A little more than a week ago, Michael Avenatti was, indisputably, overexposed. A lantern-jawed soundbite-master, Stormy Daniels’s attorney had been on every possible cable station flogging his long-shot legal case against the president and his sad-sack attorney, Michael Cohen. But the raid on Michael Cohen’s office and home has turned Avenatti from an obsessive into an expert. He is already far down the road that others are just getting started on—there’s no one who knows more about the Cohen case. This week, for instance, when it was revealed that Fox News host Sean Hannity was one of Cohen’s clients, Hannity tried downplaying his relationship to Trump’s lawyer as informal and insignificant, with no paper trail to speak of. But Avenatti’s view is different. As he explains it, when Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York demanded to know which of Cohen’s clients would be impacted by the F.B.I. raid of Cohen’s home and office on April 9, she specifically meant clients impacted by the seizure of documents or audio tapes. “There’s no question that among the documents that were seized are documents with Sean Hannity’s name on them,” said Avenatti.
What those documents may reveal is anybody’s guess, but the latest bombshell is yet more proof that Avenatti has become a major thorn in the side of Donald Trump. Most of the media presumed the Stormy Daniels case against the president and his lawyer would fade after the porn actress (whose real name is Stephanie Clifford) appeared on 60 Minutes a month ago, claiming that she had an affair with Trump in 2006, was threatened by an unidentified “thug” who warned her to stop talking about the alleged affair, and later accepted $130,000 from Cohen to keep quiet in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Avenatti promoted the interview as a Watergate-level event, but it didn’t quite deliver, and questions were left unanswered, most notably the contents of a mysterious DVD Avenatti teased on Twitter, suggesting revelatory images or video were forthcoming.
The F.B.I. raid, however, re-invigorated the story, setting the stage for potential indictments against Cohen on charges of bank fraud, campaign-finance crimes, and money laundering—and, just maybe, corollary charges against the president himself. At this stage, Avenatti seems certain of one thing: Michael Cohen is under such urgent duress that it will be difficult for him not to flip on the president and turn state’s witness as soon as this summer. “There is zero question in my mind that Michael Cohen is going to be indicted for some very serious, pervasive conduct,” he said. Avenatti is not alone: according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, a longtime counselor to Trump, Jay Goldberg, has told the president that on a scale of 1 to 100, where 100 is Cohen protecting the president and 1 is near-certain flipping, the chances Cohen will protect Trump are not even a 1.
Avenatti is still declining to talk about the contents of the DVD, but the F.B.I. investigation has elevated the case well beyond an alleged sexual liaison. Now the more important liaison is between Avenatti and the F.B.I. “There’s been three raids executed by the F.B.I. in the last eight days,” Avenatti said. “And there’s a significant level of cooperation between us and the Southern District of New York U.S. attorney’s office.”
Indeed, Avenatti is now alleging that he has evidence of bank fraud involving Michael Cohen, which he has almost certainly shared with the F.B.I. And Avenatti maintains the F.B.I. will soon return the favor: “We expect to have access to at least some of what was seized at some point in the near future,” he added. And what might that yield? Avenatti’s preferred scenario is that it would cough up proof that Trump not only knew about Cohen’s payments to Daniels and other women, but compensated Cohen from campaign funds. But he believes the true smoking gun is a so-called Suspicious Activities Report (S.A.R.) reportedly created by the Treasury Department earlier this year after a bank is reported to have flagged Cohen’s account for dubious transactions. (The Treasury Department and First Republic Bank did not provide a comment to The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, while Cohen called it “fake news.”) “That is a critical document at this juncture of the case,” said Avenatti. If such a report existed it could very well describe a narrative of events in which monies were moved from bank account to bank account in an effort to cover up campaign payments to Trump’s alleged mistresses. “The importance of that document cannot be overstated,” he said.
While his request for the document has been met with radio silence by the Treasury Department, the F.B.I. may well have it—Avenatti speculates that it could be the blueprint for the entire investigation The way Avenatti talks about the report brings to mind Woodward and Bernstein’s discovery, in 1972, of the $25,000 bank deposit from a Nixon campaign-finance chairman into the account of one of the Watergate burglars.
A mysterious figure in the Cohen case is Keith Davidson, the Beverly Hills attorney who originally represented Stormy Daniels in the cash deal with Cohen to silence her story. Curiously, he also represented the Playboy model Karen McDougal, who had an alleged affair with Trump for 10 months in 2006-2007; and another Playboy model named Shera Bechard, who was paid $1.6 million to keep quiet about her affair with Republican donor Elliott Broidy—whose lawyer was also, lo and behold, Michael Cohen. Cohen and Davidson appeared to have had a brisk business transacting mistress money. “Probably the most charitable thing I could say is it appears to have been far too close of a relationship,” said Avenatti.
