The Full Nunberg
Going ape on TV after getting subpoenaed by Mueller is the best thing that’s happened to Sam Nunberg in a long time
This story is part of The Trump 45, a special package about Trump’s impact on individual lives.
In the basement of the Upper East Side Equinox Fitness Club, Sam Nunberg was grunting in agony, lifting 55-pound dumbbells in each arm, dripping with sweat. His face — bloated and red as a MAGA hat — contorted into various expressions of deep pain. Somehow he was chewing gum at the same time.
Nunberg paused for a moment between reps and held the weights by this thighs. “I can’t,” he groaned. “I’m having an asthma attack. I’m dying.”
“Do I enjoy your suffering? Yes,” Joe, his personal trainer, replied.
Joe is not the only one. Chances are, if you’ve heard of Sam Nunberg at all, it’s because of his March 5, 2018, media meltdown, a day that will forever be remembered by politics nerds as “The Full Nunberg.” Approximately a week after being subpoenaed by the Special Counsel’s office, Nunberg — the preeminent “failson” of the MAGA coterie — owned the news cycle for a full day. After proclaiming to the Washington Post that he would defy the order to appear before a grand jury, he rang up MSNBC and informed anchor Katy Tur that he would also refuse to hand over his email correspondences with former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon and advisor Roger Stone. “Let him arrest me,” Nunberg said of Robert Mueller. Nunberg then proceeded to phone CNN multiple times — calling Trump “an idiot,” opining that the president “may have very well done something during the election with the Russians,” and repeatedly daring Mueller to take him into custody. When he later appeared on CNN in person, anchor Erin Burnett accused him of being drunk on TV, a charge he vehemently denies.
Nunberg also managed to squeeze in interviews with Spectrum NY1 News — in which he called Sarah Huckabee Sanders a “fat slob” — the New York Times, the Atlantic, Vox, POLITICO, and finally, New York magazine — wherein he elaborated, “She is a slob… [b]ecause she does Trump’s dirty business… I’m not making a judgment about her terrible appearance, because that would be very rude and not politically correct.” Nunberg ultimately reneged on his headline-grabbing threats, testifying in front of a grand jury days later. He told me he ultimately complied with the subpoena because not wanting to do would make him seem guilty.
Clearly enamored by his trainer’s military background, Nunberg eagerly informed me that Joe is a graduate of West Point. Before becoming a personal trainer, Joe was “in the army, wasting money,” Nunberg jabbed.
Without so much as cracking a smile, Joe reminded his client they were still working out. “Step back and spread your heels,” he commanded.
Nunberg grew up on the Upper East Side, the son of two attorneys. Both parents supported Jimmy Carter for president but became Republicans in the late 1980s, partly due to their dissatisfaction with David Dinkins’ tenure as the mayor of New York City. Ardent supporters of Rudy Giuliani, they were dismayed by Bill Clinton’s tax increases and viewed him as inherently corrupt.
“Don’t make people your heroes,” Nunberg told me. “You’ll get disappointed.”
Sam went his own way. When he was assigned an essay in sixth grade about which presidential candidate he supported, he chose Ross Perot. “I always had an affinity for outsiders,” he explained. “Even at a young age, I was always interested in non-politician type people, flashy businessmen.”
Nunberg’s interest in politics deepened during college (he attended McGill in Montreal) when he learned about Roy Cohn, the notorious political fixer and chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “I used to put Cohn’s picture up on my Blackberry wallpaper… I didn’t realize Trump was one of his clients,” he said.
It was through researching Cohn that Nunberg first learned of his future mentor, Roger Stone, another long-time practitioner of the political dark arts, who got his start on the first Nixon campaign. “I was always attracted to Stone,” Nunberg told me, citing a 2007 Weekly Standard article about the “professional lord of mischief,” which adoringly chronicled his dirty political work and relationship with Trump. In 2008, Nunberg was volunteering for Romney’s presidential campaign — who he believed was the most viable conservative candidate at the time — when he ran into his idol for the first time, while on the campaign trail in Iowa.
He proved himself a good student, making his first splash in the culture wars during the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque (which as POLITICO’s David Freelander noted, was “neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque”). Nunberg was working for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice in 2010, when a Muslim real estate developer and an imam initiated an effort to build an Islamic community center several blocks away from Ground Zero. Inspired by Stone’s dirty tricks, Nunberg pounced.
After convincing ACLJ (helmed by Jay Sekulow, who now also serves as one of Trump’s personal attorneys) to get involved in the debate, Nunberg joined the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Newt Gingrich, and Pamela Geller in their efforts to drum up panic about the proposed building. “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 said last year. He garnered some coveted media attention, even making it onto NPR, after bombastically proclaiming that building the community center “would be like removing the sunken ship in Pearl Harbor to erect a memorial to the Japanese kamikazes killed in the attack.”
