PAPER People: Michael Avenatti
PAPER People 2018

PAPER People: Michael Avenatti

Story by Abby Schreiber / Photography by Ben Hassett

PAPER has always been a place of opportunity, a place that spotlights new talent and people who are doing tremendous things. We've spent over 20 years bringing you the Beautiful People issue, which identified amazing people who were doing things differently and using their creativity, ideas and success to transform culture and create new opportunities for artists, audiences and fans. This year, we have decided to rename the portfolio and call it exactly what it is: PAPER People. — Drew Elliott, Editor-in-Chief

Michael Avenatti calls it like he sees it, and the Left loves him for it.

The Los Angeles-based lawyer, who has emerged as one of Donald Trump's most visible — and effective — opponents, first rose to national prominence for his work representing porn star Stormy Daniels in her lawsuits against Trump and his fixer, Michael Cohen, that stem from her alleged affair with the President. Avenatti's bold soundbites and keen media savvy have led some to draw comparisons between the lawyer and the man in the Oval Office, but that's where the similarities stop. As anyone who has watched Avenatti on TV — or who has followed his pro bono work reuniting migrant families who were separated at the border — can attest, while POTUS punches down when targeting the disenfranchised and powerless in his attacks, Avenatti punches up, defending those whose voices aren't being heard. When Trump and his team "go low, we hit harder," the lawyer says of his strategy. (And as we've seen so far, he's got one hell of a verbal haymaker.)

In the last month, Avenatti has been publicly weighing a presidential run of his own in 2020. He first teased out the idea on July 4th, tweeting to a follower, "IF (big) [Trump] seeks re-election, I will run, but only if I think there is no other candidate in the race that has a REAL chance at beating him. We can't relive 2016. I love this country, our values and our people too much to sit by while they are destroyed," signing off on the tweet with his now-signature #FightClub and #Basta hashtags. Since then, he has appeared to be more seriously — and strategically — considering entering the Democratic primary, traveling to primary hot spots like Iowa and New Hampshire in the past month. In Iowa, he gave a speech at the state's Democratic Wing Ding in which he shared his point of view on what progressives and politicians must do to defeat Donald Trump, extolling the necessity of "fighting fire with fire" and urging Democrats to "ask ourselves as a party whether the folks we are fighting for can afford our gentleness." Shortly thereafter, he effectively tweeted out a 2020 platform, since updated, that highlights his stances on key issues like climate change (re-join the Paris Agreement, invest in renewables, reduce oil use and cut carbon pollution), healthcare (Medicare for all with the option to buy additional insurance), reproductive rights (pro-choice policies like protecting Roe v. Wade, funding Planned Parenthood and ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment) and many more. He also said that if he chooses to run, he will not accept money from corporate PACs.

While he's been busy exploring his long-term options, in the short-term, Avenatti has also been stumping for Democratic candidates up for election during the 2018 midterms. And then, of course, he's still working hard on the ongoing matter that was responsible for thrusting him into the spotlight in the first place: Stormy Daniels' lawsuits. In her civil suit against Donald Trump and Michael Cohen seeking to get out of the non-disclosure agreement she signed on the grounds that Trump himself never signed the document and that both the NDA and the $130,000 "hush money" Cohen paid her along with it were campaign finance violations, things seem to be slowly, but surely, going their way.

A major — and helpful — development occurred three weeks ago when Cohen pleaded guilty in court to a variety of charges including the aforementioned campaign finance violation and implicated the President in the process, saying in his plea that Trump knew of the payment and that it was arranged "for the principal purpose of influencing the election." While Daniels' lawsuit may have to wait to move forward until after Cohen gets sentenced in December, in the meantime, Avenatti has been, in his own words, "chomping at the bit" to depose Donald Trump himself. While lawyers and pundits think it's unlikely that the President will voluntarily sit for an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it's a tantalizing — albeit far from certain — prospect that some day Avenatti and Trump maymeet mano-a-mano and duke it out.

