BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg’s temporary decision earlier this week to ignore a subpoena from the Special Counsel instantly spun out of control on live TV. An ill-advised legal decision became an all-day spectacle fit for the times.
KATY TUR/MSNBC: Are you worried about getting arrested?
SAM NUNBERG: I think it would be funny if they arrested me.
KATY TUR: You’re held in contempt of court.
SAM NUNBERG: I think it would be really, really funny if they wanted to arrest me --
SAM NUNBERG: Granted, Donald Trump caused this because he’s an idiot, ‘cause he decided to give an interview to Lester Holt the day after he fired Jim Comey.
ERIN BURNETT/CNN: -- I’m talking to you.
SAM NUNBERG: Yeah?
ERIN BURNETT: I have smelled alcohol on your breath.
SAM NUNBERG: Well, I, I have not had a drink.
BOB GARFIELD: As cable news McNuggets go, this one was dipped in habanero ranch. But look, a turning point it was not. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible campaign and election criminality has offered periodic spasms of intrigue, a raid here, a subpoena there, an indictment, a guilty plea, but the timetable and end game remain as mysterious as ever. Countless attempts to extrapolate Mueller's path, based on those few juicy events, have yielded little more than guesswork. Marcy Wheeler is an independent investigative reporter who actually makes a living decoding the behavior of prosecutors and spies. She says the biggest problem is journalists’ inability to differentiate between the telling and the routine.
MARCY WHEELER: A lot of the reporters covering this are politics reporters and not legal reporters, and so they may not necessarily understand the impact of what serving a subpoena is on somebody, as we learned Monday with Sam Nunberg.
BOB GARFIELD: If you’re reporting on someone preparing Chicken Kiev and the butter is added, do you do a breaking news alert, “Butter had been added to the Chicken Kiev”? Of course, it’s in the recipe, it’s a big part of the recipe. Duh! It’s gonna be added. Is it worth even noting?
MARCY WHEELER: Sometimes this stuff does matter, right? Sometimes the fact that Sam Nunberg got a subpoena to testify before the grand jury, including all of the documents he has relating to 10 people that include Steve Bannon, well up until now, Steve Bannon has sort of said, I wasn't involved in this Russian thing at all, and adding his name to that subpoena, I think, is interesting. So there are things that we can read from these tea leaves but they often get blown out of proportion. And, and, really importantly, they often get treated as a big deal. You know, when people in power get investigated using these very powerful tools that prosecutors have, all of a sudden it looks like gross injustice, when it's what happens out there in the street every day all across America.
BOB GARFIELD: I’m old enough to remember Kremlinology, when the press and the State Department, even, were reduced to interpreting the inner politics of the Soviet Union based on who was sitting where on the May Day reviewing stand or who had a speech slot at the Supreme Soviet. It was [LAUGHS] not an exact science, I think we can agree. I, I wonder if “Muellerology” is any more useful?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Robert Mueller is asking witnesses whether Donald Trump knew about the hack of the DNC before the public did.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: …reporting from the Washington Post about the Mueller investigation, taking a look at the time last summer when President Trump seemed close to firing Jeff Sessions.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, NBC News reports that Robert Mueller is planning to charge Russians for hacking the DNC.
MARCY WHEELER: Keep in mind, what we are reading usually is what witnesses want to tell us, including Sam Nunberg’s circus on Monday. That’s what he decided to tell us. You need to separate what we’re actually getting from Mueller. And, and Mueller and Rod Rosenstein and Christopher Wray, all of the people in charge of the investigation have been very clear in the wake of Jim Comey's improper discussion about why Hillary was not charged in, in July of 2016. They're only going to speak in indictments or other documents. They’re not going to leak. But we can look at the documents they are presenting as an official statement about where they're going because they've told us as much.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a bit on Saturday Night Live in January. Kate McKinnon was on “Weekend Update” sort of playing Robert Mueller.
COLIN JOST: So, so then I take it you have hard evidence.
KATE McKINNON as SPECIAL PROSECUTOR MUELLER: Colin, come on, you’re puttin’ me in a weird position here. I cannot comment on that but [LAUGHS] yeah, big time [UNDER BREATH].
I just --
Oh man, can I tell him? Ah -- I want to, I want to tell him one thing. Okay, okay, I shouldn’t be -- no! Okay, so yeah. [LAUGHS] Don, Jr., he wrote in his Venmo description : “Russia” -- No, I can’t, oh, can’t, oh, it hurts. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, don’t do this, I’m not gonna --
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, so she was nominally being Robert Mueller but really, she was channeling what the audience wish Robert Mueller were doing, Marcy, are we addicts?
MARCY WHEELER: We’re addicts in a way that is, I think, dangerous. There are stories that are not being covered as we obsess day-in, day-out for the Russian investigation. You know, even if you’re opposed to Trump, there is the kind of activism that you maybe could better spend your time doing than watching the fifth Sam Nunberg interview of the day.
But I also think we are getting a very distorted understanding of the criminal justice system, and, and that’s dangerous too because there are things that are of concern in the FISA process. We didn't learn about any of that in the entire month- and-a half Nunes-Schiff memo fight.
BOB GARFIELD: Marcy, thank you so much.
MARCY WHEELER: Thanks so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Marcy Wheeler is an independent investigative reporter. She blogs at emptywheel.net.