In early April, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as part of a bank-fraud probe, raided Cohen’s offices and the hotel room he was using during construction in his apartment building, seizing thousands of documents and electronic devices. Although the results of the raid have not been made public, the evidence is widely believed to contain files pertaining to the Daniels payout, which Cohen has admitted to orchestrating and which Trump had previously denied knowing anything about. If any of the seized material reveals evidence of campaign-law violations — or if Avenatti, in the discovery phase of a trial over the NDA, is able to produce such evidence — Trump could be held criminally liable. Avenatti, for his part, claims to already have all the damning evidence he needs. “Just like the Nixon tapes years ago,” he said at a news conference in May, “we now have what I will refer to as the ‘Trump tapes.’ ”
Avenatti often describes his media omnipresence as integral to his long game: It rattles Trump’s defenders — as appeared to happen when the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, contradicted the White House and acknowledged payment to Daniels. It has also helped bring in almost $600,000 for a CrowdJustice account in Daniels’s name, which Avenatti says is his sole source of financing for the case. It has also generated leads for Avenatti, like the Vekselberg data. “None of this happens if we don’t have a high profile,” Avenatti said.
“I’ll put it this way,” Daniels told me. “People forced to play defense tend to get sloppy, they tend to make mistakes. And look, if I didn’t think Michael was doing a good job, I would fire his ass.” But, she added, “every time I watch him work, I think, This is what it must have been like to see the Sistine Chapel being painted. But instead of paint, Michael uses the tears of his enemies.”
But litigating a case in the press is not without risk. As one of Avenatti’s former colleagues, the lawyer Brian Panish, pointed out, “Michael is good with the media, but the media isn’t always going to do what he wants them to do.”
In recent months, Avenatti, who was essentially unknown outside Los Angeles law circles before this spring — in February, he had just 500 followers on Twitter — has seen his personal life and past investments raked over. Fox News tracked down his second wife, Lisa Storie, and elicited her opinions on their acrimonious divorce. (Storie recently told me that they were now on “really good terms.”) CNN recently published a quadruple-bylined expose on bankruptcy proceedings against Eagan Avenatti, one of the two Los Angeles law firms Avenatti helped found. At times, he has seemed genuinely unsettled by the scrutiny: He recently responded to a Los Angeles Times article about his failed tenure as owner of the coffee company Tully’s with fury (“Sensational reporting at its finest”), and after The Daily Caller published a critical piece, he threatened to sue the conservative site for defamation. “If you think I’m kidding, you really don’t know anything about me,” he wrote to the reporter in a Twitter message, which was denounced by other journalists. “This is the last warning.” For many people, it was the first time Avenatti’s hardball tactics had spilled into public view.
He has since expanded into a new front in his fight against the government, flying, late last month, to the Texas border to meet with Central American migrants. “We will travel this nation far & wide in an effort to locate missing children and reunite them with their mothers,” he tweeted on June 21. He now represents, pro bono, more than 70 children and 60 parents in multiple lawsuits against the government, and he recently announced on MSNBC that he is also working with several — he declined to say exactly how many — Immigration and Customs Enforcement whistle-blowers.
Predictably, the Texas trip bolstered his messianic standing among liberals, and invited claims, from detractors, that he is little more than a flagrant opportunist, inserting himself, as The New York Post put it, into a fight he doesn’t understand. But to the people who know him best, the evolution into partisan firebrand is hardly surprising.