It takes some mettle to represent a porn actress who’s suing a sitting president, especially this president, given his litigiousness and indifference to the norms that constrained his predecessors.
Says Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, who is presently tussling with Donald Trump and his personal attorney Michael Cohen in court in California: “Well, once you’ve driven 190 miles per hour in the pouring rain, in the middle of the night, down the Mulsanne Straight with prototype cars whizzing by you at 240-plus miles per hour… compared to that, what I’m doing right now is a warm-up lap.”
What Avenatti is “doing right now” is suing to extricate Clifford from a 2016 nondisclosure agreement she entered into with a limited liability company established by Cohen. As first reported in January by the Wall Street Journal, Clifford was paid $130,000 on the eve of the presidential election to keep quiet about a 2006 affair she says she had with Trump after they met at a celebrity golf tournament. While on Friday attorneys for Trump joined the case to nudge it toward confidential arbitration proceedings and to seek $20 million from Clifford for breaching the agreement, the White House has continually denied that Trump and Clifford had an affair.
Avenatti is one of many Americans who have found themselves in consequential roles they could not have imagined before 2016. But he is perhaps the only one among them who prepared for the job in the 125-degree cockpit of a race car.
The 47-year-old Newport Beach, Calif., resident has driven in a number of auto racing’s premier competitions: 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Daytona, the Porsche Supercup series and the Long Beach Grand Prix. He has been behind the wheels of tricked-out Porsches, Ferraris and Corvettes, and he has been in a small handful of shunts (which is what those in the know call wrecks). “I’ve broken a few bones, nothing major,” he says.
His fascination with sports cars dates back to his youth—not that he got to ride in them back then. When Avenatti’s mother wanted him to behave, she’d take him by the Ferrari dealership in St. Louis. Tom Selleck drove a red 308 on Magnum P.I.; he loved checking the Ferraris out in person. In 1989 he bought his first sports car, a Ford Mustang coupe, which was just as red as Magnum’s, if not quite so upmarket.
Formula One racing was his dream career, but litigation, his fallback, proved more viable. So off he went to law school and eventually to plaintiffs’ work, where before Trump and Cohen came along he locked horns with defendants from Paris Hilton to “Apprentice” producer Mark Burnett. He has also sued and extracted millions from major corporations, such as paper conglomerate Kimberly-Clark and funeral business Service Corporation International.
And just as Trump did in his days as a USFL owner, Avenatti in 2011 took on the NFL. He brought suit back then on behalf of the customers whose purchased seats for Super Bowl 45 disappeared because of construction snafus at Cowboys Stadium, and as part of the case he deposed Roger Goodell (“let’s just describe it as entertaining,” he says) and cross-examined Jerry Jones in open court. He’s still proud of the judge’s order he got compelling Jones’s testimony, and he’s prouder still of his combative exchanges with Jones on the stand.
“When Mr. Jones came off the stand and walked by counsel table on his way out of the courtroom, he was staring at me in a way that no one has stared at me before,” Avenatti says. “My co-counsel—a former federal prosecutor—leaned over to me and said, ‘I’ve never seen a human being look at another human being with such hatred in their eyes.’ I wear that as a badge of honor.” The jury awarded his clients nearly $76,000 in damages two days after Jones’s testimony. He now has another case going against the NFL; this one pertains to the cancelled Hall of Fame game in 2016.
The NFL is due for a reckoning, he says. “Nothing lasts forever, and hubris catches up to you.” I asked him if he had anyone else in mind when he said that. “Perhaps.”
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