The woman approached Michael Avenatti with obvious purpose. A 79-year-old retired physicist with long blond hair, she wore a blue T-shirt that said AVENATTI IS MY SPIRIT ANIMAL. It was mid-August, and Avenatti had just finished giving a rousing speech at a county Democratic picnic in New Hampshire. As he threw his arm around her and grinned for the umpteenth selfie of the day, she slipped a folded piece of paper into his hand.
Later, as he checked into his luxury hotel near Manchester, Avenatti took the paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. It was a check for $1,000, made out to “Avenatti for President.” In the memo line, the woman had written, in precise lowercase print: “Our hopes are in your hands.”
This is the effect Michael Avenatti has on many of the Democratic faithful: he thrills them to the core. His presence at the picnic had instantly tripled ticket sales. Pink-hatted students mingled with retirees in single payer now tees as the state party chairman, one of the country’s leading Democratic power brokers, introduced him as “Donald Trump’s worst nightmare, Michael Avenatti!” to rapturous cheers. And the idea that the 47-year-old lawyer could be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020 began to appear not entirely unrealistic.
If it suddenly seems like Avenatti is everywhere, that’s because he is. Just a few months ago he was a successful but virtually unknown Los Angeles plaintiff’s lawyer with fewer than 600 Twitter followers–mostly “friends, relatives and opposing counsel,” he says. That was before he met Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actor whom Trump paid $130,000 days before the 2016 election to keep quiet about a one-night stand she alleges she had with him in 2006. With Avenatti’s help, Daniels’ lawsuit metastasized into a criminal probe of Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen that has produced the first sworn allegations in open court of criminal behavior by the President. Avenatti has exposed Cohen’s multimillion-dollar influence racket, taken up the cases of dozens of immigrant parents separated from their children at the Mexican border, and jumped into the controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, producing lurid, uncorroborated allegations from a client, Julie Swetnick, who says Kavanaugh was present at parties in the early 1980s at which teenage girls were gang-raped.
Avenatti’s knack for inserting himself into the liberal crusade of the moment has made him ubiquitous on cable TV. This fall he has become equally visible on the campaign trail, headlining rubber-chicken dinners in 15 states to raise money for Democrats as he explores a run for President. All this has clearly been good for Avenatti, whose Twitter followers now number nearly 900,000 and whose main occupational hazard, he tells TIME, is telling apart the naked pictures sent by political opponents trying to entrap him from those sent by sincere admirers.
But is it good for the Democrats? Does a party that spends its every waking moment deriding Trump as a divisive egomaniac really want to rally behind another pugilistic neophyte? And who is Michael Avenatti, anyway? Even as he fought for Stormy, Swetnick and separated mothers, he has been embroiled in personal and professional disputes, a TIME investigation shows, including IRS probes, long-running lawsuits against him and his firm, and a contentious, expensive divorce. Republicans could tell Democrats a thing or two about what it’s like to let a cocksure but seemingly harmless entertainer throw red meat, collecting lots of checks for the party along the way, only to realize too late that you’ve created a monster you can’t control.
For now, the Democratic establishment sees Avenatti as a sideshow. “There is some market for someone who will punch Trump in the nose,” says President Obama’s former strategist David Axelrod, but he’s “a long way from being a truly viable candidate for President.” Jon Lovett, the former Obama speechwriter, is less charitable, calling Avenatti’s political aspirations “silly” and “narcissistic.” But the party’s rank and file will have the final say: Democrats recently put much of the power to pick their presidential nominee in the hands of the grassroots by weakening the superdelegate system. And the base is out for blood: more than 6 million people have signed a petition calling for Trump’s impeachment.
Avenatti says his political foray is driven by duty, not ambition. “For the longest time, people tried to make me the face of the Resistance, and I fought it for many months,” he says, leaning back in an easy chair in his well-appointed New Hampshire hotel suite. “I was hired to do a job, hired to represent a client.” But over time he came to a realization. “I began to wonder,” he says, “if maybe this was bigger than me.”
Avenatti drinks approximately 15 shots of espresso each day–and makes sure everyone around him knows it. His chiseled jaw seems perpetually jutted forward, his wiry frame coiled. Veins bulge on the temples of his egg-shaped head. Avenatti and Trump have taken opposite approaches to hair loss, and perhaps it says everything or nothing about the contrast between the two men that one constructed the world’s most aggressive comb-over while the other eliminated the issue entirely.
