NEW YORK — California lawyer Michael Avenatti got his chance Friday to interrogate the adult film actress with whom he took on President Donald Trump in 2018.
She calmly explained that she had the visions while at a house in New Orleans and indeed had spoken with a possessed doll named “Susan” that appears in her documentary-style project called “Spooky Babes.”
“I don’t know — it just happens sometimes,” Daniels said, adding that the communication can sometimes be facilitated by the use of “cards” and “meditation.”
Avenatti, who decided to represent himself on the second day of testimony, appeared to be trying to show that Daniels is unhinged or willing to make up stories. He has argued he was entitled to a portion of her book advance and suggested she agreed to that arrangement, only to change her tune later.
Avenatti took on Daniels as a client when she accused Trump of paying her off during the 2016 campaign to keep quiet about a decade-old sexual relationship between them.
Once the book deal was in place, prosecutors allege, Avenatti forged Daniels’s signature on a form directing her literary agent to route funds from her bank account to one he controlled.
For months, according to an extensive record of WhatsApp messages submitted as trial exhibits, Avenatti lied to Daniels — accusing the publishing company of failing to pay when he was allegedly intercepting the wire transfers.
Much of Avenatti’s cross-examination of Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, was meandering. He was frequently interrupted as prosecutors objected to topics and phrases that they said were out of bounds.
Several times, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman instructed Avenatti to move on to other subjects and to stop repeating himself when he did not get answers he wanted.
One juror appeared to be nodding off and several looked bored — their eyes darting around the courtroom — during portions of the testimony.
At least one spectator in the at-capacity courtroom was not impressed.
“These are stupid questions,” former Trump attorney Michael Cohen quipped aloud after Avenatti tried without success to catch Daniels on a discrepancy about past comments she had made on the number of payments she was missing.
Cohen played a role in catapulting Daniels to infamy: He was the person who paid Daniels hush money during the 2016 campaign. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations related to the payoff and served time in prison. He is now an outspoken critic of both Trump and Avenatti and claims to be on good terms with Daniels, who has appeared as a guest on his podcast.
At a couple of points Friday, there appeared to be tension between Avenatti and Daniels, including when he tried to get her to admit that she “understood that I would be entitled” to a portion of income from a book or paid media appearances.
“You’re very entitled, yes,” Daniels fired back.
Referring to the retainer agreement, which does not specify how much Avenatti would have been entitled to out of income from a book, Daniels testified that Avenatti told her he would get paid from a crowdfunded legal defense collection — which he facilitated — after she retained him for just $100.
In one touchy exchange, Avenatti asked Daniels whether she knew when she signed the retainer “that attorneys don’t work for free.”
“That’s why I was shocked when you would,” Daniels said. She also testified that she was “out of options” when she hired Avenatti to try to undo the nondisclosure agreement she signed in exchange for $130,000 from Cohen.
Avenatti’s trial opened Monday, and testimony could conclude next week. Avenatti’s defense case is likely to start Monday. He said at the close of the court session Friday that he was “strongly leaning in favor of testifying” in his own defense.
If convicted of wire fraud and identity theft, he faces more than 20 years in prison. It is his third federal criminal trial in two years.
At an unrelated fraud case in New York, he was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. A case in California, for allegedly embezzling funds from his law firm, ended in a mistrial after a judge ruled the prosecution owed him documents he did not get.
Avenatti also represented himself in that case.