Free-speech conservatives, this is your call to arms

To all those supposed constitutional conservatives out there, consider this your call to arms: The First Amendment is under direct attack, and this time from a much more powerful foe than misguided college freshmen.

By whom I mean: the ostensible leader of the free world.

Again and again, President Trump has used the weight of his office and the broader federal government to inflict financial damage upon critics, whistleblowers, journalists and peaceful protesters for exercising their rights to free speech.

Trump’s most recent salvo involves former CIA director John Brennan. During his long career in intelligence, Brennan briefed Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Which makes his fierce criticism of Trump, and his characterization of Trump’s Helsinki performance as “treasonous,” all the more biting.

.. Such comments led Trump to revoke Brennan’s security clearance Wednesday. The administration said Brennan no longer needed clearance because it didn’t plan to call on him for consultations. But high-level clearances are valuable for private-sector work as well.

In other words, this was about shutting Brennan’s mouth by going after his wallet.

.. And that is but one way Trump has tried to silence critics just this week.

A day earlier, Trump’s campaign said it had filed an arbitration action against Omarosa Manigault Newman alleging that the former White House aide broke a 2016 nondisclosure agreement by publishing her recent tell-all book.

.. And that is but one way Trump has tried to silence critics just this week.

That the party bringing the claim here is technically a campaign, rather than, say, the Justice Department, doesn’t matter. The First Amendment is supposed to protect those critical of their government, including critics of its highest officeholder, from political retribution. And political retribution laundered through an election campaign at the president’s instruction is retribution all the same.

.. Elsewhere — again, in recent days — the president and his minions have called the press the enemy of the people and the opposition party. Previously they have blacklisted reporters and entire news outlets (including The Post) whose questions Trump disliked.

.. When unhappy with Post coverage in particular, Trump has threatened government action against Amazon in an apparent attempt to financially punish its chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who independently owns the paper.

.. Journalists and media owners are hardly the only ones whose job or financial security Trump has targeted from his bully pulpit. He called for the firing of National Football League players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. NFL owners, in a secretly recorded meeting in October, expressed concern about the president’s impact on their bottom line.

Curiously, Republican politicians and conservative pundits who call themselves staunch defenders of the Constitution have allowed, and at times encouraged, the president to run roughshod over the First Amendment.

Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), John Neely Kennedy (La.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) celebrated Trump’s revocation of Brennan’s security clearance.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee oversaw a hearing titled “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses,” refused to condemn Trump’s calls for the firing of NFL players engaged in peaceful protest. Instead, in September, he attacked the media for giving the “false impression” that Trump spent too much time attacking the NFL.

.. Polls in the past couple of years have shown that pluralities and, quite often, majorities of Republicans say that they, too, consider the media the enemy of the people; believe that the president should have the authority to close news outlets that he believes behave badly; and favor firing NFL players who refuse to stand for the anthem and stripping citizenship from anyone who burns the flag.

The Fast and Furious Michael Avenatti

Avenatti was in the best shape of his life: 185 pounds, 9 percent body fat.

.. he still has the bearing of a light-heavyweight brawler.

.. n 2017, a Russian oligarch named Viktor Vekselberg had deposited around $500,000 into the same bank account Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former fixer, used to pay off Avenatti’s client in October 2016.

.. Avenatti, whose ability to steer a news cycle is rivaled by only the president’s, initially hoped to distribute the file that morning, thus ensuring wall-to-wall coverage for the better part of the day.

.. Avenatti had immediately zeroed in on a potential weakness in his strategy: The document wouldn’t stand up for long without independent corroboration, especially not if he insisted on keeping the source of his information anonymous.

.. The Times published an article revealing that Vekselberg had been interviewed by Mueller, the special counsel

.. “He’s smart that way,” a reporter on the Mueller beat told me. “He needs the television for attention, but he leans on print publications to vet the information he uses on TV.”

.. Avenatti does not employ a public relations specialist, preferring to handle all media scheduling himself

.. he was slumped in the makeup chair at the CNN studios in Columbus Circle, where he seemed to know most of the staff by name.

.. Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, appeared in the doorway, grinning. The men exchanged greetings and retreated to a corner of the greenroom to speak privately.

.. Avenatti shot back. “Right before we went live, The Times issued an article where they verified the accuracy of what we’ve released based on an independent review of other documents. There’s no question this is accurate.”

