Some Democrats are blaming Michael Avenatti for muddying the waters on sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh

Key Points
  • Michael Avenatti, one of President Donald Trump's most ardent critics, revealed explosive allegations of past sexual misconduct against Justice Brett Kavanaugh at the tail end of his Supreme Court confirmation process.
  • The extreme nature of the allegations appeared to help Republicans question whether the judge was being unfairly attacked.
  • Now Avenatti is defending himself against charges from Democrats that his involvement actually helped carry Kavanaugh across the finish line.
Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels.
Jennifer S. Altman | For The Washington Post | Getty Images

After a draining political defeat in the battle over Justice Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation, some Democrats lay much of the blame at one man's feet.

Their culprit: Attorney Michael Avenatti, an ardent critic of President Donald Trump's who revealed explosive accusations of alleged past sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh at the tail end of his confirmation process.

Kavanaugh called the claims "ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone," and most Republicans followed suit. But the extreme nature of the allegations, which did not directly accuse Kavanaugh of rape but included references to girls being "gang raped" and "drugged using Quaaludes," appeared to keep Democrats from embracing Julie Swetnick, the third woman to come forward against Kavanaugh. The accusations also emboldened Republicans to ask whether the judge was being unfairly attacked.

Trump: Sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh were a 'hoax'
Trump: Sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh were a 'hoax'

Even Democrats were skeptical of Avenatti's involvement. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., told CNN "I think we should have focused on the serious allegations that certainly appeared very credible to me. That would be our best course of action."

Avenatti, who is weighing a presidential run against Trump in 2020, defended himself against charges that he and his client helped carry Kavanaugh across the finish line.

"Nothing we did changed one vote one way or another. Any claim to the contrary is utter nonsense and it's undercut by the timeline and the facts," Avenatti told CNBC in a phone call. He added that the narrative "is being pushed for political purposes," in part by "Republicans that think I have a good shot at unseating Donald Trump."

Swetnick's allegations

Kavanaugh's seemingly obstacle-free path to a seat on the high court suffered a major setback in mid-September, when California psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford went public with her allegation that an intoxicated Kavanaugh tried to rape her in the early 1980s when they both were teenagers.

Shortly after, The New Yorker published an allegation from Kavanaugh's former Yale University classmate Deborah Ramirez, who said he had exposed himself to her while drunk at a college party in the '80s.

Kavanaugh categorically denied both allegations, and agreed to testify along with Ford in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 25. He angrily defended himself, telling the committee, "I've never sexually assaulted anyone."

Just a day before the hearing, however, Avenatti dropped a bombshell in the form of a sworn declaration from Swetnick, who made jaw-dropping claims against Kavanaugh and others in his group of friends from the early 1980s.

Swetnick said she "became aware of efforts" by Kavanaugh and other boys to "'spike' the 'punch' at house parties" to get girls to "lose their inhibitions and their ability to say 'no.'" Swetnick's statement also claimed she had been "the victim of one of these 'gang' or 'train' rapes."

Republicans immediately pounced on her allegations. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Kavanaugh's most passionate defender throughout the confirmation process, slammed Avenatti in a statement while expressing extreme skepticism toward Swetnick.

"The lawyer to porn stars has just taken this debacle to an even lower level," Graham said in the statement, which used Avenatti's name six times.

"I'm not going to have my intelligence insulted by the Michael Avenattis of the world. I will not be a participant in wholesale character assassination that defies credibility," Graham said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, also questioned Avenatti's motives and his past. "It seems to me he wants to protect people that are involved in pornography and that he's running for president," Grassley said.

Grassley and Graham had both signaled support for Kavanaugh early in the process. But Avenatti was also rebuked by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican and crucial swing vote, in her lengthy speech Friday announcing that she would vote to confirm the embattled judge:

"Some of the allegations levied against Judge Kavanaugh illustrate why the presumption of innocence is so important. I am thinking in particular not of the allegations raised by Professor Ford, but of the allegation that, when he was a teenager, Judge Kavanaugh drugged multiple girls and used their weakened state to facilitate gang rape.

