GW Law alumnus Michael Avenatti talks about his high-profile legal battle over a non-disclosure agreement with President Donald Trump.
By Kristen Mitchell
Before Michael Avenatti, J.D. ’00, ever met with Stephanie Clifford, an adult film actress better known as Stormy Daniels who claims to have had a sexual relationship with President Donald Trump, he had preconceived notions about her motivations and what made her tick.
Ten minutes into their first conversation, Mr. Avenatti said, he realized Ms. Clifford was not to be underestimated.
“She’s the most self-aware client I’ve ever had in my career, and she’s one of the most self-aware individuals that I have ever met,” he said. “She is incredibly real, she doesn’t apologize for who she is. She owns it.”
Ms. Clifford claims she had a sexual relationship with Mr. Trump more than a decade ago. She signed a non-disclosure agreement drafted by the Mr. Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen shortly before the 2016 presidential election and received $130,000 in exchange for her silence.
Mr. Avenatti was interviewed Wednesday by GW Law Dean Blake D. Morant, alongside his one-time professor Jonathan Turley. The event was hosted by GW Law and the School of Media and Public Affairs. He talked about representing Ms. Clifford, the high-profile legal battle with Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen, and how his time at GW set the stage for a successful career.
Mr. Avenatti is one of the foremost trial lawyers in the country, Mr. Morant said. In 2003, GW Law established the Michael J. Avenatti Award for Excellence in Pre-Trial and Trial Advocacy, an annual award given to the member of the graduating class who demonstrates excellence in pre-trial and trial advocacy. In 2010, he was awarded an Alumni Achievement Award.
Last month Mr. Avenatti filed a lawsuit to void the non-disclosure agreement Mr. Cohen arranged with his client because Mr. Trump never signed it. Ms. Clifford also has offered to return the hush money. Mr. Cohen responded with a court filing asking for $20 million in damages from Ms. Clifford for violating the agreement.
This response indicated that Mr. Trump’s team had something to hide, Mr. Avenatti said. Mr. Trump’s legal team could have easily dropped the non-disclosure agreement and allowed Ms. Clifford to tell her story, knowing the White House has a bigger microphone. Mr. Avenatti expected the case to go away after four or five days, but nearly two months later both sides are still at it.
“My own belief has always been, in connection with this case, that it’s either going to end very, very well, like unbelievably well, or it’s going to end very, very badly,” Mr. Avenatti said. “As I sit here today, I don’t know which one it’s going to be.”
In the meantime, Mr. Avenatti said he and his client are “going to keep shooting until we miss.” Ms. Clifford recently traveled to Texas where she met with an accomplished artist to create a composite sketch of the man Ms. Clifford says threatened her in 2011 to stay silent about her affair with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump tweeted about the sketch Wednesday morning, calling it a “total con job.” Mr. Trump’s tweets about the ongoing legal battle show a lack of discipline and could help Mr. Avenatti build a defamation case against the president in the future.
“He effectively called my client a liar,” he said.
The groundswell of tips generated by the sketch already turned up a person of interest, Mr. Turley joked, before unveiling a photo of New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady. Some say he resembles the man in question.
“He copped to it,” Mr Avenatti joked.
Mr. Turley said his former student showed promise from his first week in law school. Mr. Avenatti had barely found his way around campus before he was asking to join a litigation team. His passion for the law was obvious, and that fire has made him a successful trial lawyer.
“Michael is the type of lawyer I fear,” Mr. Turley said. “I’m up against lawyers a lot, but the one you’re afraid of is the one who likes it. The one will stay up all night to find a case to stick in your head like an icepick.”
Mr. Avenatti said Mr. Cohen has made several missteps so far in the ongoing court proceedings. Mr. Trump’s fixer is “radioactive” following the FBI’s raid on his home and office, and the likelihood Mr. Cohen will be indicted is “close to 100 percent.”
“I’ve never quite had a case like this case,” he said. “I’ve never had opponents who’ve really done so much to help me.”