In the midst of preparing for this potential battle, while continuing to fight many others on many different (legal, political, humanitarian) fronts, Avenatti spoke with us about the need for a "street fighter for the Left," 2020 and the first thing the country needs to do to restore our respect for truth and trust in facts.

Suit and Tie Tom Ford

Shirt Brioni

You've been very vocal recently about the need for Democrats and Progressives to fight harder against Donald Trump and his administration, recently echoing on Twitter a point you made in your Wing Ding speech: "It is about time that the Democratic Party be known as a party of fighters. Fighters for good. And it starts at the top. Those that need us most cannot afford gentleness." What are the ways in which you think Democrats can — and should — be doing this?

I think for decades there has been a hunger and a thirst for a street fighter for the Left. The Democrats are a party of lovers, not fighters, generally. They're a party of pacifists, which I think in many instances is a very good thing, but in this particular time period in our Republic, it's not a good thing. We are in a very tenuous time in our nation's history, and although I think the stakes were very high in 2016, I think they are exponentially higher in 2020. I don't think that we as a nation can afford a re-election of Donald Trump, and I think it is absolutely imperative that the Democratic party fight like hell for the fundamental values that this nation was founded upon, that we fight like hell for our neighbors, for our sons and our daughters, for our allies, for the principles that our country holds dear.

I think that a re-election of this president in 2020 will effectively usher in the Ice Age in America. You're talking about the Supreme Court, at a minimum, going 7-2. That's going to have decades of ramifications that a lot of people can't even fathom or comprehend or have an appreciation for. You're looking at a significant rollback of rights — rights for women, rights for minorities, rights for gays. I just think it would really turn back the hands of time for our country and put us in a very perilous, dangerous position viz. our allies and others as well.

Different people have different viewpoints, but I'm of the viewpoint that, especially right now, when they go low, we hit harder. That's my approach and will continue to be my approach for the next few years, and I think that's the approach that the Democrats need to adopt if they want to beat this guy. As it relates to specifics, I think we need to deal in facts. I think we need to call it like we see it in straight, concise terms. I think that the vast majority of politicians — though not all — lack the ability to do that and lack the ability to engage in straight talk with people. I think one of the reasons why the way that I communicate resonates with a lot of people is because I'm not a politician. I talk to [people] in a very concise, straightforward manner. I don't have to go out and take three polls to figure out what I'm going to tell somebody.

People are constantly bombarded with communication, whether it be text messages, Twitter, Instagram, all the channels on cable television — you name it. It used to be the sound bite and it's the sound bite of the sound bite now. They don't want to listen to you drawing on for five minutes about an answer or an explanation.

You've been talking about seriously considering a run for President yourself in 2020. If you're able to pinpoint on a scale of 1-10 about the likelihood of whether or not you'll actually run, what are your thoughts today?

Well, I don't want to handicap [whether or not I'll run] on a percentage basis because, frankly, it depends when you ask me during the day. It changes throughout the day even. What I will say is I'm seriously considering it. I've now been to Iowa twice, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania. I was just at the DNC summer meeting in Chicago. Everywhere I've gone, I've been very fortunate. I've received an incredibly warm welcome and people are very enthusiastic about the possibility.

Even before 2020, one of the most important elections we've had in a long time will be the Mid-Terms this November. There's been some internal debate among Democrats about whether candidates should prioritize engaging with people who voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012 but switched to Trump in 2016 with the hopes of bringing them back into the Democratic fold or whether they should focus on turnout. I believe it was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said something to the effect of, "Our swing voters are not going from red to blue but from non-voter to voter." What's your take on that?

Well, I think that turnout can increase by talking about the stakes that are at issue now... but I think that if the Democrats want to turn back the House [of Representatives] in 2018 and want to win back the White House in 2020, it's not going to be enough to increase turnout, they're going to have to get some of those voters who voted for Obama twice and then turned around and voted for Trump to flip back to vote Democratic. So whoever is nominated by the Democrats better be able to go into some of those key districts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and identify with those voters and convince them.

