Ever since the story broke in March about President Donald Trump’s lawyer paying hush money to porn actress Stormy Daniels, her hard-charging lawyer has been everywhere.
Michael Avenatti has fed stories to major publications, appeared in a near-constant loop on cable news, and blasted away at Trump on Twitter. His early training in opposition research (at Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s firm) has been on incessant display as he has released explosive financial records casting Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in a bad light and has sued the president for defamation, landing his client on “60 Minutes” to talk about a 2006 sexual encounter that Trump still denies ever happened.
He has proved to be irresistible media catnip: flamboyant and fast-talking with a bottomless pocketful of scoops and quotes. Reporters swarm outside his hotel, and gossip sites swoon over his lunch at Michael’s in Midtown Manhattan with CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin and his cozy chat with model Christie Brinkley in the Hamptons.
But last week, the full-on media lovefest turned sour, as stories circulated of Avenatti threatening or harshly criticizing three media organizations: The Daily Caller, The Hollywood Reporter and Law & Crime, a legal website.
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“If you and your colleagues do not stop with the hit pieces that are full of lies and defamatory statements, I will have no choice but to sue each of you and your publication for defamation,” the 47-year-old lawyer wrote to Daily Caller reporter Peter Hasson, who had published an unflattering piece about him. (Avenatti labeled the threatening email off the record, but Hasson — noting that he never agreed to that arrangement — immediately published it.)
The episode had a familiar ring: Here is the charismatic ratings-meister who thrives in the spotlight, but when the coverage turns negative, he goes on the attack against the very press that benefits him. Analyst Nate Silver summed up the reaction of many journalists in a widely-circulated tweet: “Avenatti seems quite Trumpian in both loving media attention and acting quite contemptuously toward the free press.”
A few days later, Avenatti sounded slightly chastened — if still well short of apologetic: “I respect and admire the job that the press does,” he told me. But when he sees reporting that he considers inaccurate or unfair, he insisted, “there is nothing wrong with me calling them out on it.”
He talked about the “learning experience” he had after last week’s Daily Caller episode, observing that the press is understandably in a “siege mentality” after being under relentless attack by Trump for the last two years.
Still, he insisted, any comparisons to Trump are way out of line — “a complete overreaction.”
Ken White, for one, doesn’t think so. The Los Angeles-based First Amendment lawyer told me he sees Avenatti being treated as a hero because a lot of people agree with his anti-Trump agenda.
But Avenatti shouldn’t get that kind of a pass.
Liberals’ faulty thinking about Avenatti goes like this, he said: “It’s OK if he acts badly because he’s accomplishing things.” White sees a clear parallel to the way avid Trump supporters defend the president’s unsavory behavior: “Take him seriously, not literally” — simply because it’s someone whose agenda you like.
“I generally support standing up to Trump and Cohen,” White said, “but when Avenatti makes frivolous legal threats, he’s acting just like them.” (Trump is well known for threats to sue journalists, very few of which have come to pass.)
I’ve thought from the beginning that the Stormy Daniels saga — and its far-reaching tentacles — might end up being the one disaster that Trump’s Teflon won’t hold up against. If so, her lawyer’s name may be in the history books as a defender of democratic values.
It will be up to Michael Avenatti whether that description will have an asterisk attached for his continued threats against the press, or if this ugly chapter will be turn out to be nothing but a fleeting lovers’ quarrel.