.. Cooper continued to press his guest, pointing out that the payments the document attributed to Vekselberg had actually come from Columbus Nova, an investment firm whose biggest client is a company controlled by Vekselberg. “At the very least, there may be no nefarious reason here at all that this company would have given $500,000 to Michael Cohen,” Cooper said. “They could’ve been hiring him for any number of consulting work — ”

Avenatti cut him off: “For what? For his legal skill and acumen? I doubt that.”

.. Pat Sajak, the “Wheel of Fortune” host and a notable Republican donor, stopped by the table to pay his respects, as did Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News legal analyst, who grabbed Avenatti by the head with both hands and pulled him into an awkward embrace.

.. Several outlets, including The New York Times, had reported that Avenatti was exploring the possibility of hosting his own cable-news program.

According to Avenatti, since early March he has been interviewed more than 200 times on network and cable TV.

.. Avenatti, Comedy Central’s Jordan Klepper has joked, “is on every single network, every hour of the freakin’ day. He’s got a toothbrush at CNN, a cot at MSNBC and a locker at ‘Riverdale.’

.. He has visited the sets of “The View,” “Real Time With Bill Maher” and “Megyn Kelly Today”

he has made two separate trips to Stephen Colbert’s couch at CBS, most recently to spar with the former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

.. Two decades ago, a different Los Angeles lawyer, William Ginsburg, appeared on all five Sunday talk shows on a single morning, in an attempt to vindicate his client, Monica Lewinsky, in the court of public opinion. The feat is known today as “the Full Ginsburg.”

.. Avenatti has taken Ginsburg’s underlying approach — let the American people be the jury — and updated it for the social-media era.

He has learned, with practice, to leverage Twitter in much the same manner as the president:

  • as a place to goad (“This is the best Mr. Trump can do?”),
  • a venue for self-aggrandizement (“This is getting too easy”) and
  • a direct conduit to an adoring base of supporters.

.. we also have Avenatti because the left so desperately desires an anti-Trump: A person who can elicit the same dopamine reaction in his supporters that Trump can from his.”

.. Like Trump, Avenatti is all Freudian id, loudmouthed and cocky. “I’m a mercenary,” he acknowledged to me. “That’s what people hire me for, and I don’t apologize for it.”

.. He traffics primarily in a commodity in short supply among left-leaning voters: hope.

.. Nancy Pelosi, recently told The New Yorker that she doesn’t “like to talk about impeachment,” but Avenatti has gleefully predicted Trump will be out of the office before his term ends.

.. Robert Mueller, no matter the outcome of his investigation, is unlikely to ever call Rudolph Giuliani a “pig” or Michael Cohen a “moron”; Avenatti uses both insults so frequently that they have become a kind of refrain.

.. On paper, at least, Avenatti’s campaign against Trump and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, is limited to three lawsuits.

  1. The oldest, from March, seeks to void the 2016 nondisclosure agreement prohibiting Daniels from discussing her supposed affair with Trump, on the grounds that Trump failed to sign the document ..
  2. .. accuses Trump of defamation for calling Daniels “a total con job” on Twitter, after Daniels said she had been threatened by someone who warned her to “leave Trump alone.”
  3. .. final suit claims that Daniels’s previous attorney, Keith Davidson, conspired with Michael Cohen and President Trump to keep Daniels quiet

.. the results of the raid have not been made public, the evidence is widely believed to contain files pertaining to the Daniels payout, which Cohen has admitted to orchestrating and which Trump had previously denied knowing anything about

.. Avenatti, for his part, claims to already have all the damning evidence he needs

.. Avenatti often describes his media omnipresence as integral to his long game: It rattles Trump’s defenders — as appeared to happen when the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, contradicted the White House and acknowledged payment to Daniels.

.. helped bring in almost $600,000 for a CrowdJustice account in Daniels’s name, which Avenatti says is his sole source of financing for the case. It has also generated leads for Avenatti, like the Vekselberg data. “None of this happens if we don’t have a high profile,” Avenatti said.

.. Daniels told me. “People forced to play defense tend to get sloppy, they tend to make mistakes. And look, if I didn’t think Michael was doing a good job, I would fire his ass.” But, she added, “every time I watch him work, I think, This is what it must have been like to see the Sistine Chapel being painted. But instead of paint, Michael uses the tears of his enemies.”

