It's official. Michael Avenatti is everywhere. Before Avenatti began representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in her legal fight against President Donald Trump in February, he was virtually unknown outside of the California legal community. But in less than six months the litigator has become one of Trump's chief critics.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she had sex with Trump in 2006, when he was married, but Trump has denied it. Days before the 2016 presidential election, she was paid $130,000 to stay silent in a deal handled by Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen. She is suing to invalidate the nondisclosure agreement.
With a media style only paralleled by Trump, Avenatti has pursued the president and those close to him relentlessly for months, taunting him in interviews and baiting him and his lawyers in tweets. Last week, the no-holds-barred lawyer, who seems to have an endless supply of trash talk, tweeted that he would run against Trump if the president seeks re-election and no one else with a good chance of defeating him steps up.
"IF (big) he seeks re-election, I will run, but only if I think that there is no other candidate in the race that has a REAL chance at beating him. We can't relive 2016. I love this country, our values and our people too much to sit by while they are destroyed. #FightClub #Basta," he tweeted.
In recent weeks he's begun representing dozens of parents whose children were separated from them at the U.S. border as a result of the Trump administration's immigration policies. He's also taken the case of John Melendez, a comedian who claims he pranked Trump into calling him from Air Force One by pretending to be Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.
"For better or worse, I have become an agent for hope for those that are opposing this president," Avenatti told The Associated Press on Friday. Avenatti, whose work had primarily focused on class-action and whistleblower cases, won a $454 million verdict in 2017 when he prevailed in a fraud case about surgical gowns. A judge later reduced the award to $20.7 million.
"I've been fortunate as a result of primarily the Stormy Daniels case, but also as a result of the $450 million jury verdict last year, that I now have a significant public platform that I can use for the benefit of my client and other causes that interest me," he said. "I, unlike the president, intend on using that platform for good."
When Daniels was arrested at an Ohio strip club early Thursday morning after she was accused of illegally rubbing undercover police officers' faces against her bare breasts during a performance at a strip club, Avenatti broke the news on Twitter. Hours later, prosecutors agreed to drop the case because the state's law against physical contact between strippers and customers applies only to someone who "regularly" performs at a club. In Daniels' case, it was her first appearance the Columbus strip club.
But not all of Avenatti's newfound attention has been positive. In May, a U.S. bankruptcy court judge ordered Avenatti's former firm to pay $10 million to a lawyer who claimed it had misstated its profits and that he was owed millions.
Last week, the Justice Department alleged that Avenatti had made "misrepresentations" in the bankruptcy case and said his former firm still owes more than $440,000 in unpaid federal taxes. Avenatti has maintained the court filing was "part of a smear campaign" and stressed that he doesn't personally owe any of the money.
While Avenatti, who seems to have boundless energy, acknowledges the constant television interviews and preparation for cases can be a tremendous amount of work, but his frenetic schedule isn't damaging any of his clients, he said. In fact, he says, it is helping them exponentially, and cites the turnabout from Ohio prosecutors on Thursday as a prime example.
"My number one focus is representing my clients to the best of my abilities," Avenatti said. "My secondary focus is bringing attention to issues that are of significant concern to me on a personal level. I am increasingly alarmed at the direction of this president, his lack of heart, his lack of intelligence and his lack of courage. I'm going to use my voice and I'm going to use my platform to further what I believe to be noble causes."
Lucey reported from Washington.