Politics

The Brilliant Egomaniac Who Could Bring Down Donald Trump

In praise of Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti.

Michael Avenatti speaks to media in front of a Los Angeles courthouse.
Michael Avenatti speaks to media in front of a Los Angeles courthouse.
September Bottoms/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Someday, when the story of Donald Trump’s decline and fall comes to be written, historians may wonder at the impact of a hiring decision that passed by unnoted at the time. When Stormy Daniels brought on Michael Avenatti, she unleashed a force of nature who has been steadily besting Trump at his own game. Now, two months after Avenatti first appeared on the porn actress’ behalf, Daniels’ lawyer has laid a series of traps that have genuinely imperiled Trump’s presidency.

In hiring Avenatti, Daniels both benefited from bringing on a zealous advocate and from dumping one of the world’s worst lawyers. If you want to know more about Avenatti’s predecessor Keith Davidson and haven’t already showered today, have a look at William Bastone’s deep dive in the Smoking Gun. “Davidson specializes in extracting payments in exchange for the quashing of incriminating videos and/or details about sexual indiscretions, STDs, and all manner of regrettable behavior,” Bastone writes. Like Saul Goodman, Davidson understands that you can make an outstanding living by getting people to pay you to go away—even though paying ensures you’ll be back later. Davidson’s business was, shall we say, demanding contributions from celebrities like Tila Tequila, Hulk Hogan, Paris Hilton, Charlie Sheen, and Kanye West, and then finding new clients to ask them for more.

Daniels’ sexual relationship with Donald Trump presented Davidson with a bread-and-butter opportunity to earn a fat commission on a nuisance payment. Davidson got two such commissions in 2016, when Michael Cohen paid $130,000 to buy Daniels’ silence and when Trump’s friend David Pecker spent $150,000 to buy off the Playboy model Karen McDougal.

In this business, the lawyer’s commodity is the suable celebrity. Daniels was right to suspect that her lawyer was playing for the other team, with Cohen recommending Davidson to potential clients and vice-versa. After the Daniels story broke, Cohen released the statement from Davidson’s client, which sounded a lot like it was dictated by Trump: “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: I recently became aware that certain news outlets are alleging that I had a sexual and/or romantic affair with Donald Trump many, many, many years ago.”

Daniels signed it in a flowery hand, but by that point she was fed up with Davidson and looking for a new lawyer. I’m not sure how she found Avenatti, but the match was brilliantly made. Having just won the largest verdict of the previous year in California—$454 million from Kimberly-Clark in a class-action over surgical gowns—he isn’t in it for the money. And unlike his predecessor, who he denounced as “an absolute tool,” Avenatti really represents his client. From the start, he gave Daniels two shrewd pieces of advice: 1) go ahead and take the risk of violating your non-disclosure agreement while we challenge it in court, and 2) recognize that the case will be fought and won in the media, not in secret arbitration.

If Robert Mueller is silent as the tomb, Michael Avenatti is a midtown traffic jam—specifically, the one between 30 Rock and the Time Warner Center. At this point he has replaced the old “full Ginsburg” with the Avenatti ricochet—MSBNC to CNN to MSNBC and back to CNN in the same day. He is a risk-taker and a rule-breaker. He gets his energy from insulting enemies and taking theatrical umbrage at their pathetic responses. But if he mirrors Trump in certain respects, Avenatti is deeply unlike him in ways that matter greatly to their conflict. His ego is large, but aligns with his desired outcome. His impulse is to use the truth to his advantage rather than to spin a convenient lie.

With his taste for driving race cars and the lean, sinewy look of a greyhound, Avenatti combines Trump’s media-getting instincts with the ability to think more than five minutes into the future. For weeks before Daniels went on 60 Minutes, he dribbled out details, walking up to the line of annoying her potential sympathizers but never quite crossing it. Daniels acquitted herself brilliantly with Anderson Cooper, coming across as a blunt and funny non-victim. Together, they’ve performed a brilliant striptease.

As a media strategist, Avenatti deploys a strong Twitter-plus-TV game, promoting his many appearances on CNN and MSNBC and his feud with Fox News—an inverted Trump. Trump bluffed that he might have tapes of his Comey meetings; Avenatti suggests that Daniels has photos. Who knows? Maybe she does.

To #fakenews #nocollusion he replies #basta, a perfect distillation of his message and the larger case.

As a legal strategist, Avenatti is similarly calculating, a setter of snares that the president and his men aren’t clever enough to evade. For Trump: Concede paying hush money or admit a campaign finance violation. For Cohen: Admit Trump paid Daniels or open yourself up to possible prosecution or disbarment on ethical grounds.

Before it became clear that Cohen was in legal jeopardy, Avenatti framed these choices in a way designed to a drive wedge between Trump and his lawyer. This split may prove even more decisive than Avenatti could have anticipated back in March. But Avenatti has always understood that when presented with binaries of this sort, his adversaries reliably choose in a way that proves disastrous. Trump tests one alternative, then the other, then the other, until he has backed himself into an inescapable position. We see this same dynamic around the question of whether to testify before the special counsel. Trump says he will, but can’t. As soon as Trump says anything, Avenatti reframes the issue as an unappealing choice.

Could the Daniels case bring Trump down? It has the advantage of obviousness. The Russia scandal, comprising various scenarios around collusion and an encyclopedia of unpronounceable names, is difficult to follow and understand. The Stormy Daniels story, if less important, has the virtue of being extremely easy to follow: sex with a porn star, lies, and hush money. If there’s not enough rope here to hang Trump with, it does give him enough rope to hang himself, which Trump shows every indication of doing.

Indeed, the president appears to be doing a Stormy-in-reverse, firing his competent lawyers like John Dowd and Ty Cobb in favor of the past-it Rudy Giuliani, who immediately implicated his client by acknowledging that the $130,000 payment to Daniels was made to influence the 2016 election. Every time Daniels’ lawyer prods him into another incriminating lie—like Giuliani’s cockamamie idea that the monthly retainer he paid Michael Cohen was a “reimbursement”—the president multiplies his jeopardy, a fact Avenatti is quick to tout on CNN, MSNBC, and CNN again.