Trump’s enemy No 1: Michael Avenatti on his quest to take down a president

0
411

Stormy Daniels lawyer insists reports on his finances and personal life are a Trumpian plot with zero bearing on his case

Stormy Daniels stood in front of the sex shop wearing a big smile and holding a small box which contained the key to West Hollywood.

City officials stood on one side, a mannequin with chains and a leather jockstrap on the other. Camera crews and supporters packed the sidewalk, some clambering on to a roof for a better view. “Go Stormy,” yelled a man clutching a margarita. This was – by official proclamation – Stormy Daniels Day. Outside the liberal California enclave of West Hollywood, it was known as Wednesday.

The celebration was not for Daniels’ work in adult films. In the United States of 2018 this was a political event – an act of solidarity expressed by a backdrop with a single word: “#resist”.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has tangled Donald Trump in knots over hush money paid to conceal his alleged one-night stand with her in 2006, an imbroglio which some analysts say poses a graver threat to the president than Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Hence the city of West Hollywood hailing Daniels a “profile in courage” and the bawdy hollers from supporters.

But it was another figure, dapper and bullet-headed, who truly electrified the crowd. If Daniels was the star, here was the ringmaster. “Mi-chael! Mi-chael!”

Michael Avenatti: the attorney who has become a hero of the left by transforming what seemed a tawdry blip for Trump into a millstone around his presidency.

The burlesque tableaux outside Chi Chi LaRue’s sex store belied the high political stakes, said Robbie Turner, 40, jostling to glimpse Daniels and Avenatti. “But if ridiculous saves us from ridiculous, so be it. They’re the only thing that seems to have taken Trump off his stride. I hope they take him down.”

Avenatti, 47 and a veteran litigator who operates from an office in Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles, has waged a relentless legal and media blitz against Trump and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to overturn a non-disclosure agreement signed by Daniels.

This has spilled the revelation that Trump repaid Cohen the $130,000 Cohen paid to Daniels before the election, possibly violating federal campaign finance laws. Which in turn has lifted the lid on Cohen parlaying his relationship with the president into payments from corporations and Columbus Nova, an investment firm linked to the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

Avenatti has mastered the news cycle by dropping regular bombshells – notably Cohen’s bank transactions – via media interviews and tweets. He can make headlines just by trolling the president and his beleaguered legal fixer.

More is coming, Avenatti told the Guardian. “I don’t believe Mr Trump will complete his term. Information that is going to come to light in the coming months, as well as information that Mr Cohen is going to provide, will make it nearly impossible for him to serve out his term.”

‘Disgusting and despicable’

Avenatti spoke in a wide-ranging interview over breakfast in Beverly Hills, before the West Hollywood event. It touched on his roots, legal strategy, taste for adrenaline – and increasingly fraught relations with parts of the media. As his fame has grown so have questions about his financial affairs and media strategy.

Michael
Michael Avenatti in Los Angeles. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Affable but wary, arms mostly folded, Avenatti spoke like a man who feels he has a target on his back. Choosing words carefully between sips of orange juice and scans of his phone, he made a striking claim: that his media critics were acting at the behest of the Trump administration.

“There was a period when the other side didn’t perceive us to be a legitimate threat. Now they perceive us to be a legitimate threat – rightly so. The people that want to protect the president and that are very concerned about me and my client being threats are the ones that are targeting our personal lives.

“I think it’s disgusting and despicable. My past business dealings, my personal life, who I’m dating, the details of my divorce, other business matters that I’ve had – all that should be completely off-limits. It’s completely irrelevant to the case.”

In a sign of the pressure, he recently locked his Twitter account. “A strategic decision that I have made, and I think it’s a good one. To the people that don’t like it, tough shit. I’m not under obligation to provide information to everyone that wants it when they want it.” The strategy changed soon after the interview when he unlocked the account, citing requests from people who wished to follow him.

Multiple outlets have reported financial problems at his law firm, Eagan Avenatti, including a $10m bankruptcy court judgment last week. The firm was also supposed to pay $440,291 in back taxes, penalties and interest, part of $2.4m it owes the IRS. Unpaid bills and taxes have also dogged Tully’s Coffee, a Seattle-based chain Avenatti bought in 2013.

The attorney has rebuffed the reports as inaccurate and irrelevant, saying he represents Daniels via another law firm, Avenatti & Associates, and that in any case he is merely an attorney, not a party to her lawsuit. “I’m not a celebrity. I’m a guy doing a job.”

His character has “zero bearing” on the case against Cohen and Trump, he said. “I find it rather fascinating that none of the other attorneys are having the press digging into their background or talking about their personal lives. Why is that? I think it’s pretty clear where a lot of this is coming from.”