Avenatti admits that he wouldn’t necessarily be a great President. At least one of his possible Democratic primary opponents would make a better one, he says. “But if they can’t beat Donald Trump, it doesn’t matter.” This is Avenatti’s whole argument: the Democrats have “a lot of talent, but not a lot of fighters.” If they opt for the type of pedigreed candidate both parties offered in 2016, they will get flattened by Hurricane Trump. For the demoralized left, Avenatti believes, it’s not policy or personality that’s most enticing. It’s winning.
Rick Wilson, the Trump-loathing GOP consultant and author of Everything Trump Touches Dies, agrees that it will take a media-savvy fighter, not a traditional pol, to beat the President. “You’ve got to be brave to go up against Trump,” Wilson says. “Avenatti’s got balls. Giant, clanking, titanium balls.” (Wilson recently met with Avenatti; when asked if they discussed working on a potential campaign, he declined to comment.)
At this point, Avenatti’s political views appear a mile wide but an inch deep. On issues like taxes, his prospective platform is TBD. What he does have is raw appeal. In early August, he made one of his first political stops, at the storied Wing Ding put on by Iowa Democrats. The assembled press smirked as he took the stage, Avenatti recalls. But after his fiery oration brought the house down, the reporters “were just ashen,” he says. “I took tremendous pride in that moment.”
Avenatti says he’s far from making any kind of decision about his political future. “I keep waiting to go to one of these events and to come away with a negative thought as to whether I should do this,” he says, but every time “it puts me a little closer to actually doing it.”
None of this would be happening if Avenatti hadn’t met Daniels. Avenatti has never revealed how their connection came about. In multiple interviews, it was virtually the only topic he refused to discuss. According to Daniels’ new book, Full Disclosure, she called several other lawyers first, but they didn’t seem to take her seriously. When she finally got one who seemed willing to take the case, the lawyer, whom she doesn’t name, canceled at the last minute and sent “an associate” in his place, leading Daniels to feel that she was being “dumped onto some … junior attorney.” That was Avenatti.
They met for the first time in the lounge at the Waldorf Astoria in L.A., where Avenatti lives. To turn around Daniels’ case, Avenatti proposed an aggressive media push. He arranged a blockbuster 60 Minutes interview and set about tormenting Trump and Cohen on cable and Twitter. The strategy was a success: Daniels is not only a household name but also a hero to millions of women, who now routinely outnumber men at her strip shows.
If the strategy had the added benefit of making Avenatti famous, he says that was only to help his client. “The people that are critical of our media strategy generally fall into one of two camps,” he says. “Either they’re jealous or they’re extremely concerned.”
Avenatti teamed up with Daniels at a particularly challenging moment in his peripatetic life. Born in Sacramento, he had a comfortable but transient upbringing. The family moved often for his father’s job as an Anheuser-Busch manager, landing in the suburbs of St. Louis by the time he was a teenager. His most formative experience, he says, was seeing his father get laid off in 1989 after 30 years of loyal service. “That was his identity,” Avenatti says. At 83, his father still works full time.
Like Trump, Avenatti was a transfer student who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. He spent time during college working as a dirt-digging operative, flying around the country researching candidates for the consulting firm run by Rahm Emanuel, the bare-knuckled former White House chief of staff. Avenatti says he worked on more than 150 campaigns, both Democratic and Republican, including the unsuccessful effort to defeat then Republican Senator Arlen Specter in 1992 in part by dredging up details of unsavory clients Specter had represented as a criminal-defense lawyer.
Avenatti applied to law school at George Washington University in D.C. but was waitlisted and entered the night-school program in 1996 instead. His first-year torts professor, the legal scholar Jonathan Turley, saw a rare gift in him. “We can teach many things in law school,” Turley says. “What we cannot teach is instinct.”
After graduating, Avenatti moved to the West Coast. In 2007 he co-founded what’s known as a “plaintiff contingency firm,” taking lawsuits on spec and getting paid only if the litigation succeeded–a risky proposition for complicated cases that can take years to settle. But the firm notched big wins: a $39 million settlement on behalf of two executives who’d sued their former employer; an $80.5 million class-action settlement on behalf of Jews whose remains had been dumped in a mass grave by the L.A. cemetery where they were buried. Over the course of his career, Avenatti says, he’s reaped over $1 billion in verdicts and settlements.
