Former Trump aide Sam Nunberg smelled like alcohol—but it might not mean what you think

(Photo: CNN)

If you missed former Trump aide Sam Nunberg’s media circuit Monday, you missed a great deal of headline making news. In a series of increasingly unpredictable interviews—first with the Washington Post, then MSNBC and CNN—the former Trump advisor said he plans to ignore a subpoena from special counsel Robert Mueller requesting documents for an investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. The interviews were so erratic they led to widespread speculation that Nunberg was possibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

“I’m not cooperating,” a defiant Nunberg told CNN’s Jake Tapper of his position on Mueller’s investigation. “Arrest me.”

Mueller had reportedly requested Nunberg’s email correspondence with people in Donald Trump’s circle, including recently-departed White House communications director Hope Hicks. “I’m not going to cooperate!” Nunberg told MNSBC’s Katy Tur in a phone call. “Why do I have to spend 80 hours going over my emails that I’ve had with Steve Bannon and with Roger Stone?”

By Monday night, Nunberg had begun walking back his claim, telling the Associated Press he would likely “end up cooperating” with Mueller. But the damage of his press outing was already done. What many are calling the most memorable moment of the day, came when CNN’s Erin Burnett asked Nunberg if he had been drinking saying, while sitting a mere few feet from him, “I have smelled alcohol on your breath.” “Well, I have not had a drink,” Nunberg replied.

The Daily Beast spoke with several of Nunberg’s friends who, after getting phone calls from a highly erratic Nunberg Monday morning, feared he was “drinking again.” One reportedly warned him “not to do anything stupid” and suggested that he “go to his parent’s house immediately.” 

Burnett’s calling out of the smell of alcohol on his breath has raised questions about whether Nunberg was, in fact, drinking directly before the CNN interview. Looking at the science behind why people sometimes smell of alcohol, it seems the answer is that yes he likely was drinking in the time surrounding the interview, but the questions that remain are how much and when.

Despite what alcohol breath might suggest, it is not simply beer or wine lingering in someone’s mouth that smells. As the liver works to process alcohol (a toxin), the compounds that make it up linger in other places throughout our body—including the blood, brain, and lungs. The smell is the result of the broken down components of alcohol, not of the actual substance itself.

Dr. Michael P. Hlastala, a professor emeritus from the University of Washington, is one of the country’s leading experts on the physiology of alcohol. He says the odor is more complex than we think. “You’re not really smelling alcohol, you’re smelling the congeners—compounds that give alcohol its flavor,” Hlastala tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The congeners stay in the body longer than the alcohol, depending on the individual. The fact that you have the smell could mean that you had alcohol the night before or that you had it that morning.”

Hlastala says men tend to process alcohol more slowly than women (a result of women having a higher water and fat content), as do people who don’t drink regularly. “The smell of alcohol is poorly correlated with the actual concentration of alcohol in the system,” Hlastala says. “It’s more related to the recency of drinking, because it means those chemicals are still in the body. It’s not an absolute indicator but it likely means there was drinking at some point.”

Hlastala, who has been doing alcohol testimony in courtrooms for 35 years, says that alcohol odor can’t be used to test alcohol levels through a breathalyzer. “What you’re measuring in the breathalyzer is the actual concentration of alcohol in the breath,” he says. “What happens there is that the alcohol comes from your blood into the air in your lungs and you exhale that amount. So it’s an indirect indicator of what’s in the blood.” Alcohol odor and breathalyzers, in other words, are unrelated.

So while it’s wrong to suggest that the alcohol smell means Nunberg consumed a large amount of alcohol, it is safe to say that it means he consumed some in the time leading up to his interviews. How long before depends on how quickly his body processes it, which is impossible to know. But with the knowledge that congeners can stay in the system long after the alcohol, there is room to argue that Nunberg was sober and simply coming off a recent binge. If so, that was one epic hangover.

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