.. litigating a case in the press is not without risk. As one of Avenatti’s former colleagues, the lawyer Brian Panish, pointed out, “Michael is good with the media, but the media isn’t always going to do what he wants them to do.”

.. has seen his personal life and past investments raked over. Fox News tracked down his second wife, Lisa Storie, and elicited her opinions on their acrimonious divorce. (Storie recently told me that they were now on “really good terms.”)

.. CNN recently published a quadruple-bylined expose on bankruptcy proceedings against Eagan Avenatti

.. At times, he has seemed genuinely unsettled by the scrutiny

.. after The Daily Caller published a critical piece, he threatened to sue the conservative site for defamation. “If you think I’m kidding, you really don’t know anything about me,” he wrote to the reporter in a Twitter message, which was denounced by other journalists. “This is the last warning.” For many people, it was the first time Avenatti’s hardball tactics had spilled into public view.

.. the Texas trip bolstered his messianic standing among liberals, and invited claims, from detractors, that he is little more than a flagrant opportunist

.. to the people who know him best, the evolution into partisan firebrand is hardly surprising.

.. “Look, Michael has always been a hard-charging guy,”
.. And I think what we’re seeing now is that he’s a perfect foil for Trump, because he actually sees the world just like Trump does. He has that same faith in the spotlight,” Kabateck paused. “In a way, he is sort of is Trump.”
.. When Avenatti was 10 years old, his father, an executive at Anheuser-Busch, took him to an off-road car race
.. Avenatti was captivated. “The speed, the danger — I couldn’t look away,” he told me recently. “In retrospect, it was the feeling I’d get later on, working on a major legal case. You’re nervous, there’s a sense of fear, and also a sense of intense excitement.”
.. he was already incredibly driven, incredibly serious. I don’t think he ever relaxed.
.. To avoid going too deep into student-loan debt, Avenatti, who had long thought about going into politics, took a year and a half off from Penn and accepted a full-time job with Rahm Emanuel’s political-consulting firm, the Research Group.
.. the firm’s leadership soon promoted him to opposition researcher.
.. “This was before the days of the internet, so if you wanted to find clerk records or look up business disputes, you would have to go to the candidate’s jurisdiction,” Avenatti says. “I did a lot of flying around, a lot of gumshoeing.”
.. he says he participated in 150 campaigns in 42 states
..  It was an exceptionally demanding schedule for someone who had not yet finished his senior year in college, and by 1996, Avenatti was burned out on politics. 
.. Daniel Petrocelli. “Dan was the trial guru at O’Melveny,” Avenatti told me: He represented the family of Ron Goldman during the civil suit against O.J. Simpson and once went to battle for Disney over merchandising rights to Winnie the Pooh. “He was a street fighter,”
.. “But he was exceptional at speaking to juries, and I’d like to think he saw a little bit of him in me.”
.. A lot of what I absorbed from Dan involved his preparation,” Avenatti told me. “He was extremely diligent, and he was able to absorb a lot of information in a short period of time.”
.. He wasn’t going to stay at O’Melveny forever, no matter how high the pay. “The drafting, the redrafting of motions, the back and forth, he hated it,” Avenatti-Carlin told me. “He wanted to be more than a paper pusher. He wanted to be a change agent.”
.. In 2004, he sued the future president and the producer Mark Burnett for stealing the concept of “The Apprentice” from a client.
.. Avenatti was able to prove his client had pitched a pilot called “C.E.O.” to Burnett’s people. Trump and Burnett settled.
..  But such cases are expensive to litigate and can drag on for years, with little — or, in the event of an adverse verdict, nothing — to show for it. Still, the high-risk-high-reward aspect of the work appealed to Avenatti; it was a good fit, he thought, for his personality.
.. he defining case of his young career, suing the accounting giant KPMG for audit malpractice, for failing to notice or report the some $40 million the chief financial officer had embezzled
.. Michael was a force of nature. He was like a little computer: He’d sit there processing, synthesizing. Then he’d sit down with the witness, and you’d watch him set them up, listen to their answers, and set them up again. They didn’t know what hit them.
..  “Michael has lived large for as long as I’ve known him,”
.. “The thing with living large, though, is that the highs might be high, but the lows are going to be really low. You can crash hard.”
.. Avenatti was dealing with a potentially more costly legal matter, this one involving a former litigator at the firm, Jason Frank. In an arbitration case filed in California, Frank claimed that Avenatti had kept pertinent financial forms from him and generally misstated profits in order to avoid paying Frank millions.