We read polls all of the time about how support for Trump remains so steady among his base and while we don't know the exact percentage of his base that voted for Obama and then switched to vote for him, there doesn't seem to be any meaningful change. How do candidates go about attracting these Obama-to-Trump voters back to the Democratic party?

I think it's going to be candidate-driven. I think the reason why a lot of these voters that make up his base are not abandoning him is because we don't have a reasonable alternative. When I say a reasonable alternative, I'm not talking about a platform position or a series of ideas or issues — I'm talking about an individual. I mean, we're asking them to change horses but we haven't given them a new horse to change to. Until the Democratic Party does that, I'm not surprised that the base has not eroded.

Returning for a moment to the point you brought up that people are being bombarded by different forms of communication as technology and social media continue to evolve and the need for politicians to understand how to communicate better under these circumstances, what are your thoughts on the necessity of younger, digital-savvy politicians playing a larger role? Do you think we need a generational change in political leadership? But, then again, Trump is in his 70s and has mastered the Twitter soundbite.

Look, Mr. Trump's not a young man by any stretch, but you've got to hand it to him. He's done a remarkable job using Twitter as a platform and being able to communicate his message directly to people and bypass the media filter. That's the other thing — too many people have underestimated this man. He is not to be underestimated. When it comes to policy, when it comes to dealing with North Korea, when it comes to serious problems, I think the guy's a total buffoon. He's an embarrassment to the United States. But when it comes to campaigning, his messaging and his ability to excite people, I think he's brilliant. I think the guy is the best around. He's a hell of a communicator and we need to recognize that.

But, to your point, I do think there needs to be a movement towards a younger generation, especially as it relates to leadership of the Democratic party. I think that Millennials and even younger people are very active now and very concerned about the future of this country. I think that whoever the nominee is going to be is going to need to be able to speak to that generation and be well-versed in some of the technology and communication skills that the younger generation is used to.

Also, I have to say, I find it ironic [that] we let a guy who doesn't even know how to use email run around the country for over a year and lead chants of "Lock her up!" over Hillary Clinton's alleged misuse of email. I never heard anyone point out that this guy doesn't even know how to use email and he's criticizing Hillary Rodham Clinton for her use of email. Maybe somebody made that argument — I didn't hear it.

Let's step away from elections for a moment and talk about your pro bono work reuniting migrant families who were separated at the border. What are you working on presently?

I spend about a third of my day each day, if not longer, working on this issue and I have been for weeks now. We originally represented over 60 mothers and over 70 children. About two-thirds of those families now have been reunited, but we still have 30-35% that have not been reunited, and there's no excuse for that. I still think the administration lacks the will to truly reunite these families. There is no question that what happened is an atrocity that should have never taken place anywhere in the world, let alone on American soil. In fact, when I first got involved in this effort, I was shocked that I was even having some of these conversations with these mothers about having their children stripped from them by the U.S. government and then shipped thousands of miles away and then, in many cases, lost.

And I would submit that in the event that there was a white family from the Midwest, from the state of Missouri, where I grew up, for instance, if they traveled to the Middle East somewhere and if one of the governments in the Middle East stripped their children from them as they came into the country and then lost them and refused to return them, that would be an international incident of epic proportions. And here we are in the United States adopting a policy that allows for thousands of families to effectively be destroyed. But this isn't going to end once these families are reunited. We've already seen this in connection with the families we've been working with: these children, in many cases, are going to be scarred for life by what we've done to them and done to these families. And, frankly, I think that was the plan by the administration. There's no question in my mind that they adopted this strategy as a deterrent effect so they could "send a message" back to Guatemala and El Salvador and other countries that if you come to the United States, [the U.S. is] basically going to kidnap your kids, and you may or may not get them back, and if you get them back, they're going to be scarred for life so you better not come. That was the purpose of this policy that Stephen Miller came up with — let's be clear about it. That was the design he came up with and that the President blessed and I think there should be a hell of a price to pay for that.

