Avengers: Infinity War just set the record for the biggest movie opening ever. But even Avengers have haters. And from time to time, we like to shine a white-hot light on the trolls. Here’s a new all Avengers edition of #MeanTweets featuring Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Winston Duke, Elizabeth Olsen, Don Cheadle, Dave Bautista, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Rudd, Karen Gillan, Paul Bettany, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt & Chris Evans.
Understand that, and you’ll understand what he’s doing in the White House.
On Sept. 1, with a Category 5 hurricane off the Atlantic coast, an angry wind was issuing from the direction of President Trump’s Twitter account. The apparent emergency: Debra Messing, the co-star of “Will & Grace,” had tweeted that “the public has a right to know” who is attending a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for Mr. Trump’s re-election.
“I have not forgotten that when it was announced that I was going to do The Apprentice, and when it then became a big hit, Helping NBC’s failed lineup greatly, @DebraMessing came up to me at an Upfront & profusely thanked me, even calling me ‘Sir,’ ” wrote the 45th president of the United States.
It was a classic Trumpian ragetweet: aggrieved over a minor slight, possibly prompted by a Fox News segment, unverifiable — he has a long history of questionable tales involving someone calling him “Sir” — and nostalgic for his primetime-TV heyday. (By Thursday he was lashing Ms. Messing again, as Hurricane Dorian was lashing the Carolinas.)
This is a futile effort. Try to understand Donald Trump as a person with psychology and strategy and motivation, and you will inevitably spiral into confusion and covfefe. The key is to remember that Donald Trump is not a person. He’s a TV character.
I mean, O.K., there is an actual person named Donald John Trump, with a human body and a childhood and formative experiences that theoretically a biographer or therapist might usefully delve into someday. (We can only speculate about the latter; Mr. Trump has boasted on Twitter of never having seen a psychiatrist, preferring the therapeutic effects of “hit[ting] ‘sleazebags’ back.”)
But that Donald Trump is of limited significance to America and the world. The “Donald Trump” who got elected president, who has strutted and fretted across the small screen since the 1980s, is a decades-long media performance. To understand him, you need to approach him less like a psychologist and more like a TV critic.
He was born in 1946, at the same time that American broadcast TV was being born. He grew up with it. His father, Fred, had one of the first color TV sets in Jamaica Estates. In “The Art of the Deal” Donald Trump recalls his mother, Mary Anne, spending a day in front of the tube, enraptured by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. (“For Christ’s sake, Mary,” he remembers his father saying, “Enough is enough, turn it off. They’re all a bunch of con artists.”)TV was his soul mate. It was like him. It was packed with the razzle-dazzle and action and violence that captivated him. He dreamed of going to Hollywood, then he shelved those dreams in favor of his father’s business and vowed, according to the book “TrumpNation” by Timothy O’Brien, to “put show business into real estate.”
As TV evolved from the homogeneous three-network mass medium of the mid-20th century to the polarized zillion-channel era of cable-news fisticuffs and reality shocker-tainment, he evolved with it. In the 1980s, he built a media profile as an insouciant, high-living apex predator. In 1990, he described his yacht and gilded buildings to Playboy as “Props for the show … The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”
He syndicated that show to Oprah, Letterman, NBC, WrestleMania and Fox News. Everything he achieved, he achieved by using TV as a magnifying glass, to make himself appear bigger than he was.
He was able to do this because he thought like a TV camera. He knew what TV wanted, what stimulated its nerve endings. In his campaign rallies, he would tell The Washington Post, he knew just what to say “to keep the red light on”: that is, the light on a TV camera that showed that it was running, that you mattered. Bomb the [redacted] out of them! I’d like to punch him in the face! The red light radiated its approval. Cable news aired the rallies start to finish. For all practical purposes, he and the camera shared the same brain.
Even when he adopted social media, he used it like TV. First, he used it like a celebrity, to broadcast himself, his first tweet in 2009 promoting a “Late Show With David Letterman” appearance. Then he used it like an instigator, tweeting his birther conspiracies before he would talk about them on Fox News, road-testing his call for a border wall during the cable-news fueled Ebola and border panics of the 2014 midterms.
When he was a candidate, and especially when he was president, his tweets programmed TV and were amplified by it. On CNBC, a “BREAKING NEWS: TRUMP TWEET” graphic would spin out onscreen as soon as the words left his thumbs. He would watch Fox News, or Lou Dobbs, or CNN or “Morning Joe” or “Saturday Night Live” (“I don’t watch”), and get mad, and tweet. Then the tweets would become TV, and he would watch it, and tweet again.
If you want to understand what President Trump will do in any situation, then, it’s more helpful to ask: What would TV do? What does TV want?It wants conflict. It wants excitement. If there is something that can blow up, it should blow up. It wants a fight. It wants more. It is always eating and never full.
