Back in 2015, shortly after Donald Trump announced his presidential run and the country began to learn what New Yorkers had always known about him, he reassured folks that he was a talent magnet.
“I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people,” he boasted to The Washington Post back then. “We want top-of-the line professionals.”
And, here we are. Boris Epshteyn, Anthony Scaramucci, Sebastian Gorka, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Corey Lewandowski, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer and others all have come and gone.
Now let’s focus on two others in Trump’s circle, both of whom offer reminders that the elite club of “Trump advisers” isn’t merely populated with examples of the president’s poor judgment and bad taste. They’re also reminders that some of those bad hires have come back to haunt Trump, and may visit legal nightmares upon him and his White House.
On Monday, Sam Nunberg, a former communications and political adviser whom Trump has sued, hired, fired, rehired and fired again in recent years, made it known that he doesn’t plan to comply with a subpoena that the Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller sent his way. Nunberg reinforced his point in a dizzying round of media calls and appearances, beginning with The Post, in which he dismissed Mueller’s investigation of Trump, his presidential campaign and Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.
“They want me in there for grand jury on Friday,” Nunberg told Bloomberg News. “I’m not paying the money to go down there. What’s he going to do? He’s so tough - let’s see what they do. I’m not going to spend 40 hours going over emails. I have a life.”
Nunberg told the Post that he planned to tear up his subpoena on Bloomberg TV and would let Mueller “arrest me,” all of which misses the point a little bit. Nunberg and his lawyer are free to petition Mueller to narrow the scope of the subpoena. They can also seek to quash it. But if Nunberg simply ignores the subpoena, Mueller will ask a court to intervene. After a review, the court is likely to cite Nunberg for contempt - which would probably mean that a judge, not Mueller, would then send Nunberg off to prison.
Nunberg kept plowing ahead throughout Monday afternoon and evening. He told MSNBC’s Katy Tur that Mueller’s request for “every email I had with Roger Stone and with Steve Bannon,” (as well as his email contacts with current and former Trump advisers Hope Hicks and Corey Lewandowski) was “ridiculous.” When Tur changed gears to ask if Mueller’s investigators “have something on the president,” Nunberg was helpful.
“I think they may,” he responded. “I think he may have done something during the election.”
Nunberg capped off his Monday with an unhinged TV appearance in which he found himself denying to a CNN host that he’d been drinking before the interview.
So Nunberg, like many others in Trump’s orbit, is loopy. But he also was a member of the Trump campaign during a period that Mueller’s team is probing. He told an MSNBC host, Ari Melber, on Monday night that Mueller has offered him “immunity,” and he told the Associated Press that he will cooperate with the probe.
That brings us to Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who also made a media appearance on Monday. The Wall Street Journal reported that after Cohen wired a $130,000 payment to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, for agreeing not to discuss an alleged sexual encounter with Trump, he complained to friends that he had yet to be properly reimbursed for the expenditure.
Cohen has described the Daniels payment as a legal, “private transaction” and has told reporters that he wasn’t reimbursed by the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization. But he has declined to answer questions, the Journal reported, “about whether he was reimbursed by Mr. Trump or anyone else.”
Cohen was sloppy. He set up a limited liability company called Essential Consultants, apparently to help mask the source of the payment to Daniels. He incorporated the LLC in Delaware, which doesn’t require public disclosure of the entity’s managers and he used a pseudonym to identify Daniels. But when Cohen wired the money to Daniels just 12 days before the presidential election in 2016, he sent the whole pile at once. Come on! Anybody trying to hide big payments knows that sums of $10,000 or more trigger a regulation requiring banks to disclose the transaction to the federal government.
Had Cohen been thinking, he might have tried breaking up the payments into 14 or more smaller chunks (though “structuring” payments that way to avoid disclosure and detection can also be illegal). Cohen’s $130,000 payment caused his bank to report the transaction to the Treasury Department, according to the Journal.
The Journal also reported that Cohen told the paper’s sources that he missed two earlier deadlines to pay Daniels “because he couldn’t reach Mr. Trump in the hectic final days of the presidential campaign.” Reach Trump to talk about what? The Journal didn’t specify, but it noted that Cohen’s actions suggested “he intended to involve Mr. Trump in the deal” with the porn star.
Mueller has been investigating Cohen’s participation in a possible deal to build a Trump-branded skyscraper in Moscow in late 2015 and early 2016 with a longtime Trump business partner with a shady past, Felix Sater.
It’s unclear whether the special counsel will also probe the Daniels affair. A nonprofit group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has asked the federal government to examine whether Trump had an undisclosed interest in Essential Consultants. Another nonprofit, Common Cause, has asked the Federal Election Commission and Justice Department to review the Daniels payment to determine if it amounted to an illegal campaign contribution.
Nunberg’s and Cohen’s travails undermine the Trump family’s narrative about the patriarch’s flawless radar for finding the best people.
“My father values talent; he recognizes real knowledge and skill when he finds it,” the president’s daughter, Ivanka, said at the Republican National Convention in 2016. “When Donald Trump is in charge, all that counts is ability, effort and excellence.”
If so, Trump defines “ability, effort and excellence” differently than the rest of us.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”