.. A judge in Florida issued what’s called an automatic stay on Eagan Avenatti, a temporary form of bankruptcy that would remain in effect until the debt to Tobin was repaid.
.. which meant Frank could not move forward in his effort to recoup the millions he said he was owed
..  judge in charge of adjudicating the bankruptcy. Referring to what she described as a “stench of impropriety,” the judge said it was unclear whether “Tobin had some relationship with the firm that would have induced a collusive filing” or whether “Eagan Avenatti just got plain lucky.”
.. “At their root, the O’Malley thing and the Frank thing, they were both about Michael not playing nicely with others,”
..  “Michael has always been attack, attack, attack. That ability to sit down and calmly settle things behind closed doors, that’s the club missing from his bag. He has no reluctance about letting problems turn into public, very ugly brawls.”
.. “The kind of work I do,” Avenatti told me recently, “there’s usually a lot of money on the line, there are jobs on the line. It’s not a world that lends itself to everyone being friendly all the time. We’re certainly not sitting around holding hands, singing ‘Kumbaya.’ ”
.. Frank was approved by a bankruptcy judge: Eagan Avenatti was to pay Frank $4.85 million, with $2 million due in May. (That first payment was missed; the parties now dispute the terms of the settlement.)
.. Around the same time, Avenatti reached out to William Hearon, a lawyer friend, to talk about a new client he was considering representing in a civil suit.
.. Avenatti has taken great pains not to reveal how he was introduced to Stormy Daniels, possibly because he worries the story of their meeting could help fuel persistent suspicions that he is acting on behalf of a Democratic donor
.. The Times has reported that Avenatti reached out to major Democratic financial backers, including David Brock, to discuss funding for the lawsuit, but that no money changed hands.
.. “Michael never sought me out,” Daniels told me. “I hate it when people say Avenatti must have persuaded me to do this. I had the same conversation with him I had with other lawyers,” she went on. “Michael was the best choice. He never tried to discredit what I was saying. He believed me. He thought I was speaking the truth.”
.. And after Cohen subsequently produced a letter he said was signed by Daniels, denying an affair ever took place, she grew increasingly frustrated.
.. “Part of the reason that we went with a media-heavy strategy,” Avenatti told me, “was because we wanted to reset the narrative around my client. I wanted the American people to see what she’s all about. I wanted them to see her in the way that I had come to know her.”
.. Avenatti’s theatrics, and the often-intersecting paths of the Mueller probe and his own legal crusade, have left him vulnerable to the charge that he is merely piggybacking onto an investigation that would move forward with or without his participation. (The Wall Street Journal has reported that Avenatti has “frustrated” the efforts of Mueller’s team to investigate Cohen’s orchestration of the NDA — a charge Avenatti vociferously denies,
.. Should Avenatti, for instance, fail in his bid to invalidate the NDA, his client, who described on “60 Minutes” the details of her alleged affair with Trump — down to the precoital spanking and the claim that she could identify his genitals — could be liable for millions in damages.
.. by continuing to appear on television, Avenatti risks annoying jurists on his cases like Kimba Wood, the judge overseeing the federal Cohen probe
.. “I either want you to participate or not be in the matter at all,” the judge went on. “I don’t want you to have some existence in a limbo where you’re free to denigrate Mr. Cohen and, I believe, potentially deprive him of a fair trial by tainting a jury pool.”
.. “My own personal opinion is he’s getting too much exposure,” says Robert Bennett, President Clinton’s personal lawyer leading up to the 1999 impeachment hearings. “If you want to really win, and not just cause embarrassment to the White House, you should resist the urge to be in the spotlight all the time. You don’t want to overplay your hand.”
.. “Here’s the comment: Keith Davidson is a disgrace.”
..  I wondered if, given the intense highs of the Daniels case, he could envision himself going back to regular old corporate law in a full-time capacity. Wouldn’t politics be more appealing?
..  Using the car’s paddle shifters, Avenatti dropped the car into fifth, and we shot forward down the carpool lane until the surrounding scenery had been reduced to a nauseating blur.
.. “Pull over,” the police cruiser’s loudspeaker crackled.

I sneaked a look at Avenatti. He was smiling. He took the next exit, and drawing to a halt in a strip-mall parking lot, waited for the cop to reach his window. Instead of writing a ticket, the officer gave Avenatti a warning: “Sir, in the future, make sure to stay in your lane.”

