WASHINGTON — “I’m one of the few people who can beat Donald Trump if I decide to run for the U.S. presidency.” The man who confidently utters these words is not a senator or governor, not even a junior congressman. In fact, he has no record of public service. Michael Avenatti, the Los Angeles lawyer, is best known for representing Stephanie Clifford, an adult film actress (you may know her as Stormy Daniels) who claims to have had an affair with President Trump. If his work on her behalf is not quite sacrifice rivaling, say, command of a platoon in the South Pacific, it has nevertheless given Avenatti something more valuable today than public reverence: raw fame.
Now, Avenatti would like to turn that fame into political power, in order to take down the man who did precisely that two years ago. The power-bald 47-year-old wants to be known as a presidential contender, one who should be taken seriously by the Democrats precisely because he is like no other Democrat.
“We’re not gonna beat Donald Trump by nominating a traditional politician,” Avenatti says, just days before a CNN poll had him garnering support from just 1 percent of Democrats and left-leaning independents. A traditional politician, Avenatti is definitely not. And though his platform, such as it is, contains mostly mainline liberal nostrums, he is banking on the premise that After Trump will look nothing like Before Trump, that even as the very serious Beltway people express their disdain for the conflation of politics with celebrity culture, there are millions of Americans who want just that. And though they may not yet know it, they may want Michael Avenatti.
In small but significant ways, Avenatti already resembles the Trump of the early 2015 primary campaign, long before the Republican National Committee cottoned on (or reconciled itself) to his rise and tried to insulate him with layers of advisers: focused but unrestrained, restless, freakishly accessible to journalists, punching back at even the slightest insult, whether it comes from the right or left. Avenatti feuds with private citizens on Twitter, just as Trump used to do. And if Trump had a thin platform — the border wall, trade with China — Avenatti has a nonexistent one, predicated on nothing so much as his ability to fight, then fight some more, then fight again the next morning and all through the day.
Much like Trump, Avenatti is a nightmare to custodians of the political establishment, who hope that the current administration is an anomaly, after which Washington will return to the usual way of doing things, not entirely effective but at least predictable. Asked about a potential Avenatti run for the presidency, former Hillary Clinton adviser Philippe Reines expressed what might be called skepticism. “Will be like someone throwing lighter fluid on an already roaring fire, just to see it momentarily flare up,” he said. And from the ashes, a golden-haired phoenix will rise, to sit in the Oval Office for four more years.
At the same time, the principled days when the Democrats would go high when the Republicans went low seem to be coming to a close. Riffing on that famous Michelle Obama plea for the higher ground, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently said, “When they go low, we kick them.” Whether in the crotch or the shins, he did not say, though one images it was the former. Joe Biden, the former vice president, has mused about beating Trump up. Not with votes, but with fists.
“When they go low, we hit harder,” Avenatti said in a recent phone conversation with Yahoo News, when asked what his presidential campaign slogan might be. He speaks entirely in hard, sharp jabs, sentences as lean as the man who utters them. In a half-hour conversation, he manages more bravado than most people will muster in a lifetime. He never jokes, or smiles. He seems intensely focused, but also angry and perturbed. To be fair, many liberals are angry and perturbed in 2018. Not all of them are focused.
Fighting, however, isn’t the same thing as winning. Last week, a Los Angeles judge dismissed Clifford’s defamation suit against Trump. To celebrate his victory, Trump called her “horseface” on Twitter. Clifford shot back by suggesting that the president was inauspiciously endowed. Avenatti, for his part, labeled the president in a tweet of his own “a disgusting misogynist and an embarrassment to the United States.”
It made for great theater, but depressing politics. And though Avenatti was the underdog, he appeared, judging by coverage of the skirmish, to reap none of the sympathy an underdog can generally expect. He has championed Clifford, yes, but it has also sometimes seemed that she has been the pawn of Avenatti’s own political ambitions.
And then there’s Julie Swetnick, another woman whom Avenatti vowed very publicly to defend, in a way that was clearly intended to dramatically raise his own profile with the Democratic base. In September, two women — Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez — accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. Kavanaugh’s nomination, which had until then been largely uneventful, turned into a pitched political battle, a referendum on Trumpism and #MeToo, on whether one believed women or didn’t.
It was then, when Kavanaugh was dominating the news, that Avenatti introduced an accuser of his own. In an affidavit made public in a tweet — a classic Trump maneuver — a Washington-area woman named Julie Swetnick claimed that, as a college student in suburban Maryland in the 1980s, she went to high school parties at which she “witnessed Brett Kavanaugh consistently engage in excessive drinking and inappropriate contact of a sexual nature with women.”
Of the three main Kavanaugh accusers, Swetnick proved the most problematic, even to those who believed Ramirez and Ford. Her story has not been corroborated, except by an anonymous witness whose affidavit was also released by Avenatti (he declined to make either Swetnick nor that witness available for an interview). And some of what news organizations unearthed about Swetnick’s past seemed to call her credibility into question.