Some presidential figure-outers, trying to understand the celebrity president through a template that they were already familiar with, have compared him with Ronald Reagan: a “master showman” cannily playing a “role.”
The comparison is understandable, but it’s wrong. Presidents Reagan and Trump were both entertainers who applied their acts to politics. But there’s a crucial difference between what “playing a character” means in the movies and what it means on reality TV.
Ronald Reagan was an actor. Actors need to believe deeply in the authenticity and interiority of people besides themselves — so deeply that they can subordinate their personalities to “people” who are merely lines on a script. Acting, Reagan told his biographer Lou Cannon, had taught him “to understand the feelings and motivations of others.”
Being a reality star, on the other hand, as Donald Trump was on “The Apprentice,” is also a kind of performance, but one that’s antithetical to movie acting. Playing a character on reality TV means being yourself, but bigger and louder.
Reality TV, writ broadly, goes back to Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera,” the PBS documentary “An American Family,” and MTV’s “The Real World.” But the first mass-market reality TV star was Richard Hatch, the winner of the first season of “Survivor” — produced by Mark Burnett, the eventual impresario of “The Apprentice”— in the summer of 2000.
Mr. Hatch won that first season in much the way that Mr. Trump would run his 2016 campaign. He realized that the only rules were that there were no rules. He lied and backstabbed and took advantage of loopholes, and he argued — with a telegenic brashness — that this made him smart. This was a crooked game in a crooked world, he argued to a final jury of players he’d betrayed and deceived. But, hey: At least he was open about it!
While shooting that first season, the show’s crew was rooting for Rudy Boesch, a 72-year-old former Navy SEAL and model of hard work and fair play. “The only outcome nobody wanted was Richard Hatch winning,” the host, Jeff Probst, would say later. It “would be a disaster.” After all, decades of TV cop shows had taught executives the iron rule that the viewers needed the good guy to win.
But they didn’t. “Survivor” was addictively entertaining, and audiences loved-to-hate the wryly devious Richard the way they did Tony Soprano and, before him, J.R. Ewing. More than 50 million people watched the first-season finale, and “Survivor” has been on the air nearly two decades.
From Richard Hatch, we got a steady stream of Real Housewives, Kardashians, nasty judges, dating-show contestants who “didn’t come here to make friends” and, of course, Donald Trump.
Reality TV has often gotten a raw deal from critics. (Full disclosure: I still watch “Survivor.”) Its audiences, often dismissed as dupes, are just as capable of watching with a critical eye as the fans of prestige cable dramas. But when you apply its mind-set — the law of the TV jungle — to public life, things get ugly.
In reality TV — at least competition reality shows like “The Apprentice” — you do not attempt to understand other people, except as obstacles or objects. To try to imagine what it is like to be a person other than yourself (what, in ordinary, off-camera life, we call “empathy”) is a liability. It’s a distraction that you have to tune out in order to project your fullest you.
Reality TV instead encourages “getting real.” On MTV’s progressive, diverse “Real World,” the phrase implied that people in the show were more authentic than characters on scripted TV — or even than real people in your own life, who were socially conditioned to “be polite.” But “getting real” would also resonate with a rising conservative notion: that political correctness kept people from saying what was really on their minds.
Being real is not the same thing as being honest. To be real is to be the most entertaining, provocative form of yourself. It is to say what you want, without caring whether your words are kind or responsible — or true — but only whether you want to say them. It is to foreground the parts of your personality (aggression, cockiness, prejudice) that will focus the red light on you, and unleash them like weapons.
Maybe the best definition of being real came from the former “Apprentice” contestant and White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman in her memoir, “Unhinged.” Mr. Trump, she said, encouraged people in his entourage to “exaggerate the unique part of themselves.” When you’re being real, there is no difference between impulse and strategy, because the “strategy” is to do what feels good.
This is why it misses a key point to ask, as Vanity Fair recently did after Mr. Trump’s assault on Representative Elijah E. Cummings and the city of Baltimore in July, “Is the president a racist, or does he just play one on TV?” In reality TV, if you are a racist — and reality TV has had many racists, like Katie Hopkins, the far-right British “Apprentice” star the president frequently retweets — then you are a racist and you play one on TV.
So if you actually want a glimpse into the mind of Donald J. Trump, don’t look for a White House tell-all or some secret childhood heartbreak. Go to the streaming service Tubi, where his 14 seasonsof “The Apprentice” recently became accessible to the public.
You can fast-forward past the team challenges and the stagey visits to Trump-branded properties. They’re useful in their own way, as a picture of how Mr. Burnett buttressed the future president’s Potemkin-zillionaire image. But the unadulterated, 200-proof Donