The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Michael Avenatti once dominated cable news. Now he’s watching it.

Michael Avenatti makes an initial appearance on charges of bank and wire fraud as he arrives at federal court in Santa Ana, Calif., on April 1. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Irony oozed out of a tweet sent by lawyer Michael Avenatti the other day. He was upset about a segment on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” discussing his latest legal mess, an indictment for allegedly stealing nearly $300,000 from former client Stormy Daniels. “How cowardly of @JoeNBC @morningmika @WillieGeist @emilyjanefox to sit around and take shots at me in my absence without inviting me on to defend myself. This is journalism? No, it’s a joke,” wrote Avenatti.

Someone has been reading too much @realdonaldtrump.

For a news program such as “Morning Joe,” there’s a lot to discuss when it comes to Avenatti. Not only is he facing the indictment for the handling of the Daniels account, he is also facing charges in New York and California for allegedly extorting Nike for as much as $25 million and allegedly ripping off other clients, respectively. Avenatti has denied wrongdoing, though acknowledged his troubles in a Vanity Fair profile titled “'I Flew Too Close to the Sun. No Question. Icarus’: Inside the Epic Fall of Michael Avenatti.”

Last year, Avenatti didn’t have to Twitter-plead to get on to MSNBC. Host Rachel Maddow, for instance, once invited him on her show to discuss not things that he had already done but things that he was preparing to do. On Sept. 24, 2018, Avenatti told Maddow that he would bring thunderous news to the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual misconduct decades ago. “Well, Rachel, I’m representing one client who I can describe as a witness and victim, as well as additional corroborating witnesses to what she is going to allege publicly within the next 48 hours,” said Avenatti, who would later introduce Julie Swetnick as a Kavanaugh accuser.

At one point in the discussion, Maddow asked her guest, “Are you, in fact, and is your client, in fact, going to allege serious criminal behavior here? That is what you are implying in your communication thus far with the committee.” As it turned out, Swetnick found her credibility in tatters after a wobbly NBC News interview. Avenatti stands by her claims.

By the count of NewsBusters — a conservative-leaning site that tracks the mainstream media — the Maddow-Avenatti moment was among 254 TV news appearances turned in by the telegenic lawyer over a year starting in March 2018. Cable watchers are familiar with his landing pads: CNN accounted for 121 Avenatti appearances, with MSNBC right behind at 108. They have no rivals in this category. Fox News hosted two appearances. “The reason why I was able to appear on cable news so often was because I was credible and I was incredibly effective on that medium,” says Avenatti in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog. “And I’m still incredibly effective on that medium and I’m still credible.”

More from Avenatti: “I think I was the most interviewed person in the United States last year. It’s either me or Trump.” Avenatti says he turned down more than 60 percent of the requests from CNN and MSNBC. All of it is evidence that television news still loves a sex scandal, especially one involving a porn star with an ample rotation of photographs available to producers. Newspapers, for that matter, didn’t avoid the story: The Post and the New York Times together published hundreds of stories citing Avenatti.

In large measure, Avenatti’s appearances kept the CNN-MSNBC audience carefully apprised of every last blip in the Stormy Daniels story — a stemwinder that started in October 2016, when the porn star received $130,000 from Trump fixer Michael Cohen to suppress the story of her affair with the presidential candidate. The Wall Street Journal broke the story of the payoff in January 2018, touching off months of denials and lies by Trump & Co., along with legal maneuvers and statements by Avenatti, who represented Daniels in the matter.

In appearance after appearance, Avenatti slammed the president, Cohen and all things Trump as he advocated for Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford). That was before he tried to become a player in the Kavanaugh battle and before he flirted with a 2020 presidential run. Tim Graham, executive editor of NewsBusters, saw a melding of sensibilities at work. “The obvious point at the end of this is it underlines how you can be a star if you say the things they want you to say,” says Graham, referring to MSNBC and CNN. “If he’s Icarus, who gave him the wings?”

Circumstances, in part. Avenatti’s cable-news ubiquity fed off the strands of the Daniels story — strands generated in large part by Team Trump. To dive into the Avenatti-CNN-MSNBC archive is to find the lawyer riffing on: a legal filing to get Daniels out of her nondisclosure agreement; Trump’s denial that he knew anything about the payment; something stupid or nonsensical said by Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani; Trump’s denial that he knew anything about the payment; a presidential financial filing with lessons about the payoff; and more.

Every time they gaffed, it seemed, a chyron was born. “They created opportunities, and I took advantage of those opportunities,” says Avenatti. “It’s called doing your job.” Speaking more broadly about media management, Avenatti cited Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “To a significant degree he’s followed my model, which is — he’s made himself available and he’s effective on television,” says Avenatti.

Asked whether Buttigieg, indeed, has followed Avenatti’s “model,” his communications adviser Lis Smith replied, “Ummm.”

Effectiveness on television means contending with tough questions from cable-news hosts, which came with some regularity during Avenatti’s time as CNN-MSNBC guest-at-large. Last May, for example, CNN’s Jake Tapper noted that federal Judge Kimba Wood had blasted Avenatti’s high-profile ways. Asked Tapper: “She said you can’t be a party in the courtroom and also continue what she called your ‘publicity tour.’ You ended up withdrawing your motion to appear in the New York federal court case against Cohen. Why do that? Why is that in the best interest of your client?” Avenatti responded with an explanation about the legal dynamics of the case.

An awareness of cable news’s appetites underlay every Avenatti maneuver. In mid-April 2018, for instance, he promoted a sketch of a man who allegedly threatened Daniels back in 2011 in connection with her Trump affair. “There’s a lot of what you’re doing, Michael, that has a kind of tabloid feel to it,” said David Axelrod on his “Axe Files” podcast. “You go on television and reveal this photo.” Avenatti responded, “Well, look, I don’t think we’re engaged in tabloid-type reveals or journalism. I just don’t. The fact of the matter is, there’s a significant amount of interest in this case.”