The news value of Avenatti’s finances is debatable but it is a stretch to cast the Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times and the legal website Law & Crime – all subjects of Avenatti ire – as Trumpian stooges.

Some commentators have said Avenatti is himself Trumpian in the headline-grabbing tweets, trolling, accusations and threats to sue. “I think there are some similarities,” he acknowledged. “There’s a certain degree of media savvy that he has. I don’t think either one of us has a tendency to be easily intimidated. I think that both of us at times can be described as boisterous.”

Still, it would be a rich irony were Trump to fall not to the patrician granite of Mueller, an establishment figure, but a scrappy outsider who uses Trump’s media playbook.

‘For good or for bad I’m a risk taker’

Avenatti grew up middle class in California, Colorado and Utah before his family settled in St Louis, Missouri. His mother gave him a wooden turtle with an accompanying note which seemed to have stuck: “Behold the turtle – he progresses only when his neck is out.”

Life is to be grasped, said Avenatti, who is a race car driver in his spare time. “For good or for bad I’m a risk taker. I like high-stakes, high-reward type situations. I thrive under pressure.”

Jonathan Turley, a professor who mentored Avenatti at George Washington University law school, agreed. “Trial litigation tends to be the most thrilling and punishing ride for lawyers. Not everyone is made for that. Those who excel are often lone wolves and adrenaline junkies. Michael is a dangerous combination of someone who is equally skilled inside and outside the courtroom.”

At law school, Avenatti worked as an opposition political researcher at a firm run by Rahm Emanuel, later to become Barack Obama’s chief of staff and mayor of Chicago. It left him cynical about politics.

He finished first in his class and joined a California firm with celebrity clients, including a socialite in a defamation case against Paris Hilton and a man who claimed Trump and the producers of The Apprentice stole his idea for the show. Avenatti later set up his own firm and racked up more than $1bn worth of verdicts, according to his unabashedly immodest website.

Stormy
Stormy Daniels receives her key to the city of West Hollywood from Mayor John Duran, left, as Avenatti looks on. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

“He’s very bright, very thorough, very aggressive,” said William Cornwell, a Florida-based attorney who went up against him. “I didn’t agree with all his tactics. There’s a fine line between what’s generally considered appropriate. He’s going to push the envelope. Would I hire him? Depending on the case, absolutely.”

Cornwell had another observation, one to chill the White House. “He’s not bluffing, generally, when he makes a threat or a promise.”

Munching on a bowl of oats and berries, dressed in loose grey pinstripe, Avenatti issued one of his characteristic, tantalisingly apocalyptic predictions: that Rudy Giuliani and other members of Trump’s legal team should look for cover. “There will be a series of bombshells in connection with this case.”

The evidence will shift public opinion despite Trump’s campaign boast that he could shoot someone and still retain support, said Avenatti. “It reflects an over-confidence that is very dangerous. Nothing lasts forever. History teaches us that.”

The decision of Evgeny Freidman, a Cohen business partner, to cooperate with prosecutors as a potential witness was highly significant, he said. “It further tightens the noose on Michael Cohen which in turn further tightens the noose on Mr Trump.”

Avenatti said he had been trying to convince two more women who signed non-disclosure agreements in relation to Trump to come forward. One said no, the other is “on the fence”.

Skills from motor racing were useful in the whirlwind that came with taking on the White House, he said. “You need to stay cool under pressure, you need to be able to take in a lot of data points in a very short period of time.”

Stuart Codling, the executive editor of F1 Racing magazine, said the sport resembled a high-speed game of chess, especially the 24-hour Le Mans race, in which Avenatti competed in 2015. “It’s about maintaining a high average speed. Part of the skill is in avoiding trouble.” Avenatti’s record suggested caution, said Codling. His team finished Le Mans 36th out of 37 that completed the race.

Avenatti said the Daniels case has taken over his life, scotching work-life balance and his exercise regime. “I was probably in the best shape of my life when we filed this case. It’s a 110%, 24/7 effort.” Feeling “burned and betrayed” by some journalists, he plans to be more picky when granting interviews. “We have the ability to be very selective. The media needs us much more than we need the media.”

If Avenatti needed to bask in good vibes, he got it from the crowd in West Hollywood. “God he’s cute, get his phone number,” shouted one man. After the ceremony, Daniels disappeared. Avenatti stayed to speak to TV crews, shake hands and pose for selfies.

“He’s fantastic,” said Duke Mason, 26. “He’s the one they’re really scared of.”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here