Avenatti insists, however, that Davidson himself is a red herring—it’s the money he’s interested in. It is his abiding belief that if F.B.I. investigators follow the cash trail, it will prove not only Stormy Daniels’s narrower case against Trump and Cohen, nullifying her 2016 N.D.A., but will also detonate a larger legal bomb in the Oval Office. Perhaps that is why Trump’s hired lawyer, Charles Harder, who sued Gawker on behalf of Peter Thiel and won $31 million, has threatened a $20 million lawsuit against Daniels for breaking the agreement: because he is trying to shut down the money trail exposed by Daniels’s lawsuit. Harder may have been bluffing, given that the suit has not materialized. Avenatti, meanwhile, has proceeded with what may be the most brazen gambit of his legal career: deposing Donald Trump in a U.S. district court in California. “Obviously we’re going to ask what he knew and when he knew it and who he talked to,” said Avenatti.
Trump has stated publicly that he knows nothing about Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Daniels. But if indeed Trump did know about the Cohen-Daniels transaction, “that could constitute evidence of a felony of federal campaign-finance law, as well as a host of other potential criminal conduct or charges,” said Avenatti. “And then it would be up to the special prosecutor or another prosecutor in law enforcement to bring those charges.”
Avenatti expects a ruling on the deposition by Judge James Otero in the first two weeks of May and, bold as ever, he’s putting the odds of success at “better than 50 percent—especially if Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen continue to engage in the mistakes that they have made over the last five or six weeks.” If Trump refuses to a court order to face a deposition, “that would set off a constitutional crisis,” he said, citing the landmark Supreme Court case of Clinton v. Jones, in which Bill Clinton’s attempt to rebuff Paula Jones’s sexual harassment case established that sitting presidents could be prosecuted in civil court for acts before or during their time in office.
Avenatti argues that what makes him particularly “dangerous” for Trump is that he is unconstrained by political considerations, like White House pressure on the F.B.I. or Robert Mueller—which explains why Cohen’s lawyer has tried filing for a stay of the lawsuit, arguing that Daniels’s case should be put on ice in light of the F.B.I. raids last week. “He wants the judge to pause our case pending the criminal investigation,” said Avenatti. “He wants to slow the case down because he realized the potential liability in our case.”
Cohen’s lawyers argue that he should be free to plead the fifth until the F.B.I. case is over. On Friday, April 20, a federal judge in Los Angeles will rule on Cohen’s bid for a stay, but Avenatti appears confident this show will go on. He argues in his counter motion that Cohen hasn’t proved a substantial relationship between the investigation and the Daniels’s case, and that Cohen waived his right to plead the Fifth when he gave an interview to CNN after the F.B.I. raid. “Mr. Cohen made the choice to make these public statements with full knowledge of the raids; he cannot now refuse cross-examination,” argued Avenatti in his filing.
Some observers have argued that Cohen may be counting on Trump to pardon him after any federal indictment. Avenatti calls it “a false hope.” For one, Trump has demonstrated loyalty to almost no one; but also, Cohen could just as well be tried on the state level, in New York, where Cohen is a resident and Trump’s federal pardoning powers are null and void. “He could be charged on the state level and prosecutors have wide-ranging discretion as it relates to charging decisions,” Avenatti said.
Avenatti says that what emboldened him to pursue this case was what he sees as Cohen’s alarming incompetence, first demonstrated by the badly drafted N.D.A. for Stormy Daniels using a third-party LLC in Delaware, Essential Consultants. It was so badly executed, Avenatti said, he understood immediately that he was dealing with a hack—Trump’s virtual Achilles’ heel. “If someone who worked for me had drafted that N.D.A., they would have been fired on the spot,” he said. “It’s a piece of garbage.”
If nothing else, the case has turned Avenatti into a full-blown celebrity, with possible book and film deals on the horizon. But Avenatti says his 24/7 media blitz of trash-talking his opponents—he tweeted this week that President Trump is “unhinged”—is crucial to his overall strategy. “This is a very unusual situation,” Avenatti mused, with presidential modesty. “I think what we’ve accomplished in that regard has been significant and dare I say unprecedented.”
Trump may be a master media manipulator, he said, but “our version is the new and improved 2.0 version that includes substance. And we do it a helluva lot better.”