"This outlandish allegation was put forth without any credible supporting evidence and simply parroted public statements of others. That such an allegation can find its way into the Supreme Court confirmation process is a stark reminder about why the presumption of innocence is so ingrained in our American consciousness."

A few days earlier, Collins, in a statement to the Portland Press-Herald, called for the FBI to look into the claims brought against Kavanaugh, including "the allegations that were brought by Julie Swetnick." But Trump's "limited in scope" order did not permit the FBI to interview Swetnick or a number of other witnesses.

Collins' office did not immediately respond to CNBC's inquiries.

Collins' announcement was followed minutes later by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of deep-red West Virginia who said he, too, would vote to confirm Kavanaugh. The late-breaking tallies in the "yes" column effectively ensured that Kavanaugh had clinched the seat.

Avenatti slammed Collins in a statement to CNBC at the time. "I have no idea what she is talking about and evidently neither does she," he said. "How the hell did Susan Collins make a credibility determination related to my client's allegations when she never did any investigation whatsoever?"

A slew of Democratic senators and aides told CNN's Manu Raju that Swetnick's allegations provided cover for them to vote for Kavanaugh without having to specifically question Blasey Ford, who was widely viewed as being a credible figure.

"Not helpful at all," one Democratic senator who requested anonymity told CNN. "I think Susan was always yes, but Avenatti was a useful foil."

Some media figures also pointed to Avenatti as a liability in the confirmation battle.

NATE SILVER TWEET: I think Avenatti verrrrrrrrry much wants Democrats to win the House, because if they don't it will (perhaps incorrectly) be blamed on the Kavanaugh confirmation process and he will (correctly, IMO) get a lot of blame for how those played out.

RACHAEL BADE TWEET: THIS is why Democrats did NOT want Michael Avenatti to get involved in this fight. Collins is specifically citing Swetnick's "gang rape" accusation as something that made her think she needed to give Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt.

Avenatti's use of social media and his willingness to call out his political enemies has drawn parallels to Trump, who is praised on the right and damned on the left for always "fighting back" against his critics.

Like Trump, Avenatti "is quite good at securing coverage and leveraging the media for coverage and it shows in both social virality and news stories/interviews," said Barbara Kittridge, founder of progressive strategy group Motive.

Kittridge told CNBC in an email that Avenatti did shift the conversation, thought it was unclear if he affected the outcome.

"In the sense that Avenatti has the ability to take a great deal of the oxygen out of a room, yes we saw a quick and marked shift of the spotlight," Kittridge said, "from the credible testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford, to Avenatti and his client's claims against Kavanaugh."

Avenatti's rise

Avenatti's star shot up this year through his representation of Stormy Daniels, the porn star whose story of an affair with Trump in 2006 and his subsequent efforts to silence her were first published by The Wall Street Journal in January. Trump has denied he had sex with Daniels.

Daniels sued Trump and his ex-lawyer Michael Cohen to void a $130,000 hush deal she signed shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Trump later admitted that he reimbursed Cohen for the hush-money payment.

Avenatti maintains that his brass-knuckles style is the only way the minority party can fight back against the rise of Trumpian populism. He defended his entry into the Kavanaugh battle on Twitter.

AVENATTI TWEET: What just transpired is the clearest example yet of why the old approach of the Dem party is not working. If we continue on this path, the values, principles and rights that matter most will be lost forever. We must fight fire with fire. And when they go low, we must hit harder!

In recent months, Avenatti has said he is "exploring" a presidential run in 2020. He made that announcement while walking the Iowa State Fair, which is known as a political kick-off point for many presidential campaigns. Avenatti has since attended numerous Democratic fundraisers and events.

Since Collins announced her vote, Avenatti has launched a fusillade against her and many other public figures who questioned Swetnick's credibility.

AVENATTI TWEET: Not a single one. This argument is complete nonsense.

AVENATTI TWEET: You are an habitual liar and a disgrace to this nation. You again claimed tonight that I have made false accusations against you. Name them! Those felonies that Cohen pled guilty to? The allegations about you having sex with my client with a 4 mo old at home?