The $1 billion figure, however, is heavily padded by settlements that were substantially reduced on appeal. In 2009 Avenatti won a nearly $40 million verdict in a fraud case against the accounting firm KPMG; three years later the New Jersey supreme court threw out the verdict. In 2016 Avenatti was featured in a 60 Minutes investigation of defective Kimberly-Clark surgical gowns, which he alleged were endangering the medical workers who wore them. But the $450 million in punitive damages he won in the case was later reduced to just over $20 million.
Avenatti has been plagued by disputes with current and former partners. In July 2011 one partner, John O’Malley, sued Avenatti and another partner, Michael Eagan, claiming the two had failed to pay him his portion of partnership fees after forcing him out of the firm. Avenatti and Eagan countered that O’Malley had mismanaged and lied to clients. O’Malley got $2.7 million in a settlement, according to the Los Angeles Times. Neither O’Malley nor Eagan responded to requests for comment. Avenatti declined to comment on the settlement details.
Five years later, Jason Frank, a former nonequity partner at Avenatti’s firm, sued for nearly $15 million in back pay, according to court documents obtained by TIME. Frank also claimed that Avenatti, as managing partner, had failed to provide him with copies of the firm’s tax returns and that it misstated its profits. In February 2017, a month before the arbitration trial was to start, a judicial panel found that the firm had maliciously and fraudulently concealed its revenue numbers.
In December 2017, Avenatti’s firm reached a $10 million settlement with Frank, who agreed to receive less than half that if the first two installments were made on time. They weren’t. On Oct. 22 a California judge ordered Avenatti, who had personally guaranteed the first two payments, to pay Frank $4.85 million. The same day, his firm was evicted from its office in a Newport Beach building for allegedly failing to pay rent for the past four months, according to court documents. Eagan Avenatti still owes Frank $10 million, according to Frank’s attorney, Eric George. Avenatti claims Frank was a disgruntled former employee who had conspired to steal the firm’s clients.
Filings in a related bankruptcy case show that Avenatti’s firm had tax troubles. Court documents dated January 2018 reveal that Avenatti had paid $1.5 million of an outstanding $2.4 million tax liability but that the firm still owed the IRS approximately $880,000. Federal attorneys claimed in May that Avenatti had missed the first installment of that payment. Avenatti says his firm has “fully satisfied” all of its tax liabilities. The U.S. attorney’s office in L.A. declined to comment.
It wasn’t just fellow lawyers with whom Avenatti had troubles. In 2013 Avenatti teamed up with the actor Patrick Dempsey to buy the Seattle-based coffee chain Tully’s. But just two months after they finalized the deal, Dempsey sued to get out of the partnership, claiming in court that Avenatti had borrowed $2 million to help buy the company without telling him. Avenatti had purchased the Tully’s chain through a company he established in December 2012 called Global Baristas. In 2017 the IRS claimed Global Baristas owed $5 million in federal taxes. In March 2018 Tully’s closed all its stores.
One attorney who previously sued Tully’s in a real estate dispute, David Nold, filed a complaint with the California state bar in March 2018 alleging that Avenatti had purchased Tully’s as part of a scheme to avoid millions in tax payments. Nold alleged that Avenatti used payments from Global Baristas to pay for the lawyers representing Eagan Avenatti in its bankruptcy proceedings. The California state bar referred the complaint for investigation in April, according to documents reviewed by TIME. Nold and the California bar declined to comment.
Although Washington State documents list Avenatti as the sole governor of Global Baristas LLC, Avenatti says he sold the company for $27 million “a long time ago” (he doesn’t remember when) and had nothing to do with the company’s recent issues. He denies he hid any loans from Dempsey. As for the Nold complaint, Avenatti says that it was unfounded and that Nold had an ax to grind because of the Tully’s suit. (In the Tully’s suit, Avenatti notes, Nold was fined $20,000 for contempt of court for spreading misinformation about him during the proceedings.) He says he has filed a complaint against Nold in Washington State. “He’ll be lucky if he has a license to practice law in three months,” Avenatti says.
Avenatti’s practice fed an extravagant lifestyle, including a $19 million Newport Beach mansion, two private jets and collections of high-end watches and art. He competed in more than 30 professional sports-car races and counted two Ferraris as part of his fleet. “We formerly owned several other race cars. I do not know if we own any race cars at the present time,” his second wife, Lisa Storie-Avenatti, wrote in a divorce filing after he left her and their then 3-year-old son in October 2017. (Avenatti also has two teenage daughters from his first marriage.) He moved into a $14,000-per-month apartment after the split and didn’t leave her enough cash to pay the electric bill, she said in the filing, which estimates the family’s monthly costs–including a staff of nannies and housekeepers, as well as an assistant and a driver–at more than $200,000.
