Michael Avenatti is using Trump tactics to battle Trump, a strategy that comes with risks
by Emma Brown and Beth Reinhard
Ten weeks ago, Michael Avenatti was a California lawyer known for his successes in class-action lawsuits. Then he sued President Trump on behalf of adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and — through an extraordinarily aggressive media campaign — parlayed a narrow dispute about a one-night stand into a news-cycle-dominating assault on the president of the United States.
The take-no-prisoners approach has turned Avenatti into a darling of the political left, which is hungry for anti-Trump heroes and gleeful at the notion that the president could be taken down by a porn star. Many of Avenatti’s fans believe he is just as likely to unearth damaging revelations about Trump as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading the probe into Russian influence in the 2016 election.
To become one of Trump’s chief adversaries, Avenatti has carved a Trumpian path. He taunts his opponents. He uses Twitter to make explosive accusations. And he is omnipresent on cable news.
Yet Avenatti’s tactics and visibility may carry risks that could undermine his ability to represent his client, who is suing longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen and the president to be released from a non-disclosure agreement. Scrutiny of his business record and of his motives has provided grist for distracting headlines in recent days. And his publication last week of Cohen’s banking history — hard-to-get information touching on some of the most sensitive issues before the White House — could jeopardize his ability to represent Daniels in court, some experts say.
“Nothing he has been doing in the last four to six weeks with his multiple television appearances advances the interests of his client in the California action,” said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor who specializes in ethics. “He’s catapulted himself to be the story. There are dangers when a lawyer becomes so publicly vocal.”
Gillers described Avenatti’s media presence as highly unusual for an American lawyer, not only because of his frequent television appearances but also because his arguments are more sweeping than his client’s narrow complaint. “I really cannot think of an equivalent,” he said.
Michael Avenatti, the lawyer of adult film actress Stormy Daniels, speaks to reporters outside federal court in New York last month. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
The spotlight has brought attention to Avenatti’s past.
In recent days, news accounts have examined his ownership stake, along with actor Patrick Dempsey, in the parent company of the Seattle-based chain Tully’s Coffee. The chain closed stores in March, a year after IRS liens of $5 million were filed against the parent company. Avenatti said in March that he had sold his stake and was serving as general counsel, and he has attributed the liens to “payroll companies that failed to do their job.”
Other accounts have detailed Avenatti’s financial disputes with partners at his former law firm. That firm emerged from bankruptcy last month after agreeing to pay $4.85 million — guaranteed by Avenatti — to a former partner, court records show. Avenatti called the bankruptcy “completely irrelevant.”
“I’m not a candidate for public office or a party to the lawsuits against Mr. Trump,” Avenatti said of questions about his business record. “Who cares?”
Last week, Cohen said that because Avenatti published his private banking transactions, he should not be permitted to represent Daniels in a federal court in New York. Daniels is seeking to intervene in the case, which involves material seized by the FBI in an April 9 raid of Cohen’s office and residences. The raid captured records relating to a $130,000 payment Cohen made to Daniels shortly before the 2016 election to secure her silence about her alleged affair with Trump.
In an interview, Avenatti rejected the notion that he has gone too far, saying that he acts in the best interest of his client and that the strategy is working.
“I don’t think we’ve taken a risky approach at all,” Avenatti said. “We’ve been aggressive, but I also think we’ve been strategic and thoughtful, and without that approach, we wouldn’t be where we are now. We’ve created a situation where the other side continues to make mistake after mistake.”
Plenty of other lawyers have taken turns in the spotlight when trying high-profile cases. Avenatti is different because of the way he has elevated a discrete lawsuit into part of the national daily conversation, according to experts who praised his media tour as effective advocacy for his client.
“He’s done a brilliant job of painting her as a very sympathetic party, and that’s no small task given her history,” said Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford University’s law school who has donated to Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton in 2015. “He comes across as consistent and credible and single-minded in his concern for his client’s interest.”
Yet, in some quarters, Avenatti has become a subject of escalating suspicion. Mark Penn, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, last week asked in the Hill publication whether Avenatti is truly representing his client as a lawyer or “just using her as cover to wage a political operation.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked the same question on her show, all but accusing Avenatti of acting as a Democratic operative.
Avenatti responded forcefully on Twitter, saying he is paid only by Daniels and a crowdfunding campaign that has raised more than $485,000. “No political party or PAC is funding this effort. No left wing conspiracy is behind this. And no big fat cat political donors are leading the charge,” he wrote. “Get over it.”
