He’s dismissed as a publicity hound, a carnival barker and even a “creepy porn lawyer.”
But for the third time this year, the combative Michael Avenatti — a sustained anti-Trump fixture on cable TV who is also exploring a 2020 presidential run — has found a way to claw his way into another major scandal, potentially making a bad situation even worse for the Trump White House.
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Avenatti says his latest client is a victim of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh who is prepared to take her story public in the next 48 hours.
His claim has been met with more than a little skepticism — as has his prospective presidential bid. But Avenatti’s uncanny knack for drawing blood from the president and beating Trump at his own game has some top Democrats warning that the lawyer shouldn’t be dismissed outright as a factor in the Democratic presidential field.
“There’s no doubt about it. He’s been relentless and he’s been prescient, particularly about the things he’s been involved in. The Michael Cohen matter in particular. He predicted for months that Cohen would plead guilty and cooperate. He did. He predicted this whole deal with his client Stormy Daniels would unravel. It did,” said longtime Democratic strategist David Axelrod. “He has a particular utility right now, which is, with the people who are furious with Trump, he is the avenging angel.”
Best known for representing adult film star Stormy Daniels in her legal tangles with Trump, Avenatti opened a separate legal front this summer by representing mothers separated from their children under President Trump’s controversial border separation policy.
Together, his efforts have shaped a profile resembling a Democratic anti-Trump — a character brazen, pugilistic and media-savvy enough to go toe-to-toe with Trump, whom Democrats have struggled to message against.
Avenatti’s stratospheric ascent from no-name to a household name in just six months hasn’t gone unnoticed among political professionals. A former opposition researcher, Avenatti also has shown an ability to dig up information and frame it in a way to get a rise out of the person with whom he’s quarreling. And his capacity for choreographing news cycle after news cycle has led to stylistic comparisons with Trump himself.
“I think there were a lot of people that discounted Trump in 2014 and 2015, but he had a knack for getting in the middle of stories. What he did in that campaign really sort of rewrote the books for how you run for president,” said Iowa-based Democratic consultant Jeff Link. “I think Avenatti understands how to do the exact same thing as well or as better as anybody else … I think there is such a palpable desire to get rid of Trump and he plays right into that.”
Like Trump, Avenatti uses Twitter as his weapon of choice. Pinned to the top of his page is an outline of where he stands on 20 issues, and his timeline is filled with bold assertions of fact and confrontational statements, mixed with sharp, personal criticism of his opponents.
“I have been practicing law for nearly 20 yrs. Never before have I seen a defendant so frightened to be deposed as Donald Trump, especially for a guy that talks so tough. He is desperate and doing all he can to avoid having to answer my questions. He is all hat and no cattle,” he writes in one tweet.
That approach has made Avenatti a hot item on the Democratic speaking circuit over the past five weeks. His calendar is filled with requests to hold fundraisers and get out the vote events for candidates across the country. He’s headlined major political events in Iowa and New Hampshire and has already said he’ll headquarter his presidential campaign in St. Louis where he grew up.
Link, who traveled with Avenatti on a trip through Iowa earlier this summer, said he visited a farm with Avenatti and was impressed by the ease with which he connected with Democrats at a fundraising dinner.
“He’s more than just someone who understands how a story is going to move. He’s worked in Democratic politics before, he understands Democratic issues in a pretty deep way of how things work in Washington,” he said. “He’s not just some lawyer in L.A. who knows how to generate publicity. He’s more than that.”
Still, Avenatti’s claims are often viewed as bombastic and have been greeted with a degree of suspicion — including his latest allegations against Kavanaugh, which he’s teased out over Twitter.
After Avenatti orchestrated a document dump on Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, for example, Cohen’s lawyers complained Avenatti included some bank records traced back to a different Michael Cohen.
The idea that he’s playing fast and loose with facts, or making unsubstantiated claims, clearly grates on him.
“I’ve not had to backtrack on one single thing I’ve said. I’ve made a number of bold predictions, they have all either come true or they’re playing out. Not one of them. I was the first person, even before the search warrants were executed on Michael Cohen, to say he would turn on the president and roll over on him,” Avenatti told POLITICO Monday. “I’ll put my track record of the last 6-7 months up against anybody’s. I’ve never had to backtrack on a single statement that I’ve made in well over probably over 700 TV and print interviews.”
He said he and his team have either not pursued or rendered not credible more than 3,000 inquiries to his office in the last six months. “I don’t traffic in rumor and nonsense. I traffic in the truth and fact,” Avenatti said.
Still, there’s a healthy dose of distrust of Avenatti among Capitol Hill Democrats who were hesitant on Monday to take the attorney too seriously on the latest allegations tied to Kavanaugh.
Avenatti scoffed at any suggestion that the claims weren’t credible or that he hadn’t properly vetted his client.
“We will publicly disclose her name and more information about her accusations within the next 48 hours,” Avenatti said. “We’re deciding how that would occur, making sure there is security in place. We’re getting our ducks in a row. This is a very strategic and methodical approach, which is what we did with Stormy Daniels.”
He’s also regularly posting his correspondence with the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a series of tweets, Avenatti alleges a broader scheme involving Kavanaugh and a friend, Mark Judge, that included targeting young women at parties.
Avenatti, who said he represents a victim and corroborating witnesses, told POLITICO Monday that the victim’s identity and details of the accusations would become public over the next 48 hours.
All of it has made him a target of the right. During a Fox News appearance, host Tucker Carlson interviewed Avenatti while a banner appearing on the screen referred to him as a “creepy porn lawyer.”
And Avenatti has become ubiquitous enough in recent months to emerge as a familiar villain to the GOP grassroots. He’s become fodder in the Wisconsin Senate race, where Republican nominee Leah Vukmir pointed to Avenatti’s statements about Kavanaugh as a way to discredit the whole process as a political sham.
“Michael Avenatti, presidential aspirant of Stormy Daniels fame, has decided he also wants to join the Democrat delay circus and what has become clear is that the Far Left is engaged in an all-out, no-holds-barred, last-minute character assassination, rather than responsibly vetting and filling a seat on the Supreme Court,” Vukmir said in a statement.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel offered her own scorn on Twitter Monday.
“How do we know this is a baseless smear against Judge Kavanaugh?”
1) No witnesses. 2) No corroborating evidence. 3) Michael Avenatti is involved.”
There’s still some question over how Avenatti’s ostentatious profile will translate on the campaign trail, Axelrod said, noting that the attorney will have to speak to issues and answer to a more engaged electorate.
“There’s a long way between here and there,” Axelrod warned. “Presidential races are like pole vaulting; it’s easy to clear the early heights but each time the bar gets raised. People look more deeply at you, they want to know what you know. They look at you with greater scrutiny.”
Anyone who counts out Avenatti now hasn’t learned the lessons from 2016, says Link, the Democratic strategist.
“I’ll bet 100 percent of the people who were dismissive of Avenatti probably said that Trump would never win a primary in ‘16,” Link said. “There was almost no one who thought Trump would win that primary at this point four years ago and even at this point three years ago.”