The spectacular rise and fall of loudmouth lawyer and Trump nemesis Michael Avenatti

The court hung on every word uttered by adult performer Stormy Daniels as she gave evidence in the hush-money trial of former President Donald J. Trump – but notably absent was the brash, outspoken lawyer who’d thrust her into the spotlight in her legal tussles with the 45th president. It could have been Michael Avenatti’s crowning moment; instead he’s watching from prison, grabbing at relevancy. Sheila Flynn reports

Saturday 11 May 2024 13:00 BST
Michael Avenatti and Donald Trump
Michael Avenatti and Donald Trump (Getty)

For a time, not terribly long ago, it seemed impossible to escape the bald head and hyperactive countenance of Michael Avenatti. The heretofore-unknown loudmouth lawyer burst into the public consciousness at the side of a busty porn star, spearheading the Stormy Daniels legal campaign at a pace that gave Trump’s MAGA machine a run for its money.

Avenatti, temporarily, seemed especially good at playing the 45th president at his own game – going low, then lower, then louder and more grandstanding. He appeared 254 times on television over a year starting in March 2018, according to Newsbusters figures cited by a Washington Post column the following May – in which major US media players took petty hindsight swipes at each other for so frequently featuring a man then facing criminal charges on multiple fronts.

Those charges ultimately landed Avenatti in prison – which is where he is now, locked away at a federal facility in California, during what could have marked the media circus heyday of his fast and furious courtroom career. As Stormy Daniels took the witness stand at Trump’s hush money trial this week, Avenatti missed the chance to be on scene, inserting his opinionated two-cents, as he’d historically been wont to do.

Adult film actress/director Stormy Daniels (L) and attorney Michael Avenatti attend the 2019 Adult Video News Awards at The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on January 26, 2019 (Getty Images)

Instead, he kept desperately trying to assert himself into proceedings from behind bars, grabbing at relevance with a statement posted to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter which had so perfectly suited his needs in the era of Trumpist social media soapbox battles.

On Tuesday, he posted a four-paragraph statement regarding Daniels’ testimony, insisting he’d fired the performer as a client five years ago and querying whether the district attorney would “pursue charges against her for falsification of business records, fraud, etc.”

Daniels, on the stand, shrugged when asked about her former lawyer, replying with a long and drawn out “no” when asked whether Avenatti still represented her.

“Because I fired him, and later he was found guilty of not just stealing from myself but several other clients and was disbarred and is in prison,” she told the court.

Avenatti’s status as a footnote during Trump’s hush-money trial is a far, far cry from his position just a few years ago – when the hotshot lawyer was even harboring ambitions of a presidential run himself. A profile from his alma mater’s alumni magazine – still featuring on the website of George Washington University – describes Avenatti as he likely saw himself.

Former attorney Michael Avenatti arrives at a federal court in Manhattan for his criminal trial on January 27, 2022 in New York (AFP via Getty Images)

“There is nothing faint-hearted about Michael J. Avenatti, JD ‘00,” gushes the Winter 2010 profile, illustrated by a picture of the lawyer with a much fuller head of dark hair. “From aggressively pursuing justice for clients to driving a Porsche 997 professionally for fun, Mr Avenatti moves full steam ahead.”

The son of an Anheuser Busch executive – whose loss of a job during Avenatti’s teen years seemed to permanently scar the future lawyer – had enrolled in GW’s law school after completing undergrad studies at University of Pennsylvania, then conducting opposition research for a firm run by an equally ruthlessly ambitious Rahm Emanuel.

At GW, Avenatti’s talent was recognized early.

“We can teach many things in law school,” his professor and legal scholar Jonathan Turley told Time years later. “What we cannot teach is instinct.”

After graduation, he went into private practice on the West Coast, earning eight- and nine-figure settlements for clients that were often reduced on appeal (though Avenatti usually failed to mention that while touting his successes.) He sought out high-profile cases and headlines while financing a jet-set, California coastal lifestyle; in 2017, he helped win a $454m judgement regarding defective surgical gowns and was interviewed on 60 Minutes by Anderson Cooper.

“The case was a potent, addictive mix of moral fervor, raw aggression, fame, and wealth, and it put him on the runway for his takeoff the following winter,” Vanity Fair wrote in a 2019 profile – which which an embattled, under-indictment Avenatti was already comparing himself to Icarus.

Daniels testified in court this week about her dealings with Trump, first brought to the public’s attention by the lawyer she parted ways with five years ago (REUTERS)

On the heels of the surgical gowns case, Avenatti found the factor that would launch him into millions of Americans’ living rooms: Stormy Daniels. It wasn’t until he teamed up with the porn star – in circumstances he’s consistently (and uncharacteristically) refused to discuss in detail in interviews – that Avenatti became legitimately famous … or notorious.