That the Avenatti-Daniels-Trump-Cohen story was worth extensive coverage finds confirmation in federal court documents, as Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign-finance violations in connection with the Daniels payoff. He was sentenced to three years in prison for those offenses and others. “Countless other scandals involving the president and women were one- or two-day stories,” says Avenatti, who credits his strategy with Cohen’s legal troubles, not to mention the fixer’s anti-Trump congressional testimony. “No story had the staying power that the Stormy Daniels case did, and the reason is clear: because those cases were not advanced using the media effectively.”

The rest of the story is a love affair. Because they’re cable-news channels with too much time on their hands, CNN and MSNBC did what they do, which is to go overboard. In one telltale episode, CNN interviewed Avenatti at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where the lawyer opined on the absence of President Trump: “Well, as you know, I just call it like I see it,” said Avenatti. “And I think it’s entirely disrespectful. I think it is disrespectful to the First Amendment. I think it’s disrespectful to the Constitution. I think it’s disrespectful to one of the founding principles this nation was founded on. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no business being in the position, quite honestly.”

The high regard seeps through in this video mash-up by the Washington Free Beacon:

A highlight of that video comes when CNN media boss Brian Stelter tells Avenatti in a September 2018 interview, “And looking ahead to 2020, one reason I’m taking you seriously as a contender is because of your presence on cable news.” That moment is a favorite among CNN critics.

In response to questions from the Erik Wemple Blog, Stelter writes:

There are lots and lots of reasons why Michael Avenatti was newsworthy when he was representing Stormy Daniels. Journalists did their jobs and questioned him — some more effectively than others. Critics are doing their jobs and questioning the coverage — and that makes all of us better.
But bad faith arguments make us all worse off. Some folks have been distorting my comment last September about Avenatti. My thesis back then, which still holds, is that all future U.S. presidents will be television stars of some sort. TV star power will be a prerequisite for the presidency. I told Avenatti "one reason I'm taking you seriously as a contender is because of your presence on cable news." Obviously I'm not taking him seriously anymore, but I own that comment. He showed a Trump-like mastery of the media last year. I think there's been a lot of introspection in newsrooms about the reasons for that mastery.
I think what’s most important now is that the cases against him are covered fairly and thoroughly, not soft-pedaled by people who previously interviewed him OR sensationalized by people who dislike him.

CNN’s PR operation didn’t respond to inquiries for this piece.

An MSNBC spokesperson delivered this statement on its coverage: "Similar to The Washington Post’s more than 200 citations of Michael Avenatti in its ongoing and in-depth coverage on the topic, we appropriately covered a high-profile legal matter surrounding the President of the United States and, as part of that, invited Mr. Avenatti to represent his client. We were also the first to report Mr. Avenatti’s arrest on-air within moments of him being taken into custody and continue to cover the latest on his subsequent indictment and extortion and fraud charges.”

Maddow, furthermore, provided an extensive response regarding her Avenatti-related decision-making. “When I interviewed Avenatti about the Kavanaugh accuser he represented, the news at that point was that women were coming forward with allegations of mistreatment by a nominee for the Supreme Court. That story was still developing, and would continue developing for days to come,” notes the host in an email, further explaining that when Swetnick’s declaration later surfaced, “we reported on the statement, noting that the allegation had not been vetted by reporters and that Avenatti had not produced corroborating witnesses. I don’t have regrets about any of that.”

She also addresses the hindsight question: “Now since then, according to the allegations laid out by prosecutors, Avenatti turns out to have been a shrieking bag of cats when it came to his business practices more broadly. But the fact remains that the campaign finance story he brought to the fore resulted in federal charges, a guilty plea, a prison sentence, and prosecutors implicating the President of the United States in directing the commission of two felonies,” writes Maddow.

Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s chief legal analyst, was in a prime spot to assess Avenatti’s flash of cable-news-enabled stardom. “I went to lunch with him once and we were walking in Manhattan in the west 50s, and he was greeted like a major celebrity in a New York world that generally ignores celebrities,” says Toobin. “It was astonishing to me to see the reaction to him, and it was around that time that he decided to run for president, which I recognized as delusional, but I could see how he might get a different impression.”

That “different impression” apparently hasn’t worn off. “Talk to the people who were at any of the events around the country that I went to and I spoke at,” Avenatti tells the Erik Wemple Blog. “Talk to people that saw me resonate with voters, frankly. I know how to communicate with people. I’ve been communicating with people for 20 years in the course of my law practice. … This idea of me as a presidential candidate was not crazy. Now, it’s obviously been derailed now, but it was not absurd, especially in the age of Trump.”

On his Fox News program Wednesday night, host Tucker Carlson declared victory in his months-long siege against Avenatti. “We hate to brag. Almost never do, but tonight we’re going to make a rare exception. We were right about him,” said the host. “Today, the ‘creepy porn lawyer’ was indicted on a new set of criminal charges. They allege that he defrauded, yes, Stormy Daniels. It turns out he was not a feminist hero.” In a comment that drew a chuckle from the Erik Wemple Blog, Carlson said that “CNN had him on so often he brought a covered dish to the company picnic.”

“He’s an immature child," says Avenatti of Carlson. "He was not right.” And this: “Why won’t he have me on his show to defend myself?”

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Michael Avenatti, media gatekeeper

Erik Wemple: Fox News’s Tucker Carlson betrays civility pledge to Michael Avenatti

Jennifer Rubin: Why we should take unserious presidential contenders seriously

Eoin Higgins: Michael Avenatti’s downfall would be a great thing for Democrats