Michael Avenatti: Trump Won't Tweet at Me Because 'He Knows I'll Hand Him His Ass'
Stormy Daniels' lawyer talks the case, the president, and some of his recent stumbles.
BY JACK HOLMES
JUN 1, 2018
Getty ImagesKevin Peralta
Donald J. Trump is a constant drumbeat in our collective consciousness. His drive—and unique ability—to insert himself into everything in search of attention and notoriety knows no bounds. This allows him to constantly shape the conversation and fight his battles, including legal ones, on terrain he knows well: the papers and the airwaves. There's a theory that the best way to take him on is not through a traditional, tight-lipped special counsel investigation like Robert Mueller's, but by finding someone who knows the battlefield—and how to dig a trench.
Enter Michael Avenatti, attorney-at-law. The Sacramento native built a public profile over the last few years trying big-dollar cases against corporate behemoths. But it's his prior experience in politics—including working at Rahm Emmanuel's firm while coming up—that has perhaps served him best on his current assignment, representing one Stephanie Clifford (d/b/a Stormy Daniels) in her case against President Donald Trump and his certified brain genius of a lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Nominally, the lawsuit seeks to void a nondisclosure agreement Clifford signed just before the election in which Cohen paid her $130,000 out of a Delaware-based LLC he set up in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair with the president. But the suspicion is that it's become about a whole lot more—including some of Cohen's other dealings with that LLC, known as "Essential Consultants."
Avenatti is harnessing the same forces as his opponent, the President of the United States, working a thirsty media for the coverage he needs in a titanic public relations battle against one of the all-time consumers of oxygen. (We at Esquire can always appreciate the introduction of an exciting new character to the national drama.) He's a staple of late-night monologues, a lightning rod for the enraged MAGA faithful, and an emerging talisman of the #Resistance movement—despite his expressed reluctance.
In a fight against a man who is truly everywhere, Avenatti is, at the very least, in a great many places at once.
The spotlight has also brought scrutiny on Avenatti, and a court's $10 million judgment against him last week in a dispute with an ex-employee at his former firm has seen him answering some unwanted questions. So, too, did a New York Times report Friday suggesting Avenatti sought funding for the Daniels case from networks of Democratic donors, in contrast to his previous claims they did not seek money from major donors to avoid politicizing the case. That last part has always been inevitable—as has some of his response to the negative coverage:
After all, the guy knows the battlefield. If you gaze long into the abyss, and all that. Still, Avenatti remains one of the great thorns in the Trumpian side, and seemingly a genuine believer that the behavior of the president and his lawyer with respect to Avenatti's own client is of vital public interest.
During a series of phone conversations, Avenatti talked with Esquire about his setbacks, the case against the president, the president's bully tactics, and a whole lot more. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The president tweets at everyone who crosses him. Why hasn't he tweeted at you?
He can't handle a direct confrontation with me. He knows that I'll hand him his ass.
So you think he's afraid of you?
I do. And I think he should be.
How do you think he chooses his targets then?
He chooses targets that he perceives to be weak. Like most bullies.
What do all the president's pardons this week say about his attitude towards the law?
He has no respect for the rule of law. He's lived his entire life as if he is above the rule of law, and you've seen that belief manifest itself in the way that he has conducted himself, including by way of his use of pardons.
Do you think The New York Times report today contradicts what you'd previously said, that you hadn't sought out funding from Democratic networks?
Well, first of all, what The New York Times is reporting never happened. To be clear. We've turned down over $200,000 from Republican donors looking to harm the president. And we never stated that we had not sought the money. Although, we haven't sought the money, just to be clear about that.
So you're saying it's factually incorrect that you sought it out?
We did not seek out the money, we've turned down over $200,000 from Republican donors. It's a bunch of nonsense. All the money that we have raised has been raised by CrowdJustice.
And that was always your intent, or would you have accepted some of these donor networks' money to begin with?
No, that was always our intent.
What does this new audio of Cohen threatening a reporter say about how he and his client did business?
