On Monday afternoon, the country turned its attention to a bizarre spectacle, the sort that has become commonplace in the Trump era. After receiving a subpoena for records related to his time in the Trump campaign, former aide Sam Nunberg started dialing up every media organization he could. The afternoon was wall-to-wall Nunberg, a spray of incredulous interviewers facing down an increasingly erratic and combative subject. By late evening, CNN’s Erin Burnett, sitting across from Nunberg, seemed to confirm what many people had speculated: “Talking to you, I have smelled alcohol on your breath.” (Nunberg denied he had been drinking.)
The stunning series of interviews re-introduced the world to Nunberg, who had largely disappeared from the public eye. His interviews have returned attention to the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But they should also highlight a pattern in Donald Trump’s political career: He hires the very worst people. And it’s not just a matter of mismanagement. Trump hires people whose qualities he shares.
His personnel flaws are, in fact, his personal flaws.
Which makes Nunberg a useful character study. Set aside for a moment his bizarre interviews (though we’ll return to those). Nunberg was already well known to political journalists, in part because he was forced off the campaign for racist social media posts, and in part because he was a documented fabulist. His suggestions that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and would be hosting a “Hip Hop Inaugral [sic] Ball” after being sworn in are precisely the sort of racist yuk-yukking that Trump, the nation’s chief birther, is comfortable with.
Cartoons on President Donald Trump
The effortless lies are also of a piece with Trump’s communication style. Nunberg revealed last year that he had made up a story about Trump making administration hopeful Chris Christie fetch Trump’s fast-food lunches while on the campaign trail. Why lie? Why not? There seems to be no punishment for it in the Trump world, and besides, it gave Nunberg a chance to humiliate Christie (something Trump loves to do, too).
But the casual falsehoods are far from the only rhetorical trait Nunberg and Trump share. Let’s return to yesterday’s interviews. Nunberg’s rambling string of juvenile insults, shocking (likely baseless) claims and random asides were textbook Trump. “Do you think I would ever talk to that moron?” he asked about Special Counsel Robert Mueller. When it came to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Nunberg went for “a fat slob” and “a joke.” (Trump has called comedian Rosie O’Donnell both “fat” and a “slob,” while calling someone “a joke” is his go-to put-down.)
Moreover, Nunberg’s ability to crowd out everything else that was happening on Monday afternoon, to keep all eyes on him as viewers wondered what he might do next, is the most Trumpian move of them all. The Russia investigation is too big to be permanently sidelined, but for an afternoon, the pressing question seemed not to be “what did Nunberg and others in the campaign do?” but rather “is he drunk, crazy or secretly outsmarting us all?”
These same pattern of mirrored traits can be seen in other disgraced or embattled members of the Trump administration, from conspiracy-theorist Michael Flynn to shady real-estate scion Jared Kushner, from racial antagonist Steve Bannon to unfiltered braggart Anthony Scaramucci. And it’s true of other insiders as well, all reflections of some unsavory part of Trump’s personality.
Nunberg will quickly fade from the front pages, as Scaramucci and Sebastian Gorka and others have. But his public spectacle this afternoon serves as a reminder that the problems with the administration start at the very top, and no matter how many personnel changes we see, the chaos and bizarreness will be with us so long as Trump is president.