Michael Avenatti Was Always Part of the System

Why did so many of us think the flashy lawyer was the answer to Trumpism?

Michael Avenatti speaks to reporters on July 27 in Los Angeles.
Michael Avenatti speaks to reporters on July 27 in Los Angeles. David McNew/Getty Images

Last week, Virginia Heffernan had Dahlia Lithwick on Trumpcast to discuss the rise and fall of Michael Avenatti, the celebrity lawyer who once represented Stormy Daniels and is now facing multiple charges of embezzlement and fraud. Their conversation, which appears on a Slate Plus episode, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Virginia Heffernan: Michael Avenatti. I need, first, to sort of eat my words. I definitely am guilty of fleetingly having an idea that he might be our kind of Flight 93 moment of just, “Look, I am out of ideas,” it looks like traditional media is out of ideas on how to confront an autocrat, it looks like the legal redress is slow. People, going by the book, aren’t pulling this thing off.

He looked like he dressed the part, and he looked like at least he was Team Good Guy. He was trying to sort of speak for children at the border, but ultimately, he just is in the same messy, murky world of bribes and quid pro quo and gouging all he can out of the system. Nothing has made more of a moral prude of me. Also, I think now that maybe people who drive Ferraris are never good people. Is that fair?

Dahlia Lithwick: I mean, I feel like the interesting thing about Avenatti, and I’ve been sort of tracking your vibing on him for since he emerged, is that we have this misperception that the anti-Trump was going to be the only thing that took down Trump. He was going to use Trump’s weapons to destroy the master’s house, right, and that you just had to be a reality show grifter. I think it wasn’t a bad thesis, because we’ve seen, you know, sober men in suits trying to take Trump down.

I think the mistake we made is at the end of the day, grifters going to grift.

Right. He definitely inhabits that illegitimate sector, the gray market figures. I just can’t figure out what percentage of American professionals now live in that area, but every day, I’m newly surprised.

I wonder, because I’ve been thinking about it in the context of Christine Blasey Ford this week. Partly because Kamala Harris’s write-up of her was really beautiful for the Time list and partly because I think the groove that I can’t kind of get the record to stop skipping at is—Christine Blasey Ford, we all believed her, right?


There’s a new study that shows we all believed her. Then there are two alternatives: We believed her and it just doesn’t matter, or we believed her and rage, shouting it down, somehow has a bigger impact. When Kavanaugh started screaming about it, we’re like, “Well, we believe her, but we’re scared.” I don’t know which of those to think about, but what I keep thinking is this is the world, right? We live in a world in which guys get drunk at parties and hurt girls, and the girls remember and remember their names years later, and guys don’t. That’s the world we live in. We live in a world where if you’re married to your third trophy wife, you have certain views about women, and you can pretend that that makes you like a very good, religious man. I just think that there’s a way in which everything that you and I are dispirited about is this is the world we live in, you know?

On one side. It’s lovely and moving that Time magazine puts Christine Blasey Ford in their most influential people, but has anyone tried to make her whole? Has anybody tried to make reparations for what the system did to her, for what Susan Collins said about her, for what Lindsey Graham shouted at her? No, nobody does because the system doesn’t exist to do that.

As my friend Karen Schwartz, who’s been on the show, said, “The lesson of Clarence Thomas was that Clarence Thomas is on the Supreme Court,” and now the lesson of Brett Kavanaugh is that Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court, and Dr. Ford has had to move at least twice and is the subject of death threats.

I think also, just to pull on the Michael Avenatti, think about who our allies are, right? He was supposed to be the ally. He’s the Julie Swetnick rescuer, except by the way, that was not credible, and it ended up undermining completely the testimony of Blasey Ford and Debbie Ramirez. Think about what it means to grasp at allies who are themselves kind of grifters and say, “Oh, this guy is going to save the #MeToo movement.” Perfectly transactional on his part, and we put faith that this was the system careening into the good side.

There was something that Michael Cohen said, in his would-be truthful testimony the second time about his role as a fixer, that really interested me. In his own defense, he didn’t say, “I am a great father and a religious man, and I love God.” He said, “I am everybody’s emergency contact, and people put me as the friend they would call at 3 a.m.” I was like, “God, who would call Michael Cohen at 3 a.m.?”

But I do see why, learning that those guys all have fixers, can make you desperately think you need one too, but obviously that’s not the way. That just gets you in a mess, too, and I don’t think Stormy Daniels is holding up all that well with Michael Avenatti.

No, I think there’s only one system. I mean, that’s the point.

There’s only one system.

There’s one system, and if it’s broken, hiring a broken person to navigate you through the broken system doesn’t make the system work, and this is part of the problem that we have of sort of buying your own justice in America, right? We’re looking at Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who are going to serve no time and have lovely lives, whereas like the guy who stole the jeggings from Walmart is going to jail. You know, I mean, I think this is the problem is that as long as you are operating within a system where you pay to play, and where people hang out a shingle and say, “Pay to play, and I’ll help you play,” then this is what’s going to happen.