“When I met with Stormy, I saw an avenue by which I could do collateral damage to Donald Trump and those around him for what appeared to me to be illegal conduct and rigging a presidential election,” Avenatti told Vanity Fair, crediting his skill and strategy with making her case a cable-news staple. “I saw that as an opportunity to do something that was just, that was right, and to basically go all in … She was known as headlining the Make America Horny Again tour, and I took her to another level.”

Avenatti filed a suit in March 2018 on behalf of Daniels against Trump, seeking to void an NDA two years earlier preventing the star from speaking about her supposed liaison with Trump – which Daniels has detailed relatively extensively this week.

The Daniels civil suit launched Avenatti onto the airwaves and into the papers, and he loved opining on Twitter – making the hashtag “#basta,” which translates from Italian to “enough,” something of his trademark. Avenatti began inserting himself with great media savviness into cable news issues of the day, or “the liberal crusade of the moment,” as Time summed it up.

It seems he over-reached, however, particularly when it came to his role around the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Avenatti produced a witness making uncorroborated allegations against Kavanaugh, which angered both sides of the aisle – though that didn’t stop Avenatti from still mulling a 2020 presidential run. He announced in December 2018 that, “after consultation with my family and at their request,” he would not run.

His family life, certainly, was not exactly uncomplicated. He’d fathered three children with two wives, then endured two expensive divorces. Many of his professional relationships were equally messy, involving disputes with current and former legal and business partners – including a legal bust-up over a coffee business with Grey’s Anatomy actor Patrick Dempsey. In the year after Avenatti tabled a run for the presidency, the rest of his life began to unravel.

Daniels and Avenatti, right talk to the media as she leaves federal court in New York in 2018; for a time, the pair – and especially outspoken Avenatti – were ubiquitous on television (AP)

He parted ways with Daniels, who said in court this week that she’d never wanted Avenatti to file a defamation suit against Trump that ended with a dismissal and her owing Trump nearly $293,000 for attorneys’ fees and another $1,000 in sanctions.

“It just seemed really risky, and it didn’t seem like it was something that could be won. It seemed like a bad choice. Not worth it, I guess,” she testified.

He was arrested in 2019 for something wholly unrelated to Daniels and Trump – for, astonishingly, allegedly trying to extort $20m out of Nike. He claimed a client of his could reveal how the company was illegally paying high school basketball players – subsequently approaching Nike “with a list of financial demands in exchange for covering up allegations of misconduct on behalf of the company,” FBI Assistant Director in Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a March 2019 press release.

“The lofty price tag included a $1.5 million payoff for Avenatti’s client and upwards of tens of millions of dollars for the legal services of his firm – services Nike never requested,” he continued. “This is nothing more than a straightforward case of extortion.  In the event anyone needs to be reminded, this type of behavior is illegal and it will not be tolerated – especially when committed by a lawyer who is supposed to use his license to practice law, not to willfully violate it.”

The Nike-related arrest, however, turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg when it came to law violations. The following month, federal prosecutors in California announced 36 charges against Avenatti for fraud, perjury, tax evasion, embezzlement and other financial crimes; the month after that, he pleaded not guilty in New York to charges of wire fraud and identity theft involving Daniels and the proceeds of her book. Then he was hit with a suit by a paralyzed former client who claimed Avenatti stole $4m from a settlement.

The disgraced lawyer, ultimately, was convicted in 2020 in connection with the Nike plot, then sentenced to 2.5 years in prison. His time behind bars was significantly lengthened in 2022, when he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for stealing millions from his clients.

That’s where he remains, with few creature comforts and no access to the internet – though Avenatti, somehow, still manages to fire off some huffy tweets. When contacted this week by The Independent, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons confirmed inmates have no access to social media but said “we decline to speculate” on how Avenatti was publishing his views.

Other users, however, were having more than a little fun with his from-behind-bars armchair lawyering.

“You working in the laundry today?” one cheeky X user wrote on Tuesday on the platform.

“Wow, a disgraced lawyer looking for relevancy,” wrote another.

Still others, clearly enjoying Avenatti’s downfall, used the lawyer’s own past behaviour and hashtags against him – with one particular barb tweeted by commentator @NotHoodlum to nearly 200,000 followers.

It was short, it was simple, and it was a brilliant satirical nod to Avenatti’s arrogance that summed up the overarching attitude of the wider American public: “BASTA With you.”

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