Ever since the story broke in March over President 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 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.
“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 Avenatti’s previous business dealings. (The lawyer 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.
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 in an interview.
But when he sees reporting that he considers inaccurate or unfair, he insisted, “there is nothing wrong with me calling them out on it.”
Identifying errors, and asking for corrections, is always legitimate, of course.
But should a fit of pique really include threats to sue journalists and their news organizations for defamation?
Avenatti hinted by phone that he probably wouldn’t do that again. 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 and host of the “Make No Law” podcast told me he sees Avenatti being treated as a hero because a lot of people agree with his anti-Trump agenda.
But he says he shouldn’t get that kind of a pass.
Liberals’ faulty thinking about Avenatti goes like this, he said: “It’s okay if he acts badly because he’s accomplishing things.” (A story on the Law & Crime legal-news website that is affiliated with the podcast said that Avenatti had threatened to sue one of its reporters because of a critical story. In the case of the Hollywood Reporter, Avenatti reportedly cursed out a reporter after he got wind of an upcoming story that would question the effectiveness of his barrage of media appearances; it would eventually be headlined, “Is Stormy Daniels Getting Her Money’s Worth From Attorney Michael Avenatti?”)
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.)
Avenatti is effective, in part, because he plays the same game as Trump, with a gleeful willingness to attack and an instinct for manipulating journalistic appetites.
To the extent that his approach forces important information into the public sphere and holds the president and his associates accountable, that’s all to the good.
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 turn out to be nothing but a fleeting lovers’ quarrel.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan