Did We Learn Anything From Michael Avenatti?

The enemies of your enemy are not always your friends.
May 24, 2019
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(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Some would argue at this point that I flew too close to the sun,” says Michael Avenatti as new indictments rain down on him. “As I sit here today, yes, absolutely, I know I did. No question. Icarus.”

“Some would argue,” is an ironic Trumpian twist for the disgraced barrister, because no one—absolutely no one—other than Avenatti would argue that he is a figure from Greek mythology. Or that his shameless fabrications, thefts, frauds, and all-around assholery are, in any sense, Icarus-like.

But who did we think he was?

A super-sexy legal lion? A champion of the downtrodden? A folk hero, who would bring down a president?  A hero of the #Resistance? Presidential candidate? The left’s own Trump?

In what weird fever dream did this sleazy huckster become the hottest “get” on cable television? (This short video gives you a sense of what Avenatti’s Moment looked like. It’s either painful or hilarious depending on your point of view.)

According to an analysis by the Free Beacon, Avenatti appeared on CNN and MSNBC more than 100 times  from March 7 to May 10, 2018, generating more than $174 million worth of free publicity. He would go on to make a staggering 254 cable appearances.

There was even a presidential boomlet and rock-star like appearances in Iowa. Democrats loved him, ironically, because he was so much like Trump. But he was their Trump. As Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox writes:

Like the president, he understood that politics, and making money, were media games. And where Michelle Obama counseled to go high, Avenatti, by analysis and instinct, went low. He mirrored the president in his easily wounded, rageful narcissism. And, as we have learned about Trump, as much as Avenatti dreamed of great, ceaseless notoriety, living his life completely in public, he had much he needed to keep hidden, too.

There were also signs that Avenatti might be, let’s say, problematic. Vanity Fair depicts him raging at and bullying reporters and television bookers. But they kept calling him and they kept booking him.

And the damage was very real.

As late as last fall, Democrats and the media were willing to take his bait, up to and including his last-minute, disastrous attempt to derail Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. His claim that he had a client who would tie Kavanaugh to gang rapes undermined other witnesses and stoked an angry backlash.

Senator Susan Collin’s specifically cited Avenatti’s allegations in her speech supporting Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “This outlandish allegation was put forward without any supporting evidence and simply parroted in the public statement of others,” she said.

After that, Avenatti’s life and reputation collapsed as his tangled web of abuse, lies, frauds, and thefts was untangled and exposed.

The latest charges against him allege that he stole $300,000 from his porn-star client, Stormy Daniels, and “forged her signature to direct payments from her book publisher into his own bank account.”

This is on top of charges of extortion, and 36 other criminal accounts, including tax fraud, and bank fraud. A 61-page indictment by California prosecutors accuse him of stealing money from five of his clients, including a paraplegic man, deceiving them “by shuffling money between accounts to pay off small portions of what they were due to lull them into thinking they were getting paid.”

So, have we learned anything here?

In the Age of Trump, the right has more than its share of mountebanks, frauds, and grifters (and we’ve described them in these pages), but Avenatti is also a man of his times.

In the beginning, of course, he looked like the man at the center of a huge story: the lawyer for a porn star who had been paid hush money by the president of the United States. He played a key role in the fall of Trump lawyer, Michael Cohen and he was always teasing the Next Big Thing. HBO’s Bill Maher referred to him as “the tip of the spear” who might bring the president down.

The left and the media (and some NeverTrumpers … mea culpa)  embraced him, because they wanted so badly for him to be the hero they imagined he was. They believed him, because they wanted so badly to believe. Unfortunately, it’s a foible that plays right into Trump’s hands. The willingness of his critics to occasionally go off the rails and substitute fan fiction for hard facts feeds his fever dream of persecution.

Until she blew herself up with stories about the “marshal of the Supreme Court” and impeachment, Louise Mensch also was widely regarded as a credible critic of the president. As Katy Waldman wrote at Slate:

Mensch is the paranoid bard of the age of Trump. While more sober outlets reel from the president’s madness and question whether the sky is blue, she deftly weaves plentiful, narcotic tales about Russian infiltration. She has become a new stock character in this shambolic White House opera: the liberal conspiracy theorist, remaking a certain corner of progressive discourse in the image of Breitbart News and Infowars. 

As late as March 2017, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Mensch explaining, “What to Ask About Russian Hacking.”

Avenatti never approached Mensch’s levels of batshittery, but he was also a creature of the eager and willing credulity of folks who really ought to know better.

Podcast
Noah Rothman on the Rothman Doctrine

Which brings us to a more immediate test: the return of Michael Woolf.

Reportedly, Woolf plans to follow up on his lucrative but disingenuous best-seller, Fire and Fury, this summer.

Did we learn anything from the last time around?

Writing for the late Weekly Standard, Matt Labash, described Woolf’s original tome as “The Book That Ate Washington.”

Everyone who was anyone read it, or pretended to; the book was a massive, record-shattering best-seller. Woolf was everywhere, enjoying nearly Avenatti-level celebrity (even before Avenatti was a thing.)

And then people realized that it was a hot mess; sloppy, error-ridden, and dishonest.

Again, there had been warnings, but they were ignored, because what Woolf was offering was just so juicy.

In 2008, the late David Carr raised doubts about Woolf’s reliability. “Historically, one of the problems with Wolff’s omniscience is that while he may know all,” wrote Carr, “he gets some of it wrong.”

Four years earlier, in 2004, Michelle Cottle had written:

Much to the annoyance of Wolff’s critics, the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created–springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events. Even Wolff acknowledges that conventional reporting isn’t his bag. Rather, he absorbs the atmosphere and gossip swirling around him at cocktail parties, on the street, and especially during those long lunches at Michael’s.

But at least for a while, readers were willing to overlook Woolf’s shaky track record, even if much of the book was less factual than true…ish.

You might recall that things ended badly for Woolf, as doubts about the book multiplied. Most spectacularly, he was kicked off the set of Morning Joe for continuing to insinuate – without evidence – that Trump was having an affair with U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.  As the Hollywood Reporter recounts:

Mika [Brezinski]: This week, Wolff said that Haley has “embraced” the notion of the affair by denying it specifically.

“What I meant was: I found it puzzling she denied something she was not accused of,” Wolff said on the show.

“Wait a minute,” Brzezinski replied. “Can I just step in here?” She asked Wolff if he regrets inferring the Haley-Trump affair in the book.

“You might be having a fun time playing a little game, dancing around this, but you’re slurring a woman,” she said. “It’s disgraceful.”

After Wolff again insisted that he did not directly suggest the Haley affair, Brzezinski replied, “Come on. Are you kidding? You’re on the set of Morning Joe. We don’t B.S.”

Brzezinski then abruptly ended the interview and threw to commercial. “I’m sorry, this is awkward, you’re here on the set with us, but we’re done,” she said. “Michael Wolff, thank you. We’re going to go to break now. Bye, everyone.”

There’s no do-over for Avenatti, only regrets and selective amnesia. Not so with Woolf.

Did we really learn anything at all? We’re about to find out.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.