Michael Avenatti's presidential ambitions just suffered a major setback

Key Points
  • The semi-nascent presidential campaign of celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti suffered a huge blow.
  • A trifecta of damaging news stories cast doubt on how far Avenatti can actually go in politics. They also highlighted three unforced errors that Avenatti is making on the campaign trail.
  • Avenatti, however, was unfazed. "These headlines come and go, but the enthusiasm has never been better."
Michael Avenatti
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

The semi-nascent presidential campaign of celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti suffered a huge blow this week, with a trio of terrible headlines that seemed to highlight how ill-prepared Avenatti is mount a national political campaign.

In the past year, Avenatti, 47, has emerged as one of President Donald Trump's most vocal and visible critics by virtue of representing adult film star Stormy Daniels in her ongoing lawsuit against Trump over a 2016 hush money payment. Avenatti has deftly parlayed the publicity surrounding the Daniels case into a dizzying amount of publicity for himself.

Now, Avenatti says he's actively considering a run for president against Trump in 2020, although he has no political experience and has never held public office. In August, he created The Fight PAC, a political action committee that Avenatti said would raise money to help his fellow Democrats.

But just as Avenatti's political star appeared to be rising, the trifecta of damaging news stories this week cast doubt on how far Avenatti can actually go in politics. They also highlighted three unforced errors that Avenatti is making on the campaign trail, each of which could imperil his presidential ambitions.

On Monday, a California judge ruled that Avenatti must pay a former law partner $4.5 million in back pay. The case was one of several business disputes that have dogged Avenatti in recent years, though he has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Four days later, Time magazine published a profile of Avanatti that contained this eye-popping quote: Asked who the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee should be, Avenatti replied, "I think it [had] better be a white male. When you have a white male making the arguments, they carry more weight. Should they carry more weight? Absolutely not. But do they? Yes."

Prominent voices on the political left wasted no time in assailing Avenatti over the remarks. "Someone tell Michael Avenatti that the people who received the most votes in U.S. history were not white males," wrote CNN commentator Keith Boykin on Twitter. Civil rights activist Shaun King wrote, "This man is a clown... and now we are learning he's also a sexist bigot." Avenatti says the quote was taken out of context.

Also on Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, formally referred Avenatti and one of his clients, Julie Swetnick, to the FBI for criminal prosecution. In a detailed letter to the FBI, Grassley alleged that Avenatti and Swetnick made "materially false statements" to the committee about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh's Senate confirmation hearings.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, presides over a hearing as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Andrew Harnik | Pool | Getty Images

Avenatti represented Swetnick when she initially claimed that she saw Kavanaugh at several parties in the early 1980s at which young women were allegedly gang raped. Over time, however, Swetnick's story changed and key details of her timeline did not add up.

Not surprisingly, Avenatti rejected the idea that his potential presidential campaign had suffered a major setback this week.

"These headlines come and go," he said in an interview Thursday with CNBC. "But the enthusiasm has never been better, and I've never felt better about running than I do right now."

The bigger picture

Avenatti's optimism notwithstanding, political reality suggests that as a candidate, Avenatti has made three big mistakes so far, which contributed to the terrible headlines that hurt his potential candidacy this week.

His first error is his apparent failure to clean up his legal troubles before jumping into the national political fray, and it was encapsulated by the $4.5 million ruling against him in court on Monday.

One of the first things most would-be candidates are advised to do is to shore up their perceived political weaknesses, which is known in politics as "canceling your negatives."

To be sure, Avenatti has a lot of positives going for him. He's telegenic, self-assured, and he's so far exhibited strong political instincts. But most importantly for his prospects, he has also played an outsized role in legal proceedings that have deeply wounded Trump and his inner circle.

Adult film actress Stormy Daniels (Stephanie Clifford) and Michael Avenatti, attorney for Stormy Daniels, speak to the media after a hearing related to Michael Cohen.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

The hush money that Trump paid to Daniels later became a crucial piece of evidence in a federal criminal case against Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty in August to eight felonies, and implicated Trump directly in several of his crimes.

Part of Avenatti's legal strategy in the Daniels case, he says, was to gin up as much publicity as possible for Daniels and for himself. Cable news networks have rewarded his strategy, and Avenatti has logged scores of appearances on TV in the past year, where he has rarely missed a chance to excoriate the president.

In the process, Avenatti has made himself a household name, at least among political junkies. But with increased visibility, comes increased scrutiny. And upon closer inspection, Avenatti bears several similarities to the very man he seems intent on destroying.

