Trump meets his match: Stormy Daniels’ combative lawyer Michael Avenatti
Michael Avenatti, the newly famous lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, has more than a few things in common with President Trump. He’s brash. He’s media savvy. He enjoys the high life. (April 9th, 2018)
Michael Avenatti, the newly famous lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, has more than a few things in common with President Trump.
He’s brash. He’s media savvy. He enjoys the high life. He revels in antagonizing opponents.
In short, Trump may have met his match in this Newport Beach lawyer whose client, now America’s best-known stripper, is suing the president to break free of a deal that bars her from discussing what she says was a one-night stand with Trump in 2006.
With a swagger worthy of the young Trump who barged his way into New York’s tabloids decades ago, Avenatti has spent weeks shuttling among Manhattan TV studios to taunt the president and his fixer Michael Cohen.
His pugnacious edge makes Avenatti a natural on cable news.
“Wait a minute, I’m not done, I’m not done, I’m not done,” he snapped at Cohen spokesman David Schwartz on CNN.
His casual allusions to impeachment — “To address the rumor: We DO NOT have a ‘Monica Lewinsky type’ dress,” he announced on Twitter — underscore the lawsuit’s high stakes for Trump.
More than anyone, Avenatti has shaped the scandal’s narrative and kept it in the news. He has outfoxed the Trump forces over and over, most strikingly by getting Daniels on “60 Minutes.”
Avenatti — whose professional history, like Trump’s, is messy — had already appeared twice himself on “60 Minutes,” both times playing the broadcast’s stock part of dogged consumer lawyer nailing big companies for wrongdoing.
“Among trial lawyers, Avenatti is regarded as extraordinarily tenacious and aggressive,” said Brian Kabateck, the incoming president of the Los Angeles Bar Assn.
“He may be the perfect foil for Trump,” he said, “because he understands Trump and is in Trump’s head.”
Louise Sunshine, a former New York lobbyist who worked closely with Trump early in his career, agreed that Avenatti was a vexing adversary.
“I think he’s sort of got Donald figured out,” she said.
Born in Sacramento, Avenatti, 47, grew up mainly in Chesterfield, Mo., a St. Louis suburb where he developed a love for sports cars and the Cardinals.
He studied political science at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a law degree as a night student at George Washington University, working on opposition research for both Democratic and Republican campaigns along the way.
In 2000, he moved to Los Angeles to practice law, spending three years at O’Melveny & Myers, then switching to a smaller firm.
He gravitated toward celebrity cases, working for the Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey when fellow band member Don Felder sued them, claiming he was cheated out of album and concert earnings. Avenatti also handled lawsuits against heiress Paris Hilton and actor Jim Carrey.
In 2007, Avenatti and two partners started a Newport Beach plaintiffs’ firm, Eagan, O’Malley & Avenatti.
He may be the perfect foil for Trump because he understands Trump and is in Trump’s head.
Brian Kabateck, incoming president of the Los Angeles Bar Assn.
He soon took on Service Corp. International, a cemetery company accused of desecrating graves in the San Fernando Valley. He won an $80-million settlement, along with his first star turn on “60 Minutes,” the CBS News flagship.
His biggest victory, now on appeal, was a $454-million jury verdict last year against surgical gown manufacturers Halyard Health and Kimberly-Clark. The gowns were supposed to protect doctors and nurses from blood-borne viruses such as Ebola and HIV, but sometimes leaked.
Avenatti was featured in the opening tease for a “60 Minutes” segment on the case. An executive at one of the gown makers, he said, “forgot the 11th commandment.”
“Which is?” Anderson Cooper asked.
“Do not lie to ‘60 Minutes,’” Avenatti replied, his close-up yielding to the ticking stopwatch.
“He’s a dangerous lawyer,” said Brian Panish, an attorney who used to work with Avenatti, “because he is so sharp, quick and fearless.”
Avenatti can be difficult with allies.
After a few years of booming business, he told the partners in his firm that he was leaving unless they agreed to give him a bigger share of the profits, John C. O’Malley alleged in a 2011 lawsuit.
Dumbfounded by what he called “brazen tactics,” O’Malley protested, but Avenatti drove him out of the practice, he said in court documents. A judge confirmed an arbitration award of $2.7 million against Avenatti and the firm.
Avenatti, who declined to be interviewed and requested all questions in writing, said by email that the case was resolved to the satisfaction of all involved. “Anybody can say anything in a lawsuit,” he wrote.
With his reliance on contingency cases, Avenatti lives on a boom-or-bust pay cycle.
He and his wife sold their oceanfront bluff-top house in Laguna Beach for $12.6 million in 2015. Since then he has rented high-end homes in Newport Beach and Los Angeles.
In recently filed court papers in their divorce case, his wife detailed extravagant holidays in France, Italy, Spain, Mexico and Japan. Avenatti collects artwork and watches, travels by private jet and leases a Ferrari Spider, his wife claimed in the documents.
