller might be reacting to the spectacle. “You know what the funny thing is?” he boasted. “He’s thinking I’m, like, playing eight-dimensional chess with Donald Trump.”
Well, I asked, are you?
He guffawed. “No!”
On this count, at least, I was inclined to believe him—and yet the question remained: What exactly was Nunberg doing?
The mystery of his motivations had hovered over the day’s astonishing events, and theories attempting to explain his bizarre behavior had proliferated quickly. Some believed he was responding to being caught in a genuine conspiracy—auditioning for immunity, perhaps, or covering up crimes committed by allies in the president’s orbit.
CNN’s Erin Burnett told him—during a live broadcast—that she smelled alcohol on his breath. (I asked him if he’d been drinking that night. “No,” he insisted angrily.) Others worried that he might be experiencing some kind of personal breakdown. “I know it’s compelling to watch Sam’s interviews right now,” conservative commentator S.E. Cupp tweeted Monday night, “but I’m actually concerned that someone I’ve known a long time is not okay.”
Meanwhile, Nunberg’s own explanation for his behavior was so simplistic and strange that it was hard to take at face value: After being ordered to hand over his past private correspondence with several former Trump advisers, he said, he was sorting through his inbox Monday morning and determined that complying with the subpoena would be an intolerable hassle. After all, he explained, “I have a life.”
I won’t venture a guess as to which theory best explains his actions. But as anyone who’s known Nunberg for a while can attest, his behavior Monday doesn’t necessarily require special explanation. He’s been pulling stunts like this for years—this is just the first time he’s gotten the kind of audience he’s always craved.
I first met Nunberg in person in 2014, when he arranged for me to interview his boss, Donald Trump, on a flight from New Hampshire to New York. Thanks to an unexpected blizzard that effectively shut down LaGuardia Airport, we ended up flying to Palm Beach instead, where I spent 36 hours marooned at Mar-a-Lago with Trump as my host and Nunberg as my sidekick.
At the time, what most struck me about Nunberg was the way he seemed to mimic Trump’s speaking cadences (“fantastic,” “huge,” “loser”) and sartorial aesthetic (wide lapels, shiny ties, thick knots). But, as I would later learn, his true mentor was actually Roger Stone.
As Nunberg told it, he was sitting in a law-school class one day when someone emailed him a Weekly Standard profile of the notorious Republican operative. Stone was described in the piece as a “Nixon-era dirty trickster” and “professional lord of mischief,” and he was quoted talking about politics as “performance art … sometimes for its own sake.”