The quick rise and rapid fall of Michael Avenatti

Victoria Bekiempis


When celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti stepped into a Manhattan federal courtroom about 6pm on Monday, he lacked the sass and razzmatazz that had secured his roles as a media darling and vociferous social media foe of Donald Trump.

As usual, Avenatti sported a slate suit, crisp white shirt and powder blue tie, but his smart clothes couldn’t mask the fact that his arrest hours earlier – for allegedly trying to extort more than $20m from Nike – had taken its toll on him.

Related: Michael Avenatti, ex-lawyer for Stormy Daniels, arrested on extortion charges

The one-time lawyer for the adult film actor Stormy Daniels, who claimed she was paid $130,000 by Michael Cohen to keep her alleged affair with Trump secret, was quietly led to a table by US marshals through a side door in this courtroom. Salt-and-pepper stubble on the back of Avenatti’s always-shaved head was more pronounced than during his many media rounds. Avenatti’s lips were pursed in what could have been a tight grin, or perhaps a mark of resignation, and his skin seemed dry.

Prosecutors allege that Avenatti, who had made a splashy and very different appearance with Daniels in the same courthouse less than one year ago, threatened to reveal embarrassing information about the shoe giant, unless the company paid up.

Avenatti, 48, also faces federal fraud charges in California related to alleged embezzlement from a client.

The criminal complaint against Avenatti describes him as having a “large public following due to, among other things, his representation of celebrity and public figure clients, as well as frequent media appearances and use of social media”.

The complaint’s mention of social media, along with the bombastic barrister’s ill-timed missive, show how his web-fueled fame might have turned him into an Icarus of the Twitter age.

A breathless biography on Avenatti’s website says he “routinely appears on television and in the print media as a commentator on a range of issues and is widely considered one of the foremost trial lawyers in the nation”.

“Michael often works closely with the press and media in connection with his legal practice – an area in which most lawyers falter and under-utilize,” the blurb also says.

Avenatti recently told the Guardian that the president’s alleged affair with Daniels – which Trump has denied – could bring him down.

“Ultimately, he is going to be forced to resign,” Avenatti said.

Such pronouncements often infuriated Trump and his supporters – and delighted many liberals – and turned Avenatti into an activist lawyer seemingly determined to topple Trump (and maybe even replace him).

Avenatti went so far as to describe his motivation in going after Trump by paraphrasing a question from the Watergate proceedings, saying “It’s a search for the truth about what the president knew, when he knew it and what he did about it.”

Avenatti was feted in West Hollywood several weeks later on “Stormy Daniels Day”, which aimed at celebrating the resistance against Trump, with chants of “Mi-chael! Mi-chael!”

Avenatti, who races cars when he is not sparring with someone in court or on TV, even flirted with the idea of a presidential run in the Democratic race and travelled to the key early voting state of Iowa last August. While there, he addressed a crowd of activists at a high-profile political dinner and received a raucous and warm reception.

“I believe that our party, the Democratic party, must be a party that fights fire with fire,” he told the crowd and advocated using rough tactics against Republican opponents, saying Democrats too often had a “tendency to bring nail clippers to a gunfight”.

Avenatti’s swift ascent started wavering soon thereafter.

In October, Daniels’ defamation lawsuit against Trump was thrown out.

Avenatti was arrested on 14 November on suspicion of alleged domestic violence. (Prosecutors later announced that they would not pursue charges against him, according to reports.)

Later in November, Daniels alleged that Avenatti filed the defamation suit against Trump “against my wishes”.

Daniels told the Daily Beast: “He repeatedly refused to tell me how my legal defense fund was being spent. Now he has launched a new crowdfunding campaign using my face and name without my permission and attributing words to me that I never wrote or said.”

A federal judge on 7 March dismissed Daniels’ lawsuit, seeking to void the non-disclosure agreement she had signed that barred her from discussing Cohen’s payment.

Less than one week later, Daniels and Avenatti were reported to have parted ways.

Then came Avenatti’s federal arrest this week. As Avenatti waited for his lawyers and prosecutors to appear in the courtroom, he exuded a mildly nervous-yet-pensive energy; sometimes cupping or scratching his chin, sometimes tapping a hand against his knee.

When the judge went through pro forma questions with Avenatti – did he understand his rights? did he have a copy of the complaint? – he stood and answered: “Yes, your honor, I do.”

Avenatti was released on a $300,000 personal recognizance bond. His travel would be limited to the New York City area and central California, and he had to turn in his US and Italian passports.

After Avenatti left the courthouse at about 8.30pm, he said: “I am highly confident that when all the evidence is laid bare in connection with these cases, when it is all known, when due process occurred, that I will be fully exonerated and justice will be done.”

He was already back on Twitter at 3.06am, reiterating his claims against Nike and thanking his supporters.