Sam Nunberg — babyfaced, dark hair cut short, suit jacket buttoned — addressed the audience through a microphone. Technically, the issue was historical landmark status. But the fate of the former Manhattan Burlington Coat Factory had become an overheated proxy battle in the wider culture war.
It was July 13, 2010, and the New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission was holding a hearing on the fate of 45 Park Place, the proposed location of an Islamic mosque and community center. Two blocks from Ground Zero, the plans had become hotly contested, with opponents arguing the placement of the religious building was disrespectful. Emotions at the meeting were code red. Boos and catcalls flew.
Then Nunberg, a representative with the American Center for Law and Justice, one of the groups opposing the mosque’s construction, began reading from the yellow notebook papers in his hands. The words quickly dumped rhetorical gasoline on the tensions.
"It would be a travesty to let this building be removed," he said according to video from the meeting, his voice rising as claps and shouts of approval exploded from the audience. "It would be like removing the sunken ships from Pearl Harbor to be removed to erect a memorial to the Japanese kamikazes killed in the attack!"
At the time, Nunberg was a political operative and attorney. On Monday, his words again riled people up. This time, however, it was not just a room but the entire political and media establishment.
Beginning with an interview with the Washington Post, the 36-year-old former Trump campaign staffer launched a defiant and erratic media blitz, telling the Post’s Josh Dawsey he would refuse a subpoena to appear before special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s grand jury investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. "Let him arrest me," the former Trump aide told the Post.
What followed were non-stop media appearances that inspired hashtag #NunbergMeltdown, late-night television jokes, questions about his state of mind and a startling on-air inquiry from CNN’s Erin Burnett: "Talking to you, I have smelled alcohol on your breath," the anchor said. "You haven’t had a drink today? Anything else?" Nunberg said he had not, only his anti-depressants.
By the end of the day, his defiance had cooled. Nunberg told the AP he probably would testify.
The bewildering spectacle catapulted a former Trump insider — a figure previously familiar at best to some Beltway insiders — to the middle of the media conversation.
In a news cycle that spins usually around every Trump move or tweet, Nunberg stole the spotlight.
"I’m not having a meltdown," Nunberg told Yahoo News late Monday night. "In fact, I’m the first person ever standing up for themselves."
According to his LinkedIn page, Nunberg graduated from Canada’s McGill University with a bachelors in history in 2004; he left Long Island’s Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center with his law degree in 2009. Reporting for BuzzFeed in 2014, McKay Coppins wrote that Nunberg’s "first foray into presidential campaigning came in 2007 when he worked as a volunteer for the Romney campaign while attending law school."
According to Coppins, Nunberg "was put in charge of organizing turnout for the New York City GOP straw poll. With a little bit of hustle and political voodoo, he helped pull off an upset win for Romney over hometown hero Rudy Giuliani."
Nunberg then went to work with the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian conservative legal organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson and spearheaded by future Trump attorney Jay Sekulow. With that group, Nunberg was front and center during the battle over the Ground Zero mosque as the group’s director of government affairs. In December 2011, he joined the Middle East Forum as director of legal projects, according to a release from the organization.
Nunberg was an early member of Trump’s political team when the mogul’s potential candidacy was seen mostly as a stunt. In 2014, as Trump continued a long-running flirtation with higher office, Nunberg was at his side. BuzzFeed reported Nunberg was working for operative Roger Stone at the time.
"He comes on a bit strong, as you know," Stone explained to Yahoo News when describing Nunberg in 2016. "I mean, within a week of my meeting him he was going around telling people I was his mentor. He’s got chutzpah, as they say."
(Stone did not return an email for comment on Nunberg’s comments on Monday).
The BuzzFeed piece about Trump was unflattering. In fact, according to CNN, the article, which Nunberg had talked Trump into doing, got Nunberg ousted from the real estate tycoon’s team. Nunberg, however, was back by February 2015, when he joined Trump’s nascent communications operation.
Not long into Trump’s campaign, Nunberg was reportedly tasked with bringing the candidate up to speed on the finer points of the U.S. Constitution. As Nunberg told Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff: "I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head." According to Wolff’s book, Trump also once left Nunberg behind at a McDonald’s when the aide’s special order burger took too long to make.
That tenure also proved short-lived: in July 2015, Business Insider published a piece documenting Nunberg’s past social media posts containing racially-charged language, including referring to Obama as a "Socialist Marxist Islamo Fascist Nazi Appeaser" and calling Rev. Al Sharpton’s daughter a "N-!". He was let go from the campaign.
Nunberg later penned an apology letter to Sharpton.
The former aide continued to make cameo appearances in the news cycle related to his former boss. In March 2016, Nunberg endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican primary.
"When did I decide that I could no longer support Trump?" he told Politico. "Last fall, when he did not have any idea of what the nuclear triad is in a debate. I was concerned but I figured that he would bulk up on policy. He has not. I do not see a candidate who takes these issues seriously."
Later that year, then-Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks blasted the former aid: "Sam Nunberg was fired," Hicks told Politico. "He’s a highly self-destructive individual who makes routine calls begging for his job back. This is the interview of a desperate person who is trying to hang on and stay relevant."
Nunberg’s relationship with the campaign hit a low in July 2016, when Trump sued him for $10 million claiming he broke a confidentiality agreement. One month later, the two sides "amicably" settled. And despite his litigious ouster from Trump’s orbit, Nunberg continued to speak often and admiringly of the president.
"One thing about Donald Trump, I don’t know if I’m ever going to have another boss like this," he told The Post’s Philip Rucker in April 2017. "He’s able to make you excel and push yourself. Part of it is because you want to please him."