It's disgraceful. The word choice and hearing the actual audio recording is very powerful in that it gives you insight into how Michael Cohen conducted himself when representing Mr. Trump. Remember, this is how he conducted himself when speaking to a reporter, that he knew could report on the conversation. Imagine the type of thuggish tactics and language that Michael Cohen would have used on behalf of Mr. Trump when he was talking to somebody that wasn't a reporter.
Did you identify early on that this case would be fought in the press? What brought you to that conclusion?
I did identify early on that this was going to be a two front war. It's a very unusual case in that regard, especially because of the high stakes involved in it, as well as the parties involved. Those stakes have only grown exponentially with each passing week as it relates to the disclosure of information concerning Michael Cohen, Essential Consultants, Mr. Trump's role, and knowledge as it relates to the NDA, et cetera.
"HE HAS NO RESPECT FOR THE RULE OF LAW. HE'S LIVED HIS ENTIRE LIFE AS IF HE IS ABOVE THE RULE OF LAW."
You uncovered some more on Essential Consultants. Do you think that as you've been investigating, your role has become about more than just Ms. Clifford's claims?
A lot of people have sought to place me in the position as the leader of the anti-Trump movement. That is not something that I have aspired to. It's not something that I've requested. I'm a guy doing a job for a client and thus far, I've done a very good job for my client, and I'm going to continue to do so. If there are ancillary benefits and results to other people, as a result of me doing my job, so be it.
But you do oppose this presidency, right?
At this juncture, I oppose the president lying to the American people. I oppose the president lying about what happened vis-a-vis my client and I oppose the president lying about paying him on Air Force One, and claiming that he knew nothing of the payment, only to have Mr. Giuliani then appear on national television and completely undercut that position by admitting that the president knew everything about the payment. I oppose the president and his personal fixer, Michael Cohen, selling access to the highest office in the land without proper disclosure. There's a whole host of things that I oppose.
Speaking of Giuliani, why do the lawyers you come up against keep making so many mistakes?
This is one of the great mysteries of this case. Frankly, I am shocked at the complete level of incompetence exhibited by lawyer after lawyer for Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump. It is astounding to me that with all the lawyers in America, these are the best they can find, and I think it speaks volumes as to the lack of respect that both Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen command when dealing with professionals and people of a significant intellectual capacity.
"FRANKLY, I AM SHOCKED AT THE COMPLETE LEVEL OF INCOMPETENCE EXHIBITED BY LAWYER AFTER LAWYER FOR MR. COHEN AND MR. TRUMP."
I'm used to litigating against incredibly competent, high quality lawyers that are very good chess players. I have, in my career, never before seen anything approximating the sheer level of incompetence that I've witnessed on the other side in these cases. It's quite staggering, and it's the biggest surprise that I've had during this entire process over the last three months.
Do other lawyers not want to get involved because of the clients? Because they think it's not a winnable case?
I don't think people want their reputations soiled by the representation of Mr. Cohen or Mr. Trump. People are concerned about ultimately getting paid and ultimately; I think that professionals are concerned that Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump can't be trusted. I think they're correct in all of those thoughts.
Do you think that Mr. Trump knows what's illegal or immoral and he doesn't care? Or, do you think he struggles to even see those distinctions?
Oh, I think he understands the distinctions, but he just doesn't give a shit.
And what about Cohen? Is he just getting ordered around?
Well, I would echo the same comments that I made relating to Trump. He clearly knows what is right and wrong, and again, just doesn't give a shit, does what he wants to do, believes that he can get away with it, believes that he's above the law, and it's about to come back and bite him in a very big way.
What does it say that they were up to all this before Trump even ran for president, but they still had the audacity to get in probably the most scrutinized arena possible?
It tells me that they have no respect for the rule of law and they're not very smart.
"HE CAN'T HANDLE A DIRECT CONFRONTATION WITH ME. HE KNOWS THAT I'LL HAND HIM HIS ASS."
You tweeted last week: "If I have to sacrifice my reputation and livelihood to disclose evidence to the public, and have justice served, so be it." How would you have to sacrifice your reputation in this process?
We've seen in the last two weeks the concentrated effort by individuals that are trying to protect this president. We've seen a concentrated effort by them to attempt to destroy me on a personal level, destroy my career, intimidate me into shutting up, intimidate my client into packing up and going home. What I meant by that tweet was, it's not going to work. We are in this for the long haul and we're going to see it through to the end and let the chips fall where they may.
