Donald Trump’s Iran Show

He has a nose for power, and he thinks Tehran is weaker than Obama understood.

President Trump’s Iran policy over the weekend was both erratic and masterful. Doves and isolationists, panicked by what they see as the administration’s inexorable drift toward war, rejoiced when Mr. Trump announced that a military strike had been called back. Hawks criticized him for an Obama-like climb-down, but the announcement of cyberattacks and tightening sanctions helped smooth ruffled feathers.

The result? Mr. Trump more than ever dominates U.S. Iran policy; contending political factions within the administration and outside it must jockey for his support. And the more he talks and tweets about Iran, the less clear anyone is about his ultimate intentions.

None of this should be surprising. Consistently inconsistent on issues from trade with China and immigration from Mexico to Venezuela and North Korea and now Iran, Mr. Trump has been by turns more hawkish than any of his predecessors and dovish enough to thrill Sen. Rand Paul.

This president is first and foremost a showman. From his early real-estate days in 1970s New York through his time in reality television and into his third career in politics, Mr. Trump has understood and shrewdly deployed the power of fame. He has turned American politics into the Donald Trump Show, with the country and the world fixated on his every move, speculating feverishly about what will come next. Whether threatening on Twitter to rain down destruction from the sky, reining in the dogs of war at the last minute, or stage-managing high-stakes summit meetings, he is producing episodes of the most compelling reality show the world has ever seen.

Whether this helps or hurts American foreign policy is another question, but to turn intractable foreign-policy problems like North Korea’s nuclear program into fodder for the Trump publicity machine represents a triumph of marketing ingenuity if not of national strategy. Unresolved foreign-policy crises normally weigh on a president’s popularity; in Mr. Trump’s case, they become plotlines that provide drama and suspense. When Kim Jong Un gives him lemons, Mr. Trump sets up a lemonade stand.

The president’s critics continue to dismiss him as a cable-TV-obsessed, narcissistic know-nothing even as he dominates American and world politics. What they miss is that Mr. Trump not only possesses an instinctive ability to dominate media coverage; he is also a keen judge of power. The fashionable neighborhoods of Los Angeles are filled with world-famous celebrities who yearn for political power; Hollywood hates him so virulently in part because, like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump has transcended show business and transformed celebrity power into the real thing.

The key to the president’s Iran policy is that his nose for power tells him Iran is weaker and the U.S. stronger than the foreign-policy establishment believes. President Obama’s nuclear deal, from Mr. Trump’s perspective, was the result of a successful Iranian con game executed by clever Islamic Republic negotiators who ran circles around John Kerry. What Mr. Trump wants is a deal with Iran that matches his sense of the relative power of the two countries.

In pursuit of this goal he is combining two sets of strategies. At the level of public diplomacy he is engaging in his standard mix of dazzle and spin, shifting from bloodcurdling threats to gentle billing and cooing as need be. And at the level of power politics he is steadily and consistently tightening the screws on Iran: arming its neighbors and assuring them of his support, tightening sanctions, and raising the psychological pressure on the regime.

Mr. Trump well understands the constraints under which his Iran policy is working. Launching a new Middle East war could wreck his presidency. But if Iran starts the war, that’s another matter. A clear Iranian attack on American or even Israeli targets could unite Mr. Trump’s Jacksonian base like the attack on Pearl Harbor united America’s Jacksonians to fight Imperial Japan.

Americans did not want war in 1941. By levying crippling economic sanctions on Japan, President Roosevelt gave Tokyo the choice between retreating in Asia and launching a war against the U.S. Mr. Trump believes he can drive Iran into a similar corner—and that a weakened Iran will choose retreat over war.

Mr. Trump’s approach to American diplomacy horrifies an establishment that believes restraint, predictability and responsibility are the hallmarks of a global hegemon. Lesser powers can indulge in histrionic grandstanding, clownish antics, outrageous claims and public tantrums. The hegemon exhibits power by rising above such tawdry tricks.

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.”