As Donald Trump’s presidency relentlessly demonstrates, there’s no business like reality-show business.
The tabloid-ready squabbling between lawyers representing porn star Stormy Daniels and Trump’s faithful acolyte Michael Cohen—featuring an anonymously sourced lawsuit threat against CBS News’ 60 Minutes and even cameo appearances by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Bubba the Love Sponge Clem—has predictably mesmerized the mainstream media.
How could it not? After all, Trump’s alleged fling more than a decade ago with a busty blonde adult film actress has metastasized into a solemn discussion of potential election-law violations and First Amendment protections for the Fourth Estate, as Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford) pursues a sensational lawsuit against the president to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement concerning her claim of sexual relations with the then-star of NBC’s The Apprentice (PDF).
“The Trump model of ‘just deny and attempt to make these women out to be liars’ is not very effective as a legal strategy in this day and age,” said Washington attorney Joseph Cammarata, one of the lawyers who represented Paula Jones in her 1994 sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton—which ultimately resulted in the 42nd president’s impeachment.
“You’ve got defamation claims available, courts that are receptive to claims against the president of the United States for unofficial business, and a skeptical public,” Cammarata added. “The more you peel back the onion, the worse it gets. At some point there may be an opportunity to depose Mr. Trump, and he’s going to have a tough time dealing with all this stuff.”
Media lawyer Charles Glasser, meanwhile, said about the spicy melodrama involving the president and his minions: “This whole thing is a trough of slop, and every pig who thinks he’s got a meal coming is running to the trough.”
Radio shock jock Bubba Clem—the former best friend of Hulk Hogan who arranged to make the notorious hidden-camera video of the pro-wrestler having consensual sex with Clem’s then-wife—inserted himself into the ongoing soap opera last Friday by recounting a 2007 interview with Daniels in which she discussed her fling with Trump.
Press secretary Sanders inadvertently raised the stakes to the presidential level, and reportedly displeased her boss, by revealing to a surprised White House press corps in the briefing room March 7 that a previously confidential arbitration proceeding—in which Team Cohen was trying to enforce the NDA, had been “won in the president’s favor.”
Among the entertaining cast of characters who’ve dined out on the salacious Trump-Stormy saga since Jan. 12, when The Wall Street Journal revealed Cohen’s $130,000 hush-money payment to Clifford on behalf of the 45th president mere days before the 2016 election, none has supped more splendidly than Clifford’s attorney Michael Avenatti.
The 47-year-old Los Angeles lawyer—a dashing race-car enthusiast and former Democratic political operative who has practically taken up residence on cable and network television programs in recent days—has clearly mastered the finer points of orchestrating a PR campaign for a client.
It was Avenatti, not the folks at 60 Minutes, who publicized Clifford’s interview with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, a regular contributor to the top-rated CBS magazine show.
Much to the annoyance of the 60 Minutes crew—who don’t disclose stories in production until they are fully baked and scheduled for broadcast—Avenatti tweeted out a winsome photo of himself, Clifford, and Cooper, prompting a tempest of speculation about a broadcast TV bombshell set to explode in the president’s face.
Four days after Avenatti’s tweet, BuzzFeed published a story headlined, “Trump Lawyers Are Considering A Challenge To Stop ‘60 Minutes’ From Airing A Stormy Daniels Interview”—an assertion apparently based entirely on an unnamed “person informed of the preparations,” who was quoted by the website: “We understand from well-placed sources they are preparing to file for a legal injunction to prevent it from airing.”
Asked about BuzzFeed’s scoop, Avenatti emailed a response that dragged Trump into the fray while striking a tone of public spiritedness: “I certainly hope they think twice about this. It would be a sad day in our democracy were the President to authorize such a filing.”
Asked point-blank if he was BuzzFeed’s source, a supposition made by several people interviewed by The Daily Beast, Avenatti replied with an email—which he placed on background, not to be quoted directly—that expressed amusement at this theory but didn’t confirm or deny it.
A spokesman for 60 Minutes declined to comment on reports that the Stormy Daniels segment—which is still being reported out and fact-checked—will air this coming Sunday.
As of Wednesday evening, Team Trump had filed no such lawsuit against CBS, and several prominent First Amendment lawyers told The Daily Beast that it would be pointless, and counterproductive, for Trump or Michael Cohen to do so.
“Even assuming the underlying NDA is upheld, that does not mean that it has any legal impact on CBS, let alone impact that would permit a prior restraint to be issued limiting its right to broadcast as it chooses,” New York-based First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told The Daily Beast. “So I think the likely impact of litigation will be a larger audience for 60 Minutes and greater dissemination of the very information the president and his lawyers seek to suppress.”
Washington-based media lawyer Laura Handman agreed, saying that the legal precedent against prior restraint of journalists was firmly established by the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case—a 1971 ruling that has yet to be successfully challenged.
“Any [prior restraint] argument that they would make to a judge would be universally held as facially unconstitutional walking in the door,” Glasser said, adding that a lawyer filing such an action might risk court sanctions for a frivolous lawsuit.
Neither Michael Cohen nor his attorney, Lawrence S. Rosen, responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment on BuzzFeed’s report, which quickly gained sufficient traction to become fodder for a New York Times story— thinly sourced except for ubiquitous quotes from Avenatti—and late-night comedy.
“Why would Donald Trump be scared of a show whose logo is a ticking clock, slowly counting down the seconds until the time is up?” Stephen Colbert joked on Monday night’s installment of the CBS Late Show.
Cammarata, meanwhile, said attorney Avenatti so far has had the upper hand.
“I think he’s got them pinned back in a bad spot,” Cammarata said. “I think his legal strategy has been superb.”