Stormy Daniels, porn star/stripper extraordinaire, has been denied a starring role – at least for now. On Monday, a Los Angeles federal court tossed out Daniels’ defamation lawsuit against President Donald Trump filed in April by her lawyer, Michael Avenatti. The suit was based on a tweet by Trump calling her allegation of being threatened by a strange man on a Las Vegas parking lot back in 2011 “a total con job.” According to U.S. District Judge S. James Otero, the president’s message was “rhetorical hyperbole” of the sort one associates with standard political discourse. Avenatti doesn’t think so. He’s already filed an appeal. And thanks in part to the publicity he generated in opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation, he now has widespread support among Democratic senators and the general public.
Stephanie Clifford aka “Stormy Daniels,” age 39, a Louisiana native, has worked in the adult film industry for many years. Lately, she’s found a potentially more lucrative way to make a living – filing lawsuits. Toward that end, she hired a Southern California attorney, Michael Avenatti, an inveterate self-promoter with a special dislike for President Trump and his close associates, especially Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen.
The saga began in July 2006 when Ms. Daniels and Donald Trump met at a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The two paired off and retired to his hotel suite where, according to Daniels, they had sex. She later described this encounter in a May 2011 interview with In Touch magazine. Shortly thereafter, a male stranger allegedly accosted her and her baby daughter on a Las Vegas parking lot. “Leave Trump alone,” he told Daniels in a menacing voice. “Forget the story.” Then he leaned toward her daughter and taunted her mother: “That’s a beautiful little girl. It’s be a shame if something happened to her mom.” Stormy Daniels did not report this alleged incident to police. And if she had, there appeared to be no evidence that Trump ordered it or even was aware of it. The magazine did not publish her interview. Stormy continued to make adult films.
Cut several years ahead to October 2016, a couple weeks before Election Day and immediately after the release of a tape to NBC-TV’s Access Hollywood revealing a crude comment that Donald Trump made back in 2005. Ms. Daniels was busy once more losing her inhibitions. Trump, though still behind Hillary Clinton in the polls for president, was closing the gap. Seeing an opportunity, Daniels threatened to go public with the details of her lusty evening with Trump at Lake Tahoe. Trump, understandably fearful of the political impact of this attempt at blackmail, summoned his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to conduct damage control. Cohen and Daniels’ then-attorney, Keith Davidson, soon reached a deal. Cohen would wire Davidson $130,000, and in return, Daniels would sign a nondisclosure agreement. In January 2018, with Trump president for a year, the Wall Street Journal ran an article revealing the existence of this “hush” payment. Days later, In Touch ran its dormant interview.
Legal action soon followed. That month, nonprofit watchdog group Common Cause filed two separate lawsuits over the payment, claiming it violated federal election laws. That proved to be a warmup for the main event. On March 6, Michael Avenatti filed suit on behalf of Stormy Daniels in Los Angeles Superior Court to invalidate her confidentiality agreement with Donald Trump on grounds that Trump did not sign it. Then, on March 26, Daniels and Avenatti sued Michael Cohen, claiming defamation. They hardly were through. On April 30, the duo sued President Trump in Manhattan federal court for sending his allegedly defamatory tweet. And on June 6, they again sued Cohen, along with Keith Davidson, accusing Cohen of encouraging Davidson to violate Daniels’ attorney-client privilege.
It is the third suit, the one filed on April 30, that is the focus here. Daniels and Avenatti filed that complaint in Manhattan federal court, claiming President Trump had defamed her 12 days earlier with a tweet denying the existence of the 2011 threat by the stranger in Las Vegas. Trump’s tweet read: “A sketch years later about a nonexistent man. A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it)! – Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 18, 2018.” Daniels claimed this message falsely accused her of a crime. Her case appeared to be thin. An opinion, however speculative, is not proof of actual malice or harm. Undaunted, Avenatti in August persuaded Trump’s lawyers to move the case to Los Angeles, ostensibly to speed up the process.
Daniels and Avenatti got their speedy justice. It just wasn’t the kind they were counting on. On Monday, October 15, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero threw out the case. “The Court agrees with Mr. Trump’s argument because the tweet in question constitutes ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ normally associated with politics and public discourse in the United States,” he wrote. “The First Amendment protects this type of rhetorical statement.” Judge Otero also ordered Daniels to pay President Trump’s court costs. Trump’s attorney, Charles Harder, termed the outcome a “total victory for President Trump and a total defeat for Stormy Daniels.” Michael Avenatti had other ideas. The following day, he announced via tweet that he had filed an appeal, noting that Trump’s record before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals “has been anything but good.”
