Last week alone, Michael Avenatti hobnobbed with Democratic National Committee leaders in Chicago, started a political action committee to raise money for Democratic congressional candidates, and met with David Axelrod, former President Barack Obama’s strategist.
All that follows Avenatti appearances at the Iowa State Fair and a Democratic Party picnic in New Hampshire, traditional stomping grounds for presidential aspirants. The buzz behind the lawyer is real, said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based strategist who recently spent part of a day with Avenatti as he traveled the state.
“He was mobbed by people wanting to meet him and ask for selfies,” Link said. Democrats are “desperate for someone to stand up to the president,” he added.
Avenatti, who is representing Stephanie Clifford, the porn star better known as Stormy Daniels, in her cases against the president, understands that the American public might be skeptical.
But Trump’s election, he says, opened the door to unconventional candidates — like, say, Avenatti. He says that if Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were to publicly commit not to run in 2020, he’d drop out too, and he complains that other Democrats thinking about a presidential campaign should make their intentions known.
“It’s not about my ego and wanting to be president of the United States,” Avenatti said in an interview in the back of a Lincoln sedan on his way to Chicago’s Midway airport on Friday. “It’s about whether I have the ability to potentially help solve this nightmare, this dumpster fire of an administration, and help us push the reset button and instill some respect and dignity back to the Oval Office and America’s standing, both domestically and abroad.”
The field of Democratic hopefuls for 2020 is slowly taking shape. Those believed to be considering a challenge to Trump include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
None of them have publicly announced they’re exploring a run. The field of declared potential candidates is small: pretty much Avenatti and a Maryland congressman, Rep. John Delaney. Billionaire Tom Steyer, who is financing a campaign to promote Trump’s impeachment, hasn’t ruled it out.
Avenatti, who is 47, figures his name recognition puts him in at least the top half of the likely Democratic field. But the lawyer insists that doesn’t make him a celebrity candidate.
“I’m not a celebrity,” he said. “Maybe I’ve become notorious or infamous or famous or something of that nature because I’ve been on television so much but I’m a substantive individual. I’m a student of the law. I’ve had a long career of nearly two decades fighting on behalf of Davids versus Goliaths.”
He is of course only part of the national consciousness because his client claims to have had an affair with Trump in 2006. She’s suing the president both to get out of a nondisclosure agreement and for defamation. Her lawyer has become a near-constant on cable television, at first on behalf of Daniels but now increasingly for himself.
In addition to representing Daniels, Avenatti has taken on the cause of migrant children separated from parents caught illegally crossing the Mexican border under Trump’s now-abandoned “zero tolerance” policy. He says he’s representing about 80 of the parents and 100 kids, pro bono.
Christine Pelosi, a member of the DNC executive committee and an activist who first met Avenatti in an MSNBC makeup room in April, said he “certainly has the raw talent.” She said she hopes he’ll help Democrats win in the midterm elections and that Democratic activists will expect more than TV appearances.
“This is great that you’re on television but are you at the local fish fry? Are you meeting people where you need them to rev up the local phone bankers?” Pelosi, who is the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said in an interview.
Avenatti said he plans to travel to “state after state.” His reception so far, he says, has been encouraging.
“I’ve got a lot of people within the party that are encouraging me to do it. And that’s been a welcome surprise,” he said, declining to name any supporters. “I thought that to a certain degree I was going to be ostracized by the party. That hasn’t come to fruition at all.”
Hillary Clinton’s former Iowa state director Matt Paul and New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley have introduced him to Democrats in their states. Adam Parkhomenko, a former DNC staffer who was the co-founder of Ready for Hillary, which encouraged Clinton to run before 2016, helped connect him with reporters at the party’s meeting. Alexandra Chalupa, a Democratic consultant, introduced him to meeting attendees.
At the DNC meeting, Avenatti couldn’t get far without being stopped for photos and brief conversations. Leaving the women’s caucus meeting Friday afternoon, Pelosi thanked him for committing not to accept donations from corporate PACs.
Jeff Berman, a delegate and strategist for Obama in 2008 and for Clinton in 2016, and his college-age daughter asked for a photo. Avenatti apologized to Chicago-area Congresswoman Robin Kelly for cutting their conversation short to catch a flight and encouraged her to “keep up the good fight.”
His campaign platform is a work in progress. He says he’d create jobs with a “real infrastructure program”; expand Medicare, the health program for the elderly and disabled, to cover all Americans; and “figure out college affordability.” None of those issues would distinguish him from most of the rest of the Democratic field, and he waved off questions about how he’d pay for the proposals.
“Once I do deep dives on those issues, I’m going to propose how we’re going to pay for them,” he said.
He sounds less antagonistic toward Wall Street than Democrats such as Warren, who has made her career advocating for greater bank regulation. “Certain aspects of Wall Street need more regulation, but I’ve also found that I think the judicial system does a pretty good job from time to time,” he said, declining to elaborate.
His political resume is similarly thin. He worked for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s opposition research firm as a student in college and law school. He has never held elected office.
Avenatti, though, says politics is about timing — and Daniels and Trump may have provided it to him.
“I believe that in life — and I certainly believe that in politics — it’s all about windows opening and closing, and matchups, to a certain degree,” he said.
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