More Trump than Trump

Avenatti's second serious mistake was reflected this week in his startling claim that arguments made by a "white male" carry more weight with people than arguments made by women and people of color.

First off, this is patently false, and Avenatti manages to offend two huge blocs of Democratic voters: Women and minorities.

But it also showcases something bigger: Avenatti's questionable decision to adopt a brand of "no-apologies" machismo that is very similar to Trump's style as a candidate.

Avenatti has made no secret of the fact that he believes only someone as angry and pugilistic as he is can defeat Donald Trump in 2020. The way he sees it, Democrats have to meet Trump for a brawl in the political gutter if they want to win the White House.

Michael Avenatti
Andrew Cullen | Reuters

But this ignores the fact that the last Democrat to win the White House, former President Barack Obama, appealed to exactly the opposite instincts among voters than Trump has, or than Avenatti seems to be.

Avenatti's apparent belief that he's the only person Trump-like enough to beat Trump presumes that America wants more of Trump's personal qualities in our national politics. Nearly all the polling currently in existence, however, indicates that this is not what voters want.

This is not to say that Avenatti isn't popular with Democrats. This summer and fall, he was a hit on the Democratic events circuit, where he helped raise money for various local party groups.

"Everywhere I go, people are so enthusiastic," Avenatti told CNBC.

"I was in South Carolina recently, and I was in Massachusetts and New Hampshire a few days ago, and the crowds were just incredible," he said. "The only people who seem to doubt this are people inside the Beltway."

Friends in no places

Which brings us to the third serious mistake Avenatti has made: His failure to build a base of support within the Democratic Party, and his refusal, so far, to be a team player.

Ever since he catapulted into the national spotlight in the spring of this year, Avenatti has gobbled up the airwaves and headlines, while largely ignoring his fellow high-profile Democrats.

This was evident most recently when Avenatti waded into the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings with Swetnick, whose allegations against the judge were far more serious than those of two other women who accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. But news organizations were unable to find any links between Swetnick and Kavanaugh, or anyone who could corroborate Swetnick's account of the parties.

Republicans seized on Swetnick's explosive claims, and on Avenatti's notoriety, to portray all three claims against Kavanaugh as part of a liberal political conspiracy.

Democrats also criticized him. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., told CNN at the time that Avenatti's involvement in the Kavanaugh hearings, "turns it into a circus atmosphere, and certainly that's not where we should be." Privately, Senate Democrats had much harsher words for Avenatti.

Now that Kavanaugh has been confirmed, however, the last thing many Democrats in Washington want to do is revisit the searingly raw debate over Kavanaugh's nomination, and the stinging political defeat they suffered.

But not Avenatti. On Thursday, he said he looks forward to duking it out with Grassley. "I'm looking forward to the Grassley investigation. I hope we can get that done as soon as possible," he said.

Avenatti sees Grassley's actions as politically motivated, and designed to sideline his potential presidential run against Trump in 2020. "These people are coming after me because they're worried. They're terrified," he said.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests at a campaign rally on December 21, 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Getty Images

Yet even as he jousts with Trump and top Republicans, Avenatti said he has no interest in reaching out to the national Democratic political apparatus. "I don't need any outreach to the party," he said.

"I can't walk down the street without people stopping to talk to me and tell me to run," he said Thursday during a phone call. A few seconds later, Avenatti could be heard saying, "Thanks, thanks a lot" to a muffled voice in the background.

Returning to the phone call, Avenatti said, "That was a guy who just stopped me, right now, and asked me to run. And I'm just walking through a shopping mall right now."

Avenatti has no official campaign yet, so perhaps he can afford to thumb his nose at some of the pillars of the Democratic Party. But if he wants to actually mount a run for president, then he will need the party's voter data, its fundraising infrastructure, its veteran strategists, and yes, the support of at least some of the party's kingmakers.

Since late July, his Fight PAC has collected just under $12,000, and he has spent close to $8,000 of that on advertising, travel expenses, and fundraising software, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. It has also reimbursed some Democratic strategists for expenses, including former Clinton adviser Adam Parkhomenko.

Avenatti has yet to donate any of his PAC money to Democratic candidates, however, although he has attended several local party fundraisers.

After this week, however, Avenatti's odds of becoming a viable presidential candidate are in serious doubt.

Still Avenatti remains, as ever, optimistic.

"Maybe I'm just getting the bad stuff out now," he said.