It’s hard to say why Sam Nunberg chose to spend hours zigzagging across cable news shows to publicly defy a federal grand jury subpoena this week. He dove, inexplicably, into shark-infested waters and created a feeding frenzy — and he didn’t even bother to use a protective cage.
With no counsel from a lawyer, and seemingly no consideration for the consequences, the Nunberg show quickly became voyeurism: a human unraveling on live TV, vowing not to cooperate with a subpoena, and laughing at the prospect of being jailed for contempt of court. After telling MSNBC’s Ari Melber that lawyers working with special investigator Robert Mueller were “trying to set up a perjury case against Roger Stone,” he said he “wasn’t gonna have it.”
As a guest on Melber’s show that that day, I was lined up to take my bite out of Nunberg like everyone else. I’m a lawyer by profession, an academic by vocation and a racial justice crusader by mission, but I’m no saint. He was spewing his arrogant, privileged contempt for our legal process, and is notorious for racially charged language, so I felt more than happy to do some damage.
Instead, some now call what happened that night a form of free legal counsel. Melber asked Nunberg if his lawyer thought his refusal to comply with a subpoena was a good idea. He’d clearly not spoken with his attorney about it, but added, “I definitely know my father doesn’t like it.”
My immediate response was, “I think your family wants you home for Thanksgiving, and I hope you will testify.” The conversation didn’t end there. Nunberg didn’t seem to believe federal investigators would ask a court to hold him in contempt and put him in jail. He didn’t want to spend “80 hours” looking for subpoenaed emails. At that point, I looked him in the eye and said slowly, “You’d rather spend possibly a year in jail rather than 80 hours going through your emails?” It appeared to finally dawn on him that jail was a possibility.
For me, it was a special moment, and not just because it helped change Nunberg’s mind — although I’m glad he is cooperating, for now, with the investigation. The real magic was that I shifted from a cold analyst, coming for blood, to real talk. Viewers were nourished by that, not by a pitched battle.
It began with Ari setting a tone of calm and caring conversation, and even asking Nunberg if he was okay, rather than asking if he was drunk. Another guest, former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade, clearly and simply laid out both the opportunity to negotiate with Mueller’s team and the consequences of defiance.
By the time of my encounter with Nunberg, I was already fatigued from the months of commentary on fine points of the Mueller investigation. It’s a critical story that we need to understand, but it’s also one that has pushed coverage of issues like hunger or police reform — topics central to our lives and our democracy — to the side. Just a week earlier, I had been considering whether I should step back from discussions about the investigation to spend more time on other important social issues.
Then came Nunberg: a chatty, childlike adversary, blustery and arrogant and utterly outmatched. Listening through my earpiece as he scoffed at concern about his history of racially offensive words — and undermined any sense of sincerity in his previous apologies — was a gut punch. No amount of condescending comments, ignorant assumptions or statements of outright bigotry ever prepare me for the next one. It’s a fact of life and mine is privileged compared to many, but it’s still a gut punch. I was going to to take him down.
I don’t know exactly when I shifted, but I believe it was when Nunberg mentioned his father’s concern for him. I watched my father die when I was nine years old. I revered him. A civil rights and economic justice organizer, he was funny and friendly and warm and laughed even in the middle of a fight. One of my mother’s favorite stories about him was how he, a college student earning his way through the Army ROTC, would have to drive through the segregated South to get to the base. He would insist on stopping at “whites only” restaurants and ask to be served. It was the 1950s. He would enter, smile, sit, and chat. He never got served, my mother said. And yet, white Southern segregationists were kind to him in return and felt bad about refusing him. She used to joke that he could befriend a Klansman if he wanted to.
Hyperbole? Sure. But the point was clear. We can be outspoken activists and be kind. In fact, we must be kind, human, who we truly are.
In that moment, I saw Nunberg as a son, not a son of a bitch. I started talking to him as if he was sitting in my kitchen. What I wouldn’t give to have my father here to be concerned for my wellbeing; to guide me in racially charged and divisive times, when our country has lost so much of the ground that he fought for.
It didn’t mean I felt sorry for Nunberg. I don’t. Some have called what I did “compassionate,” and maybe that’s the word for it. But real human connection? Yes, it was that. And I am reinvigorated by it — by the privilege of being on TV to create a conversation around what matters.
The outpouring of emails and messages from strangers from all over the country since then has been humbling and inspiring. In an age of anger and arrogance, we seek compassion and humanity. I have been wrapped up in the warm embrace of my fellow "small d" democrats, who yearn for a nation of people who stand up to ignorance and hate by climbing to higher ground. The soul of our nation is our people and we must find a way to each other or be lost. Viewers showed me that we aren’t completely lost. Not yet.
Maya Wiley is a senior vice president for Social Justice at the New School and its Henry Cohen Professor of Urban Policy and Management. She is a racial justice advocate and digital equity strategist.
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