But the most damning evidence against her was, to some, her choice of legal representation. If the Ford and Ramirez allegations sent the Republicans into despair, the Swetnick allegations had the opposite effect. “If Republicans bail out on this good man,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., “because of the smears and character assassination perpetuated by Michael Avenatti, we deserve our fate.”
Avenatti became a symbol of Democrats’ zeal to take down Kavanaugh, an effort Republicans saw as rotted through with self-promotion and dishonesty. On Sept. 27, when both Ford and Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republicans in their statements made reference to “porn star lawyers” (Orrin Hatch, R-Utah) and “Stormy Daniels’s lawyer” (John Cornyn, R-Texas, on four occasions). Afraid to go after Ford, they went after Swetnick instead. Maybe it wasn’t fair, but it worked. A week later, Kavanaugh was confirmed.
“[Mitch] McConnell and [Chuck] Grassley should write him an in-kind contribution for his work,” one Republican staffer closely involved in the nomination fight told Yahoo News, referring to the Senate majority leader and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, both Republicans. “I don’t know anybody in the Democratic Party who thought that was helpful. Him getting involved made it more of a circus than it already was.”
Avenatti does not exactly see it that way. “I’m not some ambulance chaser,” he says, boasting that he has won over $1 billion in verdicts (Avenatti, like Trump, was a transfer to the University of Pennsylvania; his law degree is from George Washington University). He says that Swetnick is “exploring her options,” though he doesn’t say what those options are.
Avenatti thinks he is equipped to make an assault on the gates around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. better than the rest. “Most of the Democrats that are considering running are too gentle to beat Donald Trump,” he says. In recent weeks, he has criticized Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, two potential primary challengers. Both abstained from returning fire, but you have to wonder how long that will last. As the Republicans learned in 2015, a pest ignored will not slink away on his own.
Others are happy to make the case against Avenatti. S.E. Cupp, a conservative commentator who is often critical of Trump, tweeted in early October that Avenatti was “a carnival barker who should be disavowed by every Democrat running for election anywhere.” Avenatti called her a “hack,” though perhaps he was secretly pleased with the term she used, “carnival barker,” with which Candidate Trump was frequently derided and dismissed.
The remarkable thing about the nascent Avenatti candidacy is that it has almost nothing to do with policy. There is a 20-point platform of basic Democratic principles: “Climate change is an urgent threat. … Our criminal justice system needs reform.” If there are substantive differences from what Hillary Clinton proposed in her own presidential campaign, they are not readily apparent. Clinton was all policy, which sometimes made it seem that she was running for the Brookings Institution, not the White House. Avenatti, on the other hand, makes Genghis Khan look timid. His political action committee, announced in August, is called Fight PAC, as in “Fight Back.” That is roughly as subtle as he gets.
Sometimes, Avenatti’s bellicosity tips over into the ridiculous. At a recent event held by Vanity Fair, Avenatti challenged Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, to a mixed martial arts fight. That the proceeds would presumably go to charity appeared to be lost on those who saw the challenge as a sign of how utterly debased American political discourse had become. A person close to Trump Jr. laughed the whole affair off, calling Avenatti “a sad, sad man.”
This person, who is close to Trump Jr., had a lot to say about Avenatti. Regrettably, there is space for only some of it here: “While his supporters and much of the media like to call him the Democrat version of President Trump, the truth is he is more like the Democrat version of Herman Cain” — a reference to the pizza magnate who briefly enthralled the Republican base in 2012 with his 9-9-9 tax plan before fading into obscurity” — “someone with a modicum of celebrity, who will spend a few weeks leading the Democrat primary field, before spectacularly crashing and burning in the most embarrassing fashion imaginable.”
Avenatti says he is serious about the fight, but that it probably won’t happen because, he predicts, Trump Jr. will soon be indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller, who has been investigating the Trump presidential campaign’s potential ties to Russia. He also dismisses allegations that he is sullying what small patch of decency remains in our public square. “I think we’ve already eroded civility,” he says. That’s true. Also true: You have plenty of time to bemoan the loss of civility when you have power neither on Pennsylvania Avenue nor on Capitol Hill.
So can Avenatti lead the Democrats out of the wilderness? It’s unlikely, but it was also unlikely that a politically inexperienced reality TV star defeated more than a dozen Republican challengers before felling the many-headed Clinton beast. “There’s anger and then there’s anger,” says Larry Sabato, the veteran University of Virginia pollster (the emphasis is his). “A lot of Dems want the latter.” He thinks that Avenatti could outlast his Democratic opponents the way Jimmy Carter did in his successful 1976 primary campaign. Sabato’s praise for Avenatti is, well, not exactly praise: “He’s mean as a snake.”
Avenatti will take it. He wants to lead the Democrats to victory, but it will have to be entirely on his terms. And it certainly won’t be on the high road.
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