So exactly who is paying Michael Avenatti? And is he a lawyer, an opposition researcher, a journalist or a campaign operative?
He wants to make the discussion all about where Michael Cohen, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump greets 3 American detainees freed by North Korea Trump called Blankenship after Senate primary loss: report Education Dept to relax rules restricting faith-based institutions from getting federal aid MORE’s personal attorney, got his money but, to have clean hands, Avenatti needs to come forward with exactly who is financing his operation, who his sources were for detailed banking information, and whether he really is an attorney solely representing Stormy Daniels or just using her as cover to wage a political operation.
From the beginning, this has been fishy. Daniels’s previous lawyer advised her to stick to her agreements. In contrast, Avenatti OK’d her violating with impunity her nondisclosure agreement on “60 Minutes” despite a binding arbitration judgment against her. She has acknowledged on Twitter that she is not paying for her lawyer. So who is? And did he indemnify her against all multimillion-dollar penalties?
It took a long time and even a court battle to find out that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid for the Fusion GPS dossier, a fact that was disclosed only after the damage was done, as former British spy and the dossier’s compiler, Christopher Steele, had already created a vast echo chamber as though the material he was peddling had been verified in some way — which, of course, it never was. Now Avenatti is being allowed to repeat this same process, mixing truths with half-truths and evading accountability.
This week, Avenatti released to the media a report detailing consulting payments to Cohen, and much of it, despite a few errors, has been verified. AT&T, Novartis and a real estate firm acknowledge having hired the president’s personal attorney for insights on the incoming administration. Mueller appears to have investigated all of this months ago, and it is highly unlikely that the theory Avenatti is pounding away at — that Russians paid for Stormy Daniels — holds any water or Mueller would not have passed the investigation on to U.S. attorneys in New York. Russia, actually, is Mueller’s bailiwick.
It seems that everyone has his or her own theory about where the Stormy Daniels payment came from. Rudy Giuliani says it came out the president’s monthly retainer. Cohen said he paid for it. Avenatti speculates it comes from a real estate company that he alleges had ties, of course, to Russia. The Wall Street Journal did an article suggesting that Cohen and his family in 2015 and early 2016 were so prescient that he would need money for Trump women that he and his wife were refinancing their homes to build up cash for this purpose, possibly defrauding the banks.
More relevant, perhaps, is The New York Times story that Cohen had invested heavily in New York City taxi medallions and, thanks to Uber, those medallions were losing as much as 80 percent of their value and cash flow. A much more logical explanation for Cohen needing cash is that these investments were going south and he needed funds to shore them up or face foreclosure.
But this release of a “report” by Avenatti also raises the question of where and how did he get this detailed financial information — because he didn’t find it on Google. This is the kind of information that would have been known only by the Treasury Department, his banks or by prosecutors, raising some serious questions about what kind of operation Avenatti is running. Is there a team of people digging this up? Are they paying off sources? Is Fusion GPS involved? Are there political donors behind it that could make this campaign work? He can’t be both an attorney and then participate as an officer of the court in trafficking illegally obtained information.
Avenatti has been given a free, unfettered media perch on TV to spread his stuff without the networks forcing him to meet any disclosure requirements — saying that he is Stormy Daniels’s attorney when someone else entirely is paying for this operation is not true disclosure that allows the viewer to evaluate the source and potential conflicts. And now he is being given deference as though he was a journalist with an interest in protecting unverified sources while he makes the most headline grabbing pronouncements he can. Lawyers need to disclose the source of their evidence.
I have no idea if Cohen was on the up-and-up or was playing fast and loose. I wouldn’t want my lawyer selling “insights” on me. But now we have gone from Trump-Russia collusion in the election to the Russians supposedly paying $130,000 after the election — a sum that President Trump definitely wasn’t in need of, and yet this has spun hours of cable commentary. And if this is all a paid donor strategy to discredit Trump, it is backfiring. The more Avenatti, Daniels and Cohen blot out the Democratic message and the president is seen as making peace with North Korea, the latest CNN polls show the Republicans are surging and several polls show Trump’s image rising as well.
The more you peel back the onion, the more Cohen and Avenatti seem alike — both fixers, bending every rule they can get away with. Fairly or unfairly, Cohen is being put under the microscope, and we can rest assured that every payment in or out will be fully scrutinized by law enforcement. But Avenatti can’t be given a pass on these issues. Americans are entitled to know just who this guy is, who is writing his checks and whether he legally obtained his information.
Mark Penn (@Mark_Penn) served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during his impeachment. He is chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.”