Logistically, how do you even begin the process of trying to reunite these families?

It's been a very messy process because of the lack of organization. It's been one family at a time, one child at a time. You have good days and you have bad days, but it's a mess. It's an absolute mess. It's easier to go find a shirt missing at the dry cleaners than it is to find these children.

And especially since these kids are so young and many of them may not speak Spanish but rather an indigenous language.

Correct. And they don't have proper interpreters. And, of course, the story broke about the molestation incident at one of the facilities in Arizona where we actually have a number of clients. We're investigating whether two of those clients were caught up in that or not.

Do you ever get any sleep?

I don't get a lot of sleep right now but that's why God created death.

You're a lawyer and law is all about precise language, fact finding, truth — things that have eroded in this country over the last couple of years. What do you think we as Americans can and should do to restore our country's respect for truth and a set of mutually agreed upon facts?

We have to displace the current President of the United States. It starts, frankly, at the top. As long as you have an individual who serves in that office, who brings as much disrespect to that office and our nation and our fundamental values, it's going to be very, very difficult to return this country to the place where it was. When you have a President of the United States who lies more than he tells the truth and who has no problem doing so, it's a significant problem. When you have a President who behaves like a petulant child on the international stage, that's a problem.

It is not a good thing when our allies question whether they can rely on the United States. It's not a good thing when we have the President of the United States sending out all caps tweets threatening [Iran]. We here in the United States may be able to brush off some of these tweets and some of this lunacy by saying, "Oh, that's just Trump being Trump." Well, let me tell you something: the leadership of Iran doesn't necessarily have the appreciation that we do for this guy. It took all of this effort over many months and years in order to get Iran to the table, in order to get that [nuclear] deal done — a lot of blood, sweat and tears — and they're not a very trusting bunch to begin with, but we finally got over the divide and got to a place where we started to have a foundation of trust, and now we've pulled the rug out from underneath it again. So it's going to be difficult to restore that trust. You cannot interject this much volatility into the international stage without repercussions, and I'm very concerned about that.

What do you think is the first step to restore trust and stability when he's eventually no longer in office?

I think we've got to elect someone who is not an incessant liar like he is and we need to elect someone who is presidential and who brings back to the office a degree of respect that our sons and our daughters can actually look up to…Whoever is elected to that office needs to immediately go and meet with our allies to let them know that what just happened was an aberration and hopefully that America has woken up and done the right thing now, and we're gonna restore our place in the world. I think there's going to have to be an effort by whoever is elected to attempt to mend fences across party lines and lower the level of vitriol most significantly. But, look, I think it's gonna get a lot worse between now and the [2020] election. I think the election of 2020 is going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight like we've never seen before…We need a fighter who then becomes a healing figure.

Is it safe to assume from your response that you're not particularly optimistic about the chance that Trump may not be on the ballot in 2020?

No. I still maintain that I do not think that he will be on the ballot in 2020. I'm going to go back to when I made this prediction in the past — I'm going to hold true to that prediction. What I will say is there are a lot of factors that go into this prediction. It's a very dynamic situation. So I'm not relinquishing my prediction or backtracking on it by any stretch, but all I'm saying is a lot of things have to fall into place for that to happen — I certainly hope they do.

Speaking of all of the things that would have to fall into place — things ranging from facts, evidence, legal outcomes and politics — based on everything you've personally seen throughout the course of your work representing Stormy Daniels (which, of course, is only one of many different investigations currently underway), do you think there is sufficient evidence that could spur some sort of response or action even from Republican politicians were they to come to light?


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photography by Ben Hassett
Styling by Mia Solkin
Digital Tech: Carlo Barreto
1st Photo Assistant: Roeg Cohen