Avenatti, his second wife wrote, “is hot-tempered and used to having his way–when he doesn’t, he gets extremely loud and verbally aggressive.” In one December 2017 incident, he showed up and demanded to be let into the Newport Beach house, leading the police to be called, according to her legal filing. As part of their custody agreement, Storie-Avenatti asked that her husband be accompanied by a nanny whenever he had visitation time with their son. One of the last times he’d been alone with the child, she claimed, he sent the boy home alone with his driver, with no car seat.
“I have no desire to publicly attack the mother of my son,” Avenatti says in response. “But suffice it to say that I disagree with her characterizations.” Storie-Avenatti told TIME that the divorce is “not near finalized,” and declined further comment.
Home may be L.A., but Avenatti lives most of his nomadic existence on the road, preferably in five-star hotels. In June he met with TIME at the Park Hyatt on 57th Street in Manhattan. He had come to town to accompany Daniels to an interview with the local U.S. attorney’s office, but the feds canceled at the last minute, leaving him fuming. His suite was strewn with legal papers as well as a pair of strappy black high heels. Asked who they belonged to, he joked, “Ivanka–wouldn’t that be a story?”
Later, over lunch at the Manhattan restaurant Michael’s, Avenatti was asked if he considered himself a bully. He didn’t try to whitewash it. “Look, I can be aggressive at times,” he says. “I didn’t get to where I am by being a pushover, O.K.?” But like Trump, he prides himself on finishing fights other people start. “I don’t generally go after people offensively,” Avenatti says, “but if somebody comes after me, I will absolutely meet them every step of the way and then some, no question.”
When Avenatti started thinking about running for President, his first call was to David Betras, a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, and chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party. In May 2016, Betras had noticed blue collar whites in the region gravitating to Trump, and he drafted a memo to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, warning that she was in danger of losing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. After Trump won, Betras had a brief star turn as the man who’d predicted it all.
In July, Avenatti flew to eastern Ohio for dinner with Betras, then returned for his first political appearance, an annual dinner for local Democrats. “When I look at the national Democratic Party, I see weakness. I see fear,” Betras says. “Michael has picked up the corpse of the Democratic Party and breathed some life into it.”
A run for President would thrust Avenatti into the middle of the party’s identity crisis. The Democrats have not been this powerless since the 1920s, and their members have responded by nominating a historic number of women and people of color for office. But when it comes to the party’s presidential nominee in 2020, Avenatti thinks in different terms. “I think it better be a white male,” he says. He hastens to add that he wishes it weren’t so, but it’s undeniable that people listen to white men more than they do others; it’s why he’s been successful representing Daniels and immigrant mothers, he says. “When you have a white male making the arguments, they carry more weight,” he says. “Should they carry more weight? Absolutely not. But do they? Yes.”
Beneath the pugnacious persona, Avenatti’s own political instincts are rather conventional. He’s for Medicare for all but against abolishing ICE, and fears Democrats are overreaching on immigration. In his speeches, he advocates secure borders and calls on Democrats to woo back Midwestern white men. His platform’s major plank, he says, would be a massive government-funded infrastructure push. “You can’t go into Youngstown, Ohio, and tell everybody they’re going to be retrained and go work for Google or Apple,” he says. But he was vague on the details, like whether he would raise taxes to pay for it. “I’m not afraid to say I don’t know yet,” he demurs.
If the Avenatti boomlet is real, so too is the fact that many Democrats have little appetite for his antics. Some accuse him of sealing Kavanaugh’s confirmation: Swetnick’s claims were repeatedly cited by Senate Republicans, including the key swing vote, Susan Collins of Maine, as self-evidently absurd, and Avenatti’s role as discrediting. But these are dangerous times to ignore the power of desperate partisans. As Republicans have discovered, outsiders sometimes see things the Establishment can’t: its blind spots, its assumptions, its blithe confidence in a hollow status quo. Even Avenatti’s critics have to concede he’s won many of the battles he’s taken up so far. He fights, and he wins: to many of the beleaguered party faithful, that may be enough.
This appears in the November 05, 2018 issue of TIME.