National News

In Aggressive Advocacy for Porn Star, Outspoken Lawyer Targets a Trump Insider

Posted May 15, 2018 8:28 p.m. EDT

For more than a month now, the investigation of Michael D. Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, has been a spectacle, a garish pageant of money, sex and politics unfolding both in court and in the court of public opinion.

And if anyone can be thought of as the ringmaster in this noisy legal circus, it is Cohen’s chief nemesis, Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for the pornographic film star Stephanie Clifford.

After all, it was Avenatti who sent Clifford — better known as Stormy Daniels — into a courtroom in Manhattan last month to sit (in her pink blazer) within sight of Cohen as part of a publicity stunt that largely seemed designed to needle and unnerve him. It was also Avenatti who set off a frenzy in the media last week by releasing a report that showed how Cohen had taken more than $1 million from a firm linked to a wealthy Russian oligarch and from several major companies, including AT&T.

As federal prosecutors in Manhattan continue to investigate whether Cohen broke the law by paying Clifford to stay silent about an affair she says she had with Trump, Avenatti has never once shut up about the case. In a guerrilla-style campaign, he has been on Twitter daily — sometimes almost hourly — talking of Cohen and has appeared so frequently on television that some have joked that he sleeps at CNN.

But while his voluble tactics have won him plaudits among members of the left, many of whom seem to believe that his efforts in the Cohen case might take down Trump, some legal experts said that his barrage of Trump-like tweets and his all-but-constant media appearances might not be doing Clifford any favors.

“Lawyers do speak publicly to defend their clients, but it’s ordinarily very limited and there’s a good reason for that,” said Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at the New York University School of Law. “I don’t think Avenatti is truly representing Clifford in his media blitz. It’s not quite legal representation — it’s political representation.”

At least for the moment, though, Avenatti is facing an important legal hurdle — one that he must overcome in order to be given a say inside the courtroom. Recently, he asked the judge in the matter, Kimba M. Wood, to make him a party to the case. Avenatti has said he wants to join to the case to protect Clifford’s records, some of which were seized last month when federal agents raided Cohen’s office, apartment and hotel room. But apparently annoyed by his unconventional methods, Cohen’s lawyers are fighting his request.

In a motion filed last week, the lawyers tried to keep Avenatti out of the case by telling Wood that he had not only illegally obtained Cohen’s bank records, but had also misquoted them in his report “for the purpose of creating a toxic mix of misinformation.”

In his own motion filed on Monday night, Avenatti hit back, saying he had “First Amendment rights” to reveal the information about Cohen and that the lawyers’ efforts to stop him from entering the case were “a highly improper attempt to soil” him.

With its reliance on the media and its light-on-the-law ad hominem attacks, Avenatti’s style of lawyering seems, ironically, to share much with the one employed by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s chief lawyer. Giuliani has also gone on television frequently to defend his client — though perhaps not as successfully as Avenatti. “My impression is that Avenatti has acquitted himself well on television, especially in contrast to Rudy Giuliani,” said Kathleen Clark, a professor at Washington University Law School who teaches legal ethics. Clark suggested that Avenatti, who is raising money to defend Clifford on a crowdsourcing website has made himself ubiquitous in the media on purpose.

“Avenatti’s use of Twitter and his television appearances are unusual, but his omnipresence seems like a strategy,” she said. “He may well be doing all of this to keep his client in the news for public relations purposes and to make money to represent her. To the degree that helps him serve his client’s needs, it’s completely defensible.”

Oddly enough, despite Cohen’s reputation as a legal pit bull and massager of the media, his own team of lawyers has largely avoided talking with reporters, preferring to let their filings in the case speak for them. It is, of course, possible that they have not lashed out as vocally — or as visibly — as Avenatti has because others have waged their battles for them.

On Sunday, for example, the Daily Caller, a conservative website, published an article attacking Avenatti for having a past “littered with lawsuits, jilted business partners and bankruptcy filings.” A few days earlier, Giuliani gave an interview to Business Insider, explaining that he had declined Avenatti’s invitation to debate because, as he put it, “I don’t get involved with pimps.”

In typical fashion, Avenatti immediately struck back, threatening to sue the Daily Caller in an off-the-record email to one of its reporters, Peter J. Hasson, who promptly posted the missive onto Twitter.

To Giuliani, he responded in a tweet that said, “I’m not the only ‘pimp’ you have experience with.”

The message was linked to an 18-year-old video of Giuliani wearing women’s clothing and performing a comedy routine — with Trump.