Amid the ensuing fracas, Stone introduced Nunberg to a well-known real estate mogul. “Trump recognized me when I walked into his office,” Nunberg bragged, his voice characteristically booming and gleeful, due to the recent appearance he made on Fox News. Soon after, he joined Trump’s political team, back when the idea of President Trump was nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Nunberg has been hired and fired by Trump three times. He began working for him in 2011, and was first let go in 2014 after orchestrating an unflattering BuzzFeed profile of the candidate headlined, “36 Hours On The Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump.” He was rehired in April 2014, fired again in February 2015, and rehired a couple months later, as a communications adviser, one of the first on the team. He was then let go six months later, right as the campaign was actually gaining traction, after some of his racist Facebook posts from 2007 — wherein he called Al Sharpton’s daughter the N-word and Obama a “Socialist Marxist Islamo Fascist Nazi Appeaser” — resurfaced.
Nunberg blames “piece of shit” former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski — whom he says made the campaign “a complete disaster,” despite its ultimate success — for the media getting wind of those Facebook posts.
In what Nunberg views as perhaps the greatest indignity, a Trump spokesperson later disparaged him — the man who championed a Donald Trump presidency when it was little more than a joke — as a “low-level staffer.”
“Don’t make people your heroes,” Nunberg told me. “You’ll get disappointed.” Trump subsequently sued him for $10 million for allegedly breaching a confidentiality agreement in July 2016; the suit was settled “amicably” two months later.
Depressed, humiliated, and cast out of Trump’s orbit, Nunberg’s political career seemed all but over; his finances in free fall. “The year Trump fired me, I made $50,000,” he lamented, “In 2016, I made 60, 65.” His March 5, 2018, media blitz changed everything, allowing him to finally regain the relevance he desperately craved.
Nunberg recalls that day in March fondly. “It was a coming out moment,” he told me. “I don’t think I’d be going on cable TV as frequently as I do now if I hadn’t done that.”
The one regret he has about his marathon of news hits seems to be his physical appearance; he got serious about working out, he said, because he wants to look “less fat on TV.”
A half hour later, his workout complete, Nunberg was nursing a Muscle Milk and smoking a long menthol cigarette on the balcony of his small one-bedroom apartment on the edge of Yorkville. His adoring dachshund Winston was running in circles around his feet, elated that his dad had finally returned home.
“He’s got a nice place,” Nunberg said of the perfect little pup. “Better than the pound, right? He was gonna be killed. He was a biter when he was younger.”
Given the President’s well-known aversion to dogs, Nunberg’s obsession with man’s best friend seems noteworthy. His home is virtually a shrine to them. A framed picture of his first dachshund, Frankie, hung on the wall of his living room; below it, he’d placed a poster that listed off a number of “Things we learn from a dog,” including: “greet everyone with enthusiasm,” “don’t hold grudges,” “loyalty is a virtue,” “accept treats,” and “love unconditionally.” On his couch lay a pillow with a silhouette of a dachshund and the embroidered legend, “It’s been a long day.” (Dachshund lovers will get it.) Across the room, a dog-themed calendar was affixed to his fridge with a “9/11 NEVER FORGET” magnet.
Nunberg’s newfound media attention not only inspired him to quit drinking, but propelled him to move out of his parents’ nearby duplex and into his own place.
A few items were non-canine-themed. A stray copy of the Mueller report lay on the corner of his coffee table, for instance, and a WWE championship belt rested atop the air conditioner.
A lifelong wrestling fan, Nunberg first encountered Trump at Wrestlemania V when he was six years old, but only began to recognize his political potential at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2011, when he saw Trump walking down the hallway, flanked by paparazzi. “I ain’t never seen anything like that for a Republican,” he recalled. “I didn’t know necessarily if he could beat Obama. I don’t think anybody could have, but I thought this was the type of candidacy that could give the Republicans a chance.” Trump, Nunberg said, is the “WWE Smash Mouth”-version of Obama.
If Nunberg has learned anything from Trump, it’s a deep reverence for ratings. As he confirmed during the Full Nunberg, attention, whether positive or negative, has its uses. “It was good to dominate the day,” he said. “It’s always good to dominate media. If you get ratings, you get on TV.” He rattled off his viewership numbers on that fateful day in March, and bitterly remarked, “I’m not a ‘low-level part-time consultant’ anymore, after what I did.”
As for Burnett’s comment about smelling alcohol on his breath, he claimed it was a set-up: “She was getting texts from Michael Cohen and somebody from the White House telling her to ask me that.”