Perhaps his most unorthodox move involved the decision to publicize the details of Cohen’s banking transactions. Under the old rules of Washington, a lawyer might have leaked that sensitive information to a trusted journalist who would vet it and publish it, perhaps in a way that could not be traced to the lawyer.
But this is the Trump era. Avenatti turned to Twitter.
The upside: He ignited a media firestorm as journalists scrambled to report a scoop that reverberated for days, yielding revelations damaging to both Cohen and his clients. The president’s fixer had accepted a half-million dollars from the U.S.-based affiliate of a company founded by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, money that was deposited into the same bank account Cohen had used to pay Daniels.
In the days since Avenatti dropped his bombshell, leaked documents showed that the telecommunications giant AT&T had struck a $600,000 deal with Cohen to provide advice on an array of issues before the federal government, including its $85 billion merger with Time Warner. AT&T apologized for its “serious misjudgment” and ousted its top lobbyist.
Pharmaceutical company Novartis said it had erred in paying Cohen $1.2 million for his advice on health care. Both AT&T and Novartis said they had provided information to Mueller’s team as part of the Russia probe.
But there were also downsides. As Cohen’s lawyers noted in their court filing, the dossier contained mistakes, including several transactions by other Michael Cohens. That meant Avenatti had publicized details about the banking histories of people who had nothing to do with Daniels.
Not unlike Trump, Avenatti is loath to apologize. “I don’t agree that it was confidential, per se,” he said. And of the millions of dollars in financial transactions detailed in his dossier, he said, the errors amounted to no more than $25,000.
“Aside from that, our record has been impeccable,” he said. “I don’t regret it.”
He has declined to identify the source of his information. The Treasury Department inspector general is investigating whether the confidential Suspicious Activity Reports that banks submit to the federal government were leaked.
Avenatti, who is licensed to practice in California, has asked for permission to represent Daniels in New York. Gillers said that while it’s rare for a judge to deny a lawyer’s request to practice out of state, the allegations against Avenatti, if true, could be a valid basis for the New York judge, Kimba Wood, to deny the request. Unlike journalists, he said, lawyers may not use or disclose documents that they know were illegally obtained even if the lawyer does nothing unlawful to get them.
Rhode, of Stanford, agreed that Avenatti could face problems with his request to practice in New York if he cannot satisfy questions about how he obtained the financial information.
If Wood raises questions about how Avenatti obtained the information and he cannot answer them to her satisfaction, “there’s a very good chance she will deny” his request to practice, said Gillers, who has not in recent years given to federal campaigns.
On Monday, Avenatti said in court papers that Cohen’s effort to block him from representing Daniels in New York was “completely devoid of merit.” Avenatti said he has a First Amendment free speech right to publish information about matters of public concern and that Cohen had cited no legal authority to back up his argument.
In an interview, Avenatti said the flow of money to and from Cohen is relevant to Daniels’s case because it involves the same bank account. He said he was “highly confident” he would face no penalty for publishing the information.
Asked about potential professional ramifications, he responded: “Over what? Speaking the truth?”
While in college and later in law school, Avenatti spent five years working for a political consulting firm run by Rahm Emanuel, a Democratic operative who later became President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and is now mayor of Chicago. Avenatti said that while at Emanuel’s firm, he worked on Democratic and Republican campaigns.
After law school, Avenatti worked for lawyer Daniel Petrocelli, who had represented the family of victim Ron Goldman in the O.J. Simpson case, the highest-profile trial of its time. Avenatti later worked at a boutique litigation firm in Los Angeles before founding his own firm. In 2005, Avenatti worked on a team of lawyers who sued Trump and the producer of “The Apprentice” on behalf of a man who said they stole his idea for the hit show. The case ended in a settlement.
In an interview, Avenatti said comparing him to the president is “absolutely outrageous.”
“Trump is about form over substance. I may appreciate form, but I also have a hell of a lot of substance,” he said. “Maybe in some ways I have the approach they thought they were getting when they voted for him. . . . Thus far, I don’t think there’s any question as to who has had the better of the fight.”
Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law School professor who has made supportive comments about Trump, said he has no criticism of Avenatti’s strategy — as long as he’s cleared it with Daniels and she’s on board.
“It really depends on what the client wants to accomplish, but I suspect that they’re in tandem,” Dershowitz said. “I think she wants to take down the president.”
In fact, Daniels did suggest Trump should resign in a cameo appearance on “Saturday Night Live” earlier this month. Avenatti said that ousting the president is not the goal of his efforts — but that it might end up being the outcome.
“If the president is, quote, taken down, unquote, he will have no one to blame but himself and Michael Cohen,” Avenatti said. “I do not think the president will serve out his term.”
Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.