Michael Avenatti, the pitbull lawyer representing the porn star alleged to have had an affair with President Donald Trump, is currently the hardest working man in show business—but it’s still unclear who exactly is paying for his frenetic services.
In particular, reporters were inquiring as to whether political opponents of the president—and not merely said porn star, Stormy Daniels, and sympathetic donors—were footing the bill.
Avenatti emphatically denied that any “political party or PAC” was “funding this effort.” And, as mostly happens these days, the news cycle moved on.
But the fact that he was only then being asked those questions exposed something totally out of place about the Trump-world scandal du jour.
For weeks, Avenatti has been a thorn in the president’s side. In seemingly endless and continuous string of cable news hits, he has called into question the veracity of Trump’s insistence that there was no affair with Daniels. He has pursued legal challenges to a nondisclosure agreement between Daniels and the president’s top fixer, Michael Cohen. He has vexed the president’s own legal team, getting them to haphazardly admit that Trump knew about hush money payments. And he has exposed a secretive network of finances that allowed Cohen to both pay off Daniels (and, potentially, other women) as well as recruit business for a shadow-lobbying operation during the Trump administration.
Avenatti has done it all with little, if any, coordinated pushback from the president or his allies.
Inside the White House, aides say that anything related to the Stormy Daniels-Michael Cohen saga is purview of outside counsel. At the Republican National Committee, sources say, there is no rapid-response-like operation designed to counter-balance Avenatti’s numerous media appearances. Conservative outlets allied with the president have covered the drama but they have largely avoided doing the type of oppositional digging that they have undertaken on other real and perceived Trump foes. And Republican strategists seem unclear as to whether anyone is gearing up an operation any time soon.
“No one seems to understand why the RNC, America Rising and other GOP groups aren’t doing even basic political blocking and tackling with Avenatti,” said on GOP operative. “He’s essentially gotten a free pass from them.”
It is, in many respects, the most unexpected of plot lines: a president who regales in throwing counterpunches simply choosing to not throw one at all. In the past, Trump has taken delight in going after his legal foes, including judges and even women who have come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment or assault. And when it’s not him, his aides and allied institutions have picked up the slack. For former FBI Director James Comey, the RNC took the lead in rapid response during the Higher Loyalty media blitz.
But with respect to Avenatti, Trump—famous for his hate-tweeting and his penchant for punching down—has remained conspicuously silent—even on his Twitter feed.
It’s not because he doesn’t have any thoughts on the matter. According to two sources close to the president, Trump has privately branded Avenatti a wannabe bigshot and a “loser.” A White House official noted that Trump has explained his decision to not go after Avenatti publicly because he deems him a “total loser” not worthy of Trump’s acknowledgement, whether on Twitter, in public statements, or in response to shouted questions from the White House press corps.
It is, in other words, strategic non-engagement. And though it’s not like Trump to bite his tongue, other strategists on the Republican side say it is the smart move to make; if only because any alternative would only elevate Avenatti further.
“It’s a sideshow,” said Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former press secretary, who has questioned Avenatti’s motives but, he noted, only when asked on TV. “And the fact that [the Cohen-Stormy case] is being investigated in the Southern District of New York and not by [special counsel Robert] Mueller underscores that it is a sideshow.”
“I can see why the Trump White House wants to concentrate its fire where the fire matters most,” Fleischer added. “And that’s with Mueller.”
For Avenatti, however, the absence of pushback from Trumpland is not indicative of a well-thought out game plan but, rather, of the absence of a gameplan at all.
“Strategy? They have a strategy? I thought their approach was centered on tic tac toe,” he said to The Daily Beast.
The pugnacious, telegenic lawyer insisted that Trump and his senior staffers are spooked by him. He claims to have heard “from multiple people” that “the White House is prohibiting people close to the president from going on camera with me on any show,” and that he has even been told by TV bookers West Wing officials have “pulled the plug” on media appearances when they’ve caught wind that Avenatti would be on the same segment.
Avenatti noted that his tweets trying to bait Fox News host Sean Hannity—one of President Trump’s closest outside advisers and loyalists—into granting him an on-air interview have not yet been successful.
“Never happened. We don’t get into that,” White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said, however, when asked about Avenatti’s claims. “We don’t get into his media.”
Whether the White House can sustain that distance from “his media” is both a matter of impulse control for the president and political pressure for the administration.
Just this week, Avenatti dropped a bombshell (major parts of which were corroborated by news outlets, including The Daily Beast) on how Cohen had moved to massively profit off of his relationship with the president. This included revelations that Cohen received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a company connected to Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch reportedly questioned by federal agents working with special counsel Robert Mueller.
The revelations subverted a news cycle that was poised to be dominated by generally positive news for the president, including the release of prisoners held in North Korea. Rudy Giuliani, another Trump attorney, went as far as to accuse Avenatti of timing his release to coincide with the Trump administration pulling out of the Iran deal, saying, “Avenatti saw this coming and wants to stink it up as much as possible.”
By Friday morning, another negative Avenatti story had surfaced, this time on Fox News, with a focus on his past business dealings.
“No question that they are trying to do a hatchet job on me because they can’t deal with the facts and evidence in the case,” Avenatti alleged.