President Dumb and Dumber

Donald Trump has a penchant for labeling particular people. It might strike some as just another insult for a petulant urchin of a man who insults everyone with whom he takes issue. But I believe that the nature of his insults to specific kinds of people says something more about the character and nature of the man, something of which he may or may not be aware.

I believe that the fact that he so often attacks the intellectual capacity of women and minorities exposes a racial and gender bias, one that has a long history and a wide acceptance.

.. Hover over the irony here: The man trying to help at-risk children by opening doors for them was being attacked by the man who has put children at risk by locking them in cages.

.. Trump repeated the sobriquet he has assigned to California Representative Maxine Waters, calling her, “Very low I.Q. low. Low I.Q.”

..  review of the many insults Trump has spouted since he declared his candidacy finds that although he has called many people dumb, or dummies or low I.Q., the targeting of that particular insult at women, including minority women, occurs with curious frequency and is often a singular line of attack against them, rather than one of many.

He has called MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski “dumb as a rock,” “low I.Q.,” and “crazy and very dumb.”

He has called HLN anchor S.E. Cupp and political commentator Ana Navarro “two of the dumbest people in politics,” and has called Cupp “one of the dumber pundits on TV.”

He has called Republican consultant Cheri Jacobus “really dumb” and “a real dummy.”

He has called Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin “one of the dumber bloggers.”

He has said of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that she “has embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me.”

He has said of the journalist Mary Katharine Ham that she “isn’t smart enough to know what’s going on at the border.”

He has called the Forbes writer Clare O’Connor a “dummy” multiple times.

He has said that Maria Cardona made Morning Edition contributor Cokie Roberts look “even dumber” than he believed she was on a news show.

He has called Arianna Huffington, founder of HuffPost, a “dummy.”

.. I read in these comments an overt misogyny that has long existed in this country and the world, one that seeks to undercut the seriousness and cerebral capacity of women, to render them as emotionally unsuitable for deep deliberative analysis.

.. This is the very same argument that people have used to deny women’s suffrage and prevent access to full political participation.

.. Most people, male and female alike, believed that women were biologically unfit for politics. According to one orator at a mass meeting in Albany, New York, ‘A woman’s brain involves emotion rather than intellect, [which] painfully disqualifies her for the sterner duties to be performed by the intellectual faculties.’

..  ‘Housewives!’ announced a Massachusetts journal, ‘You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout.’ ”

And yet, 170 years on, we have a president of the United States questioning women’s intelligence.

.. “Women have scored higher than men in intelligence testing for the first time since records began.”

Stormy Daniels’s lawyer is a media star. So why is he threatening journalists?

He has proved to be irresistible media catnip : flamboyant and fast-talking with a bottomless pocketful of scoops and quotes.

.. stories circulated of Avenatti threatening or harshly criticizing three media organizations: the Daily Caller, the Hollywood Reporter and Law & Crime, a legal website.

.. “If you and your colleagues do not stop with the hit pieces that are full of lies and defamatory statements, I will have no choice but to sue each of you and your publication for defamation,”

.. Here is the charismatic ratings-meister who thrives in the spotlight, but when the coverage turns negative, he goes on the attack against the very press that benefits him.

.. “Avenatti seems quite Trumpian in both loving media attention and acting quite contemptuously toward the free press.”

.. Identifying errors, and asking for corrections, is always legitimate, of course.

But should a fit of pique really include threats to sue journalists and their news organizations for defamation?

.. he sees Avenatti being treated as a hero because a lot of people agree with his anti-Trump agenda.

But he says he shouldn’t get that kind of a pass.

.. Liberals’ faulty thinking about Avenatti goes like this, he said: “It’s okay if he acts badly because he’s accomplishing things.”

.. White sees a clear parallel to the way avid Trump supporters defend the president’s unsavory behavior: “Take him seriously, not literally” — simply because it’s someone whose agenda you like.

.. “I generally support standing up to Trump and Cohen,” White said, “but when Avenatti makes frivolous legal threats, he’s acting just like them.” (Trump is well known for threats to sue journalists, very few of which have come to pass.)

Avenatti is effective, in part, because he plays the same game as Trump, with a gleeful willingness to attack and an instinct for manipulating journalistic appetites.