Though Nunberg fiercely maintained he hadn’t been drinking at all the night of the interview, he admitted that he has struggled with alcohol abuse throughout his life. A little less than a month after his viral moment, he decided to get sober again, and he said he hasn’t had a drink since April 1, 2018. It wasn’t his first attempt at sobriety, but it has been his longest.
“I bought that Clapton picture ’cause I went to Clapton’s rehab in Antigua,” he told me, pointing to an impressively tacky, pseudo-impressionist painting of the famed guitarist hanging above his bed, beside a map of the United States made of license plates. “It’s good to wake up every morning and have that as a reminder.”
As it turns out, going ape on TV after getting subpoenaed by Mueller is the best thing that’s happened to Sam Nunberg in a long time: His newfound media attention not only inspired him to quit drinking, but propelled him to move out of his parents’ nearby duplex and into his own place.
Meanwhile, Nunberg has also become a regular talking head on cable news — albeit unpaid. Still, he’s now back to making a midsix-figure salary, working as a media affairs consultant for two clients, including a major aerospace company.
These days, Nunberg doesn’t get a lot of love from Team Trump, but the affection he receives from the ever-adoring Winston more than makes up for it. All in all, Nunberg said his life has improved “on the margins, but not primarily” since Trump won the Presidency. “The publicity part is certainly better,” he told me. If Trump wasn’t president, he explained, “Would I be sitting here with you right now? No. But I don’t get the perks of what others get… I truly love politics, and that was something that was taken away from me by Trump.”
“My taxes have gone up under Donald Trump. That’s just the fucking fact. They didn’t go up under Obama.”
Despite Nunberg’s exile, his influence on policy endures. For instance, he took half the credit for getting Trump fixated on the idea of building a wall, something he and Roger Stone proposed to the president together. Inspired by a 2010 John McCain campaign ad, in which the self-styled maverick strolled along the border with an Arizona sheriff and declared, “Complete the dang fence,” Nunberg said he told Trump, “‘Why don’t you say you’re going to build a wall?’ Because nobody builds like Trump.”
Nunberg’s eagerness to place himself at the center of controversies like the Ground Zero Mosque and the wall suggest his politics are largely racially motivated. But even after the leaked Facebook messages, he insisted that he’s not a racist. “The Democrats get 95% of the African American vote,” he said. “Why can’t we also play resentment politics?”
Politically, Nunberg still considers himself a conservative. “I’m a Republican because I think that there should be less regulations on the small businesses,” he explained, noting that he also supports “a strong military” and believes Trump is doing “a great job on China.” When it comes to abortion, “it should be done as infrequently as possible,” he said. “I don’t think Roe v. Wade is good law, but I think we need to have [legal] abortion in the first trimester.”
As for the President himself, Nunberg gives him a mixed rating. “My taxes have gone up under Donald Trump,” he said. “That’s just the fucking fact. They didn’t go up under Obama.” But he still plans to vote for him again in 2020. “Here’s what these elections are really about: judges and three-thousand fucking appointments,” he explained. “The federal government, especially the way it is now, is a leviathan. Personnel is policy. That’s the reason why I go for any Republican.”
As for his personal life, it remains a work in progress. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I asked.
“No. No,” he replied with uncharacteristic terseness. “I just haven’t been interested.”
His professional background, it seems, presents one stumbling block. “They’ll just say, ‘Oh, I find your politics disgusting,’” he explained. But he doesn’t mind dating liberals, “As long as we don’t have to discuss it,” he told me. “That took maturity. I used to be obsessed with politics. I’m just not anymore.” As for what he’d like to be doing in the future, he said, he’d like to find another field he can be passionate about. “That’s one of the things I’m pissed about Trump,” he said. “From the way I was treated on the campaign, he just took that passion away from me.”
Nunberg seemed a little melancholy, but a moment later, he’d segued into an anecdote about Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, gleefully calling the conservative stalwarts “disgusting.” The way he sees it, they’re lying to their audiences. “Just say, ‘I support Trump,’” he bemoaned, instead of falsely professing objectivity. “Limbaugh starts taking fucking dictation from the White House the day after my media blitz and saying Sam Nunberg was a drunk. He had nothing to do with the campaign. He’s just trying to take credit. He has like multiple things I’m saying I was drunk. Here’s a fucking guy who was doing Oxy before it was fashionable… and he’s lying.”
The wistfulness had passed. Nunberg was once again fired up. His eyes brightened. “I’ll give you some good stuff,” he promised me.
Update: An earlier version of this story misstated Nunberg’s work history with Donald Trump. He was hired and fired three times, not twice.