WASHINGTON — Sam Nunberg has a “strange relationship” with Donald Trump. If anyone knows what it’s like to go through the wringer with America’s mercurial president, he does.
Currently an independent public affairs consultant based in Manhattan, Nunberg has endured three separate rounds of being hired and fired by Trump and was sued by him at one point — for $10 million — until the matter was settled amicably.
Today, he remains a strong supporter of the president, despite his disappointment with some personnel decisions and political maneuvering that he believes do not reflect the brand of politics that propelled Trump’s rise.
Nunberg should know. He helped launch Trump’s run for the White House and devised some of his most controversial campaign pledges, including building a wall on the US-Mexico border — something that most of the US Jewish community considers anathema.
But Nunberg, who himself is Jewish, remains a vociferous defender of Trump, and especially against charges that he’s racist and willing to court the support of rabid anti-Semites.
These allegations were noteworthy during the campaign and then resurfaced in August after the president blamed “both sides” for white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and said there were “very fine people” marching with neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen.
“I’ve spent hours with him. Donald Trump is anything but anti-Semitic, he is pro-Israel himself,” Nunberg told The Times of Israel in an extensive interview earlier this month. “It’s an outrageous and ridiculous claim.”
“The guy supported so many Jewish causes during his history as a private businessman. He sits in his office with an Eitz Chaim right next to him in Trump Tower,” he said, referring to a plaque on his wall with a picture of a tree and the words “Tree of life” in Hebrew.
Nunberg then paused for emphasis. “Plus, if he actually was an anti-Semite, he wouldn’t let his daughter convert.”
But it’s not just Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter who converted to Orthodox Judaism and married Jared Kushner — both now work as senior White House advisers — who informs Nunberg’s opinions of his old boss.
Looking at what’s going on inside the administration today, he cites the president’s recent personnel choices.
Whereas Trump once backed the America First populist nationalism pushed by Stephen Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and others, Nunberg sees the president increasingly moving away from some of the hard-right, anti-establishment inclinations that guided him during his bid for the presidency.
“Look at who he hired to serve in the West Wing,” he said, referring to the appointment of more traditional foreign policy thinkers, like Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and, his favorite target for derision, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, whom he describes as “vehemently anti-Israel and an Islamist sympathizer.”
For weeks, far-right conservatives have been perpetuating an offensive against McMaster as an enemy of Israel and as soft on terrorism. The source of this criticism is widely believed to be Bannon, who was pushed out of the National Security Council shortly after McMaster assumed his position.
Alt-right websites, moreover, have lambasted McMaster for firing Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the former National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs; Rich Higgins, the council’s old director for strategic planning; and Derek Harvey, who was its senior director for the Middle East.
All were hawkish allies of Michael Flynn, McMaster’s predecessor, who was ousted in February after undisclosed meetings with Russian officials came to light.
Israeli security officials who’ve worked with McMaster have vigorously rejected the allegations against him.
Nunberg also had some choice words for Gary Cohn, who heads the National Economic Council: “Gary is more J Street than ZOA. Look, Gary’s a liberal. I don’t know why he was put in there over somebody like Stephen Moore or Larry Kudlow. I think Jared put him in.”
While Cohn is a registered Democrat, he has never had any affiliation with nor made a contribution to J Street, the liberal Middle East advocacy group confirmed to The Times of Israel.
He has, though, like McMaster, been a frequent piñata for Breitbart and other alt-right affiliates, which consider him a “globalist” obstacle to their nationalist agenda.
‘Inarticulate’ but not wrong on Charlottesville
Nunberg believes a number of Trump’s campaign promises will ultimately go unfulfilled, including those relating to Israel. “I don’t suspect the embassy will be moved,” he said.
There is one primary reason for that suspicion: the exit of Bannon, with whom he is close.
“Steve was strongly advocating for it to get moved in the beginning,” Nunberg said. “If it didn’t get moved then, it’s not going to get moved anytime soon.”
Nunberg is also critical of Trump’s handling of the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, but not in the way the majority of American Jews are. It wasn’t Trump casting blame on both sides that was the problem, in his view, but rather his inability to get his message across effectively.
“I just think he was inarticulate with the point he was making that there were bad actors on both sides, which there were,” he said. “And by the way, the counter-protestors against the Klan — they don’t like Israel, either.”
Throughout the Charlottesville episode — the racism and vitriol of the marchers, the president’s apparent reluctance to instinctually, forcefully and unequivocally denounce them — there was an unwillingness on the part of Jewish White House staffers to defend Trump.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin condemned the march but wouldn’t comment on his boss’s reaction; Cohn reportedly drafted a resignation letter over what happened and told the Financial Times the administration “must do better” to speak out against hate groups; the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said the president’s response was “not fine.”
What’s more, Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, remained silent. Only Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin mounted a truly vigorous defense of the president.
From CPAC to ‘You’re Fired’
Nunberg first started working for Trump in 2011, around the time the real estate mogul first started thinking seriously about the presidency, after propagating the theory that Barack Obama was born outside the United States.
But the relationship began a year earlier, when Nunberg was working for Roger Stone, a veteran political consultant and longtime friend of Trump’s.
“We met with Trump when he was thinking of running for president,” he recalled. “Trump hired us after he decided not to run [in 2012]. He wanted to remain relevant in the process.”