Regardless of how this case plays out, it is unrelated to the other civil suits filed by Daniels and Avenatti. More to the point, it reveals a certain decadence about our legal system and the hustlers who exploit it for personal and political gain. Stormy Daniels is plenty manipulative, but the primary villain in this morality play looks like Michael Avenatti. His penchant for outlandish self-promotion and character assassination in search of litigation jackpots was fully in evidence. His recent lawsuits have nothing to do with “idealism” and everything to do with his open detestation of President Trump. Last week, he even proposed a three-round mixed-martial arts charity bout with one of the president’s sons, Donald Trump Jr. Avenatti, now 47, these past several weeks has been exploring the possibilities of running for president in 2020. Should he declare himself a candidate, there will be people stupid enough to vote for him.
Michael Avenatti, it must be emphasized, was the lawyer who represented Julie Swetnick, the third female accuser of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during the latter’s Senate confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. Avenatti, true to form, provided nonstop histrionics. Unfortunately for him, Ms. Swetnick’s testimony lacked even less credibility (if that were possible) than the first two accusers, Christine Ford and Deborah Ramirez. In an interview with NBC News, Swetnick partially recanted her allegations. Avenatti continued to believe his client 100 percent, aggressively dismissing all criticism of her, even from an ex-boyfriend of Swetnick who back in 2001 had taken out a restraining order against her in response to her highly threatening behavior. Indeed, Avenatti’s behavior was so caustic that, unintentionally, it helped convince a small but crucial group of undecided senators to support Kavanaugh, who won approval on October 6 in a full floor vote of 50-48. Even after that, Avenatti tore into Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, calling him “far too stupid” to head the committee.
Some Democratic senators and staffers admitted in postmortems that Michael Avenatti was a liability. “Well, you know at some point there were a lot of folks coming forward making all sorts of accusations,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. “It turns it into a circus atmosphere, and certainly that’s not where we should be. 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.” Another Democratic senator, preferring to remain anonymous, put it this way: “(Avenatti was) not helpful at all. I think Susan (Collins) was always yes, but Avenatti was a useful foil.” A senior Senate Democratic aide who likewise preferred to remain anonymous was even more blunt. “Democrats and the country would have been better off if Mr. Avenatti spent his time on his Iowa vanity project rather than meddling in Supreme Court fights,” the aide said. “His involvement set us back, absolutely.”
All this, however, raises the issue of why Democratic senators provided Avenatti with a platform in the first place. The reason is rather palpable: They thought his testimony on behalf of Julie Swetnick might prove the final nail in Judge Kavanaugh’s coffin. “If Michael Avenatti has any evidence, he should come forward promptly,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., on September 24. “If there are additional allegations to come forward, this would absolutely be the time because I don’t see us pursuing this matter much more than the next week or two at most.” Adam Jentleson, a former aide to ex-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., put things similarly at the time: “Hopefully, it’s about raising up the voices of women, and I guess we’ll find out in the next few days.” In other words, opponents of Kavanaugh saw Avenatti as a potential positive force. It was only after the self-defeating comments of Avenatti and Swetnick did they express buyer’s remorse. Legal analyst Joseph A. Wulfsohn concluded as much in an October 9 blog for The Federalist:
Don’t underestimate Avenatti or the effect he had on this confirmation. Avenatti was initially taken seriously, until it was known that his accuser lacked any seriousness, especially since Swetnick failed to accuse Kavanaugh of violating her directly. He spent days hyping up his client, and she turned out to be a bust. Yet he likely won’t face any repercussions.
He won’t be shamed out of the public eye, he won’t lose his law license. This episode will simply be forgotten due to the ever-evolving news cycle. If anything, the Resistance probably values his efforts to take down Kavanaugh, despite the fact that the ridiculous narrative that Kavanaugh is a “gang rapist” ultimately helped him get confirmed.
Michael Avenatti should be seen as part of the far larger ongoing effort to discredit President Trump in the hopes of removing him from office. In a real sense, he is taking the proverbial low road, just as special counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller is taking the high road. Avenatti is living proof that when it comes to political warfare, as with military warfare, truth is usually the first casualty. As for Stormy Daniels, she deservedly may wind up a footnote in history.