Michael Avenatti, riding in a white Ford Focus, is a continent away from his Southern California office.
His driver is barreling down a road in central New Hampshire, where Avenatti is helping raise money for Democrats and trying to “take the temperature” of potential voters as he explores a presidential run.
Avenatti is emphatic about one thing. He is not on “a listening tour,” he told The Washington Post by phone Saturday, because that’s something politicians say.
He is definitely not a politician. And yet, Avenatti thinks that may be how he may become one.
The veteran trial attorney, who has been on an endless media circuit as the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, says he has yet to decide whether he will run to unseat President Trump in 2020.
But whoever the Democrats nominate, he said, needs to be a “fighter.” He is one, he said, and could be a serious threat to a second Trump term.
It may be the only thing that Avenatti and Stephen K. Bannon agree on.
“[Avenatti]'s got a fearlessness,” Bannon, the Republican strategist and former senior White House adviser, told Bill Maher on Friday night on HBO. “And he’s a fighter. I think he’ll go through a lot of that field, if he decides to stick with it, like a scythe through grass.”
It is a new age, Bannon explained, where politicians ascending from Congress or the governor’s office may not be the clearest path to the White House. Maher agreed. “[Avenatti] could be the Trump of 2020, the guy who’s the outsider, who blows through the regular politician because he looks different,” he said.
Avenatti, a fierce critic of Trump’s, takes the comparison as a compliment. Mostly.
He speaks directly. He’s not afraid to be confrontational. He has success in a field other than politics. In a crowded field, he said he can distinguish himself by the form of someone who has never bent under the will of a straw poll or focus group. It sounds like a formula that helped propel Trump to office.
“They recognize perhaps they have a problem on their hands, and I happen to agree with them,” Avenatti said of Republicans. “If I decide to do this, I’m going to surprise a lot of people.”
In recent months, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), former vice president Joe Biden and others have risen to the top of the discussion of Democratic front-runners.
Harris, Booker and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have fresh prominence as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during a moment when the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is both a high-stakes political battle and a tryout for potential voters to see them in action.
And yet, Avenatti has hung around the political discussion as the country has shifted attention to Kavanaugh — and the multiple allegations of sexual assault against him.
Avenatti’s client Julie Swetnik claimed that during high school she was raped by a group of boys at a party at which Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge were present. She hasn’t accused Kavanaugh of raping her. Kavanaugh has denied being present.
On Saturday, The Post reported that the FBI has made contact with Deborah Ramirez as part of an inquiry into allegations that also separately include an accusation from Christine Blasey Ford, who testified Thursday. Avenatti says he hoped the FBI also would contact Swetnik. “I don’t know how this investigation could be called complete if they don’t contact her,” he said.
As he rolled through New Hampshire on stops that included Manchester, Concord and Plymouth, Avenatti said Democrats are looking for a fighting spirit. He was told that by a “high-ranking official” at the Democratic National Committee, he said.
But Avenatti said he also goes through periods where a run either attracts him or repulses him. If Trump announces he won’t seek another term, his desire to run will be halved, he said.
And if Vice President Pence also declines to run? “My appetite goes to zero,” he said, “I won’t seek office.”
Those two events together may be unlikely. Avenatti’s appetite may persist if no one can answer what he calls the money question: Can you beat Trump?
Avenatti declined to say which Democratic contender he thinks can best address the question.
In his trademark immodesty, he suggested it just may be him. He has been “placed in this moment in history. . . . I may be able to solve this dumpster fire of a presidency,” he said.
What was not placed in the moment, at least on Saturday afternoon, was a charger for his driver’s phone. It died, Avenatti said, and they were starting to get lost.
At least that he was sure of.