In the intervening years, Nunberg played a pivotal role for Trump. He orchestrated his speeches at the Conservative Political Action Committee conferences, which Trump chroniclers have said were critical to solidifying the perception among conservatives that he could be a serious presidential candidate.
He also pressed Trump to emphasize an idea that would serve as one of his defining characteristics: a wall along America’s southern border.
“Nunberg was the guy who came up with the idea of the wall and helped sell Trump on this idea, which wound up being a pretty important part of Trump’s political profile and one that clearly resonated with Republican voters in a way that benefited Trump,” said Joshua Green, a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek who recently wrote the best-selling book “Devil’s Bargain.”
“I think Nunberg was actually quietly instrumental in Trump’s rise as a politician, because at the time Trump really became serious about running for president, Nunberg, along with Roger Stone, was one of his closest advisors and helped Trump transform into the anti-immigrant candidate that won the Republican nomination,” Green told The Times of Israel.
By his account, Nunberg said he convinced Trump that a moment he could take advantage of was approaching.
“I told him [Mitt] Romney was going to lose, and we discussed running in 2016 and that there was going to be a very good opening for it,” Nunberg said. “I just stayed on throughout those years.”
That was, until 2014, when Trump blamed him for an unflattering profile on BuzzFeed by McKay Coppins.
Trump thought the piece was “pejorative,” “rife with inaccuracies” and “mean-spirited.”
After the article’s publication, he explained to The New York Post: “Sam said to me, ‘This guy is a friend of mine. It’s going to be a great story. I have confidence it will be fair.’ So I actually did the interview as a courtesy to Sam. But I said to Sam, ‘If this guy writes a fair story, that’s fine. But if he writes a wise-guy story, you’ll be fired.’ And I said to Sam, ‘OK?’ And Sam said, ‘OK.’’’
Once the story ran, Trump said he “called [Nunberg] in and said, ‘Sam, you’re fired!’”
Nunberg, however, felt quite differently about the piece. Thirty minutes after it hit the web, he emailed Coppins and said, “I think this is fantastic. Wow, I will let you know what he thinks.”
He later added, “My mom really likes you. She wants to invite you and your wife over for Shabbos dinner. No joke.”
Eventually, Trump and Nunberg reconciled, and he came aboard to help launch the campaign.
But he was fired, again, in early 2015. Trump “let Corey Lewandowski push me out,” Nunberg said, referring to Trump’s original campaign manager, who himself was also fired by him.
Asked why Lewandowski wanted to get rid of him, Nunberg said: “Because he’s a piece of shit — and that’s his MO. But the fact of the matter is Trump let him.”
Lewandowski did not respond to a request for comment.
Nunberg was hired again shortly later — but that only lasted until July 2015, shortly after a series of Nunberg’s racist social media posts came to light. In one of them, Nunberg called Al Sharpton’s daughter a “N—.” In others, he referred to Barack Obama as a “Socialist Marxist Islamo Fascist Nazi Appeaser” and “Farrakahn’s (sic) Messiah.”
Nunberg then went to work for Ted Cruz, who, at the time, was thought to be a leading contender for the GOP nomination. Then in July 2016, Trump sued him for allegedly breaking a confidentiality agreement by tipping off reporters. In court filings, Trump accused the former campaign aide of being a source for a New York Post story that detailed a screaming match between Lewandowski and then campaign spokesman (now White House communications director) Hope Hicks. Trump sought $10 million worth of damages, until the case was settled that August.
Once Trump secured the nomination, however, Nunberg went back at it for the bombastic billionaire again — championing him in media appearances and interviews, but not as a formal member of the campaign team.
Assessing his old boss
Nunberg is emphatic in defending the president, but he isn’t reluctant to call him out for what he considers his mistakes.
While generally pleased with the way Trump has acted in the international arena, he’s less than thrilled with his handling of matters at home, though he places much of the blame for the legislative stalemate in a number of Trump initiatives on Congressional Republicans.
“On the domestic side, besides Neil Gorsuch [the Supreme Court justice installed to replace Antonin Scalia], I don’t know what deliverables he’s gotten. On foreign policy, overall, I think he’s done a pretty good job.”
“I think it’s a little more complicated why he didn’t get anything done domestically,” he added. “You’d have to go back and look to Paul Ryan making him start with the Obamacare repeal when they coulda, shoulda started with taxes, which is always a layup, and some sort of infrastructure bill. But hindsight is always 20/20.”
Nunberg’s description of a tax bill as an easy “layup” underestimates the difficulty of shepherding major legislation. The last American president to pass comprehensive tax reform was Ronald Reagan, in 1986.
But now that Trump is president, the New York native bills isn’t working for him an any official capacity. He said he doesn’t talk to Trump often, though he has spoken with him since the inauguration.
“I’m not trying to profit from his administration in any way. I’m not out as a lobbyist. I consider him a friend,” he said. “But you have to remember, I have a strange relationship with him.”
Nunberg, who now works for himself in public affairs with a concentration on media messaging, insisted he won’t be a new face at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue any time soon.
“I’m not an administration or a White House guy. Even had I worked with him up until the election, I wouldn’t have necessarily gone into the White House,” he said. “It’s just not my thing.”