A part-time race-car driver, Avenatti has competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans circuit.
“Once you’ve driven 190 miles per hour in the pouring rain, in the middle of the night, down the Mulsanne Straight with prototype cars whizzing by you at 240-plus miles per hour … compared to that, what I’m doing right now is a warm-up lap,” he told Sports Illustrated after the Daniels case vaulted him to fame.
His Porsche race car and white uniform both advertise Tully’s Coffee, the Seattle chain that he bought in 2013 for $9 million in a partnership with “Grey’s Anatomy” star Patrick Dempsey, a fellow racer.
Avenatti’s sideline as coffee entrepreneur turned into a morass of legal and financial trouble. Dempsey sued and withdrew from the deal, saying Avenatti had borrowed $2 million against Tully’s assets without telling him. They resolved the dispute out of court.
Keurig Green Mountain, which owns the Tully’s brand, claims the chain has missed royalty payments and has moved to revoke its license to use the name. Tully’s denied wrongdoing in its court response.
Multiple landlords have sued for back rent or eviction of Tully’s stores.
After a gradual shutdown of Tully’s outlets, the remaining stores closed a month ago when they nearly ran out of coffee, according to the Seattle Times, but a company spokeswoman said it was simply launching a “rebranding process.”
David Nold, an attorney for one of the landlords, compared Avenatti to Trump. “They sure seem to have a very similar business style,” he said. “Unpaid bills. Taxes owed. Bombastic to a fault when it comes to the facts.”
Avenatti called Nold “an embarrassment to the legal profession.”
“Any claim that problems arose as a result of anything I did or did not do personally is ridiculous and baseless,” he wrote.
He said he divested his interest in Tully’s long ago and now serves solely as outside counsel.
In bankruptcy and civil court papers, however, Avenatti claimed a substantial ownership stake in the coffee chain as recently as April 2017, and in July 2017 identified himself as chairman, general counsel and a board of managers member at Global Baristas US, the company that runs Tully’s.
At both Tully’s and the Eagan Avenatti law firm, unpaid taxes have been a problem for Avenatti.
The Internal Revenue Service put a $5-million lien on Global Baristas US last June, initially naming Avenatti as the person responsible for payment.
The company withheld payroll taxes from employees, but did not transmit the money to the IRS, the government said. The state of Washington has filed more than $800,000 in similar liens against the company.
When Eagan Avenatti emerged last month from an involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy triggered by an unpaid vendor, Avenatti personally agreed to pay the IRS $2.4 million in back taxes, penalties and interest, bankruptcy court records show.
Nearly $1.3 million of that was for payroll taxes that the firm withheld from employees, but failed to turn over to the government.
Avenatti, who was responsible for holding the money in trust for the IRS, has repaid $1.5 million so far, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
Avenatti attributed the unpaid taxes at Eagan Avenatti and the coffee company to “payroll companies that failed to do their job.”
He called The Times’ reporting inaccurate, but said he did not have the time or energy to address further questions about his dealings with the IRS and Tully’s.
The IRS also has put a $904,000 lien on all of Avenatti’s personal property, due to unpaid 2009 and 2010 income taxes, Orange County records show. Avenatti said it “was placed in error,” no taxes are due and the issue was resolved many months ago. The lien remains open, according to the Orange County clerk-recorder’s office.
Avenatti said his taxes and personal life were irrelevant to his role in the Daniels case.
As he tries to resolve his financial troubles, his law practice is getting enormous publicity from the sex scandal. Savannah Guthrie, Wolf Blitzer and Megyn Kelly have each grilled him on television. To buttress his case, for the public if not for the court, he rations out scoops to TV networks.
Avenatti has been especially pointed in attacking Cohen, the longtime Trump personal attorney who set up the shell corporation that paid Daniels $130,000 in hush money just before the 2016 presidential election.
On CNN, he ridiculed Cohen for saying he paid off a woman who never had sex with Trump.
“I would encourage every American tomorrow morning to call … Mr. Cohen, claim you had an affair with the president. They will promptly send you a check for $130,000, no questions asked,” Avenatti said sarcastically.
On Twitter, he rips both Cohen and Schwartz, Cohen’s lawyer, punctuating tweets with his customary basta, Italian for enough.
“Where have the two legal geniuses of our time, Michael Cohen and David Schwartz, gone?” he tweeted Thursday. “Forced to sit down by Mr. Trump after repeatedly making a disaster of their case on national television and being mocked by every real lawyer in America? #didtheygotolawschool #basta.”
Trump responds to Avenatti’s provocations mostly with silence, leaving it to his spokesmen and lawyers to fight back.
Schwartz dismissed Avenatti’s case as “completely wrong on the merits.”
“But,” Schwartz conceded, “he’s an excellent performer.”
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
10 a.m.: This article was updated to add Michael Avenatti’s statement that no taxes are due under the IRS lien that he said was placed in error in Orange County.
This article was originally published at 4 a.m.
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics teams from Sacramento to D.C.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.