Politics & Policy

How Sane Is Sam Nunberg? How Sane Are Any of These People?

In today’s world, how do we distinguish ‘crazy’ political actors from ‘mentally unwell’ ones?

Monday afternoon, former Donald Trump aide Sam Nunberg appeared on CNN, and towards the end of a wild and wide-ranging interview with Jake Tapper, he seemed to ask the host for legal advice on whether he should comply with a subpoena from special counsel Robert Mueller.

“Do you think I should cooperate? Should I spend 80 hours going over my emails, Jake?” Nunberg asked.

It’s really rare for an interview subject to ask a journalist for legal advice — and speaking as a journalist, I’d say it’s an astonishingly bad idea too. But Tapper was unflappable: “If it were me I would, if you’re just asking my opinion, just because, it sounds like a pain, but he is the special counsel and he does have the long arm of the law.”

Fascinatingly, Nunberg’s objection appeared not to be tied to any legal argument, such as executive privilege, but instead mostly centered on the fact that complying with the subpoena would be a lot of work and aggravation.

“If I have to produce every e-mail — I talked to Steve Bannon and Roger Stone eight times a day,” Nunberg said. “Do you know what I mean? Why do I have to go over — why do I have to go through every email I have?”

“Sometimes life and special counsels are not fair, I guess,” Tapper responded, inexplicably thrust into the bizarre role of communicating hard truths about the consequences of defying a subpoena to a man who has a J.D. from the Touro College Law Center. “I would cooperate if it were me, but, you know, I’m a different breed of cat.” Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic of the Lawfare blog remind us that Susan McDougal spent 18 months in jail for civil contempt in a similar case, and that the jury deadlocked on two counts of criminal contempt.

Ordinarily, one might suspect that Nunberg is putting his eggs in the basket of a future presidential pardon. But in a separate interview with Gloria Borger Monday, he said, “I’m not a Donald Trump fan, as I told you before, okay? He treated me like crap,” and, “Trump may have very well done something during the election with the Russians, and if you find it out if he did that, I don’t know. If he did that, you know what, it’s inexcusable.”

It is not often we get to watch, live on television, a man simultaneously risk contempt of court and antagonize the one man who can pardon him. By Monday night, CNN’s Erin Burnett awkwardly told Nunberg on-air that she could smell alcohol on him; Nunberg denied he had been drinking.

Tuesday morning brought furious accusations that the cable networks had exploited a man undergoing a breakdown by putting him on television when he was not well.

But how, exactly, is anyone supposed to tell the difference between “genuine mental problem” craziness and garden-variety nuttiness in a political environment such as this? It’s not even certain that Nunberg’s bizarre performances and pledges marked the craziest day of a crazy year for the Trump administration.

With his performance, Nunberg probably pulled ahead of Carter Page in the category of “former Trump advisers pursuing a bewildering strategy while interacting with a special counsel.”

Page is the strange kind of man who is smart enough to get a master’s degree from Georgetown University and become an energy consultant with Merrill Lynch, but not smart enough to bring a lawyer with him when he testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Intelligence Committee, or Mueller’s grand jury. In October, Page agreed to appear on the program of MSNBC’s Chris Hayes — light-years away from being a “friendly interviewer” — and his answers were so breathtakingly forward that Hayes was left in disbelief: “I genuinely hope, Carter, that you are innocent of everything, because you are doing a lot of talking.”

Perhaps we could push aside Nunberg and Page and give the award for most self-destructive former Trump adviser to Steve Bannon, who invited Michael Wolff into the White House to gather material for his book Fire and Fury and seemed to think he could trash the president’s children on the record and live to tell the tale.

Just missing the medal platform would be Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who we are to believe paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 out of his own personal funds as part of a nondisclosure agreement that ensured she would not speak about an alleged 2006 affair with Trump — an affair, Cohen assures us, that never occurred. Presumably he edges former Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault — who once boasted that everyone would have to “bow down” to Trump. She had a key staff position for a year, was summarily dismissed, and then reinvented herself as a Trump critic on another reality show, declaring, “I was haunted by tweets every single day.”

President Trump keeps attracting advisers who feel tempted to stick metal forks in electrical outlets just to see what happens. Perhaps they rub off on him, or he rubs off on them; the result is the same: a president who announces new trade tariffs without informing his own staff, runs an ongoing campaign of public humiliation against his own attorney general, tweets furiously about what he sees on cable news, publicly fumes  in the morning about Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live. It’s as if the White House mess is serving Tide Pods.

Our national political conversation has become an extended tense negotiation between the sane and insane. It would be easy to leave this all at the feet of Trump. But insanity is a bipartisan malady.

Does Nancy Pelosi really believe that a $1,000 bonus given by a corporation to an employee after passage of the tax cuts amounts to “crumbs”? Yes, she literally lives on “Billionaire’s Row” in San Francisco, and she snippily dismisses questions about her net worth, among the highest in Congress — but has she really reached the point where she thinks a thousand dollars is chump change? Or is she so mentally fixated on every Republican act being “Armageddon” that she has to believe that $1,000 is a measly sum in this context?

Perhaps Chuck Schumer wasn’t crazy to vote against Marvin Quattlebaum, Trump’s nominee for a long-vacant South Carolina federal judgeship. But it doesn’t seem terribly sane to argue out loud that Quattlebaum is too white for the job: “The nomination of Marvin Quattlebaum speaks to the overall lack of diversity in President Trump’s selections for the federal judiciary,” Schumer said. “It’s long past time that the judiciary starts looking a lot more like the America it represents.”

Just how sane is it for Congressman Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat, to defend a longstanding personal relationship with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam? Is it entirely rational to blow off Farrakhan’s long history of anti-Semitic comments? Davis said, “The world is so much bigger than Farrakhan and the Jewish question and his position on that and so forth. For those heavy into it, that’s their thing, but it ain’t my thing.”

Cuckoo conspiracy theories are now a bipartisan passion.

Cuckoo conspiracy theories are now a bipartisan passion. A DNC spokeswoman asked whether former congressman Jason Chaffetz was a Russian spy; Devin Nunes faced the same loony allegations. Massachusetts senator Ed Markey claimed, without any evidence, that a “grand jury has been impaneled up in New York” to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russians. Congressman Ted Lieu speculated that a Republican campaign staffer’s suicide was secretly a result of foul play stemming from a conversation with former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

People are asking, “How sane is Nunberg?” How sane are any of these people? How are cable-news networks supposed to assess the mental health of a former presidential aide when the baseline for “sane” has been adjusted downward so rapidly?

As John Lennon sang, “No one told us there would be days like these. Strange days indeed.”