You've characterized coverage of the $10 million judgment against you as your critics' attempt at distracting from the case. Why isn't this relevant?
No, there's no legitimate reason. It's completely irrelevant. It's ridiculous, it has nothing to do with the case, or cases. The most clear example of a personal attack is being one-sided and designed to take us out of the game is the fact that they have been targeted to only one attorney who is representing a party in these cases, and that would be me.
Obviously, this case has huge political implications, and your background is political. You worked at Rahm Emmanuel's firm coming up—what did you learn there that's served you on a case like this?
I worked at Rahm Emanuel's firm for a very brief period of time. He left the firm in '92 to go to work for Bill Clinton. The firm then splintered off into a number of series of smaller firms. I worked with a number of those firms. I ended up working on over 150 political campaigns in 42 states, over a third of those were for Republicans. I want to be clear about that. Approximately two-thirds were for Democrats, so, I worked on both sides of the aisle, across the United States. There's no question that the skills that I learned working on those campaigns for Republicans and Democrats have served me in connection with this case, at least as it relates to dealing with the media.
"NO, THERE'S NO LEGITIMATE REASON. IT'S COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT. IT'S RIDICULOUS."
Where does this case end up for you? Is the president impeached? What is justice in your eyes?
Justice in my eyes is the NDA is invalidated and Donald Trump and Michael Cohen have to pay for their defamatory statements about my client, for calling her a liar, for defaming her. Then, justice further ends with full disclosure of the banking records, and other evidence, and information related to Michael Cohen's conduct as it relates to Essential Consultants, LLC., and where that money went. That is justice.
You said that you've been in contact with other women who have similar stories to Miss Clifford's. One of them, I think you said, has backed away, because she doesn't want to deal with the spotlight. Were you actively seeking them out, and how similar are they? Is it the same agreement, or is it just the same kind of thing?
Well, I'm not at liberty to get into the details, because I don't have clearance from those prospective clients. We have not actively solicited anyone. Again, these are individuals that contacted our office following the filing of Miss Daniels' case. As a result of our media appearances, and as a result of them coming to the belief that we could be trusted.
There's a lot of speculation that the RNC deputy finance chairman who also used Essential Consultants to pay off a Playboy model who'd had his child was just sort of a fall guy. Do you believe he was really the one who had the affair?
I'll say this, at this juncture, there are very serious questions as to whether that payment at the end of the day was made on the behalf of Mr. Broidy, and I'll leave it at that.
You said this week you have confirmed Michael Cohen kept recordings of his conversations, at least one of which features the president's voice, which you're calling the Trump Tapes. Why are you so interested in these tapes?
First of all, I'm interested in the tapes as it relates to the extent that those tapes disclose attorney client privilege information that belongs to my client, those tapes need to be provided to me, and returned to my client through me immediately. Secondly, to the extent that there are tapes relating to potential criminal conduct or a conspiracy between Michael Cohen and Mr. Trump, I think those tapes are highly, highly, highly relevant and should be disclosed to the American people, so they can make a determination as to whether there was anything nefarious or not.
Why would tapes between Trump and his lawyer have your client's privileged information? Is it because, at the time, she was represented by a lawyer who worked with Cohen in all kinds of these deals?
The existence of these tapes is still unconfirmed. How did you learn about them?
I'm not at liberty to disclose how we learned initially of the tape's existence, but the existence of the tapes has been confirmed first by a reporter who contacted me last week, and then most recently by Mr. Ryan's comments in court yesterday.
Would their disclosure potentially be a turning point?
The disclosure of the existence of this case and subsequently the disclosure of the actually content of the tapes will prove to be a seminal moment not only for Mr. Cohen, but for the presidency of the United States.
You know definitively that the president's voice is on these tapes, or at least one?
Do you believe they could have been discussing the payment to your client?
Yeah, I'm not going to answer that question.
Are you comfortable with people branding you a Resistance hero?
It's not on my radar. I'll just say I don't consider myself a hero, because I don't think I've done anything, yet. Keyword on yet.
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