LOS ANGELES—On the day this week that he released a photograph of Stormy Daniels, his porn-star client, taking a polygraph, Michael Avenatti was pressed on CNN to explain the significance of a test that typically is inadmissible in court. “Does it help your legal case, actually?” Anderson Cooper asked.
Avenatti, a racecar-driving lawyer from California, met the question with a shrug. While it was unclear to Cooper, the audience in Stormy Daniels v. Donald J. Trump is sometimes not a judge or jury, but viewers at home.
“Well, I don’t know that it helps our legal case,” Avenatti said, appearing on a split screen beside the grainy, years-old image of Daniels. “But we want the public to have as many facts as possible at their disposal.”
Ever since Daniels sued President Donald Trump this month—claiming she had an intimate affair with him in 2006 and 2007 and that a nondisclosure agreement created before the 2016 election is invalid—Avenatti has tormented the administration with a steady drip of half-revelations about Daniels’ relationship with the president, usually with an appeal to tune in for his client’s 60 Minutes interview on Sunday to hear more. Late Thursday night, he tweeted an image of a DVD and hinted that it contained information damaging to the president. He wrote, “If ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ how many words is this worth?????” The first hashtag: #60minutes.
Elaborating on CNN the next day, Avenatti called the tweet a "warning shot," telling Wolf Blitzer the disc contained "evidence substantiating the relationship." He added, "If people think I'm bluffing, they should ask the opponents in countless cases I've had over the last 15 years if I'm generally a guy that bluffs."
Avenatti is as much as Daniels’ pitchman as her lawyer. And in the public relations war that he is waging, he has, in many ways, already won. In less than three weeks, Avenatti has transformed Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, from a tabloid curiosity into a sympathetic figure and cause célèbre. Her interview on 60 Minutes is so highly anticipated that a movie theater in Oakland proposed charging admission to a screening.
“He’s played a pretty good hand in terms of cat-and-mouse,” says John Burris, the civil rights attorney. “He’s put his client in a high-visibility position, and himself as well.”
Avenatti says Daniels came to him for representation, though he won’t say how. And he won’t say how he is being paid. In a telephone call, he rejected mundane questions about his personal life before volunteering, spontaneously, that he’s single.
“It seems to be a common question I’m getting these days,” he said. “It’s been very flattering.”
Lawyers who have opposed Avenatti describe him as a talented litigator who is aggressive, prickly and confrontational. In 2014, he reached an $80.5 million settlement with a Los Angeles cemetery over claims the company dumped human remains, including those of a baby, to make room for new burials. Last year, he capitalized on the Ebola scare to win a $454 million jury verdict against Kimberly-Clark Corp. — maker of Huggies diapers and Scott toilet paper — after raising questions about the safety of the company’s surgical gowns. It was the largest verdict in California last year.
Those cases were turned into 60 Minutes features, too. But it took Daniels to catapult him into stardom. On the day in March when he filed her lawsuit, Avenatti had about 500 Twitter followers, he says. Now he’s pushing 100,000. Earlier this week, Sports Illustrated took a special interest in his racing career. Avenatti has competed at Le Mans, a 24-hour endurance event in France where his teammates included Saudi Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud.
But he’s a better lawyer than driver. “The last person you want to pick a fight with in court is an adrenaline junkie,” says George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who knew Avenatti as a student and keeps in touch. “He does his best work under pressure. That’s always a dangerous type of opponent to have.”
Now 47, Avenatti attended high school in St. Louis and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, the first person in his family to earn a college degree. During college and at George Washington Law School, where he graduated at the top of his class in 2003, Avenatti worked at an opposition research group run by Rahm Emanuel, who would later become President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and is now mayor of Chicago. In recent days, Republicans have seized on the affiliation to suggest a political motive.
“We ended up doing work not just for Democrats but also for Republicans” at the firm, Avenatti says, adding that the last time he saw Emanuel was January 3, 2007. He says he’s sure of the date because he checked his passport. They ran into each other at a Buenos Aires airport.
Avenatti said he is registered to vote as an independent. He last donated to a political candidate in 2007, when he gave $1,000 to former Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.
“I’m not a Trump hater,” Avenatti says. “Some of the things he’s done, such as rolling back some regulations, have been helpful to the economy and job creation. I agree with some of his tax policies.”
On the Daniels case, Avenatti has proved unrelenting. He accused Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, of “thuggish behavior” on CNN this week, then pulled out an enormous picture of Cohen and appeared to challenge him to a Crossfire-style TV debate. “Where is this guy?” Avenatti said.
David Schwartz, a friend and representative of Cohen, scolded Avenatti, saying, “You’re gonna go down in flames.” Avenatti wagged his finger at Schwartz and asked, about Daniels, “Why not just let her talk? … Why is it so important to your friend and the president of the United States to keep this woman under wraps, to keep her under the thumb, to shut her up?”
Baiting the Trump administration to engage publicly in the controversy, Avenatti said on MSNBC this week, “To the extent that Mr. Cohen or the president have a counter-narrative or a different version of the facts, they should go on a show, have a press conference, they could have a White House briefing, they could do any number of things, and explain their version of events.”
“This is all about Mr. Avenatti. It’s not about his client. It’s about him and getting himself out there,” Schwartz says. “His court is not the court of law. It’s the court of public opinion. This is all about trying to use this against the president.”
Until last week, Avenatti’s main opposition in the Daniels case was Cohen, the president’s personal fix-it man who might have made Avenatti’s job easier by talking about the $130,000 payment he has said he made to Daniels from his personal funds as part of the nondisclosure agreement. But on March 16, Trump brought in a more formidable lawyer, Charles Harder, whose clients include Melania Trump and Hulk Hogan. Harder won a $140 million judgment that forced Gawker Media into bankruptcy for publishing a story that included a clip from a sex tape starring the professional wrestler.
“A face-off between Avenatti and Harder may be an example of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object,” Turley says. “These are two very good attorneys who are known to be very aggressive.”
Harder and Cohen did not respond to requests for comment. Avenatti appeared unflappable.
“It is very rare that I draw an opponent who is not at the very top of the legal profession,” he said. “I would prefer to litigate against high-quality lawyers as opposed to low-quality lawyers.”
Asked if Cohen is a low-quality lawyer, the line fell silent. Ten seconds ticked by. Fifteen.
“I’m thinking,” he said. Then, finally: “No comment.”