‘Have I Hit Bottom?’: Michael Avenatti and the Fall of a Trump-Era Antihero

When I shared the details of Avenatti’s case with Maureen Baird, a federal prison consultant and a senior executive warden at MCC from 2014 to 2016, she said she’d never heard of a white-collar case in 10 South. Normally, according to Baird, high-profile detainees are housed in the jail’s regular special housing unit, 9 South, while the warden reviews him for general population.

“It’s an anomaly. It’s bizarre,” she said.

Avenatti is convinced there is a more nefarious explanation.

One day in February, he was on his way back to MCC from court, accompanied by three guards, when a senior correctional officer intervened, he says. The senior officer led him upstairs, pausing in the vestibule outside 10 South. “You know why you’re here, right?” he said. Avenatti says the officer told him he was in 10 South at the direction of the attorney general, Bill Barr, and to have his lawyers “look into it.” Then he picked up the phone and buzzed Avenatti back to his cell. Dalack, Avenatti’s public defender, said the placement in 10 South was another example of the government “pursuing this as aggressively as they could.” At Avenatti’s sentencing hearing in the Nike case, Judge Paul G. Gardephe cited the “horrific conditions” in 10 South as a reason for imposing a lighter sentence — just 30 months in prison. “It’s hard to believe they could occur in the United States of America,” he said in the courtroom. The MCC warden at the time, Marti Licon-Vitale, explained that Avenatti was placed in 10 South out of “serious concerns” for his safety in general population, according a letter sent at the request of Judge Gardephe. (In a written response to questions, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, Donald Murphy, said the department does not comment on “anecdotal allegations” or provide information about individual inmates. Murphy said inmates are held outside general population “as necessary” for safety reasons.)

In March, Avenatti finally moved to general population. For most of that time, the jail was on lockdown, first after a detainee smuggled a loaded handgun into the facility, and later, because of the pandemic. Avenatti requested to be released on home confinement. The request was initially denied. Trump, now in the final year of his presidency, managing the first few weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, tweeted in response to the news: “Gee, that’s too bad. Such a fine guy. Presidential aspirations you know!”

There were only a few times in 10 South that Avenatti was able to use the unit’s single rec room: It’s a big, cold room, with a stationary bike, a caged TV, a remote, a lawn chair, a large green parka, and a slatted window where winter air pours through.

The first time he went there was Valentine’s Day 2020. A guard he befriended allowed him to eat dinner and watch TV. It was the night of his conviction in the Nike case. Back home in in California, his daughters Lauren and Nicole, now ages 19 and 17, were reeling.

Lauren was in class before lunch when a friend texted her, “Hey, I’m sorry.” She didn’t know what he was talking about. “Have you not read the news?” he wrote. She opened up Google and that’s when she learned that her dad had been found guilty. “My heart stopped,” she told me.

“I just couldn’t even wrap my head around the fact that my dad was going to prison,” she said. “I hadn’t seen my dad as a criminal, ever. In that moment, I had to grow up really fast.”

Back in New York, Avenatti turned on CNN. Anderson Cooper and Jeffrey Toobin were discussing his conviction. “So I sat there on Valentine’s Day, as a convicted felon in 10 South, watching AC360 with Jeffrey Toobin, who was relishing the fact that I had just been convicted on multiple felony counts, as I ate my meal out of my plastic tray.”

“Anderson actually pushed back at one point.” Cooper, the “60 Minutes” host, had interviewed Avenatti all three times he appeared on the program.

“At one point Anderson said, ‘Well, you know, I mean, Michael Avenatti was a real attorney with real cases, right?’”

For a man in free fall, there are three options.

“I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about this, and there are only three.”

The first two are escape or suicide, neither of which he says he’s considered. The first never works, he says, “and I’ve never run from anything in my life.” And the second would be too painful for his family. “I wouldn’t want to deliberately hurt my kids, my parents, and the people who care about me.”

“Or there’s the third option,” he says, “you can fight. That’s what I’m doing.”

Michael Avenatti’s fight is many things: legal, reputational, personal, historical. Maybe you find his arguments and his many gripes persuasive. Or maybe you find them absurd. Maybe you were one of the people, in the summer of 2018, who felt desperate to send someone after Trump. Perhaps you asked him for a selfie, or admired the skill with which he handled himself on television. Maybe you were a reporter who, like me, briefly covered his presidential aspirations. Maybe you thought, as Avenatti still does, that for a while, he was the best guy to beat Trump. Or maybe you hated him all along. When it started to crumble in late 2018, you knew there was something about that guy. You always had a feeling he was “full of shit.” Maybe you were right. Or maybe you haven’t thought about him since. But the reckoning for Avenatti, as with so much from Trump’s four years in office, is not finished. No matter where you land on the question of his downfall, we are a part of this story, too. He used the media, and we used him.

Avenatti is still embroiled in all three federal cases. He says the government has never approached him with a reasonable plea offer in connection with any legal matter. Next month in New York, he is set to begin trial in the final case to go to court, where federal prosecutors will argue that Avenatti stole $149,000 from Daniels’s $800,000 book deal, which Avenatti helped negotiate. (“I babysat that entire deal,” he says.) The case has turned personal. At Avenatti’s request, a judge has ordered Daniels to disclose her medical records, presumably to raise questions about her mental health. In the trial, you will hear “I would say a lot,” about Daniels’s activity in the paranormal space, said Robert Baum, Avenatti’s lead attorney in the case. She filmed episodes for an unreleased TV show called “Spooky Babes,” also the name of an Instagram account where a haunted doll named Susan, a mascot of sorts, is prominently featured. But the crux of the case comes down to the fee agreement Daniels and Avenatti had in place for the publication of her October 2018 memoir, Full Disclosure: Avenatti says he was entitled to a portion of the proceeds because he negotiated the deal. Daniels says Avenatti orally agreed to take nothing. As a result, Baum said, “her credibility becomes a major factor in the trial.” Daniels and her lawyer, Clark Brewster, declined to answer questions about the case.

“At this point,” Avenatti says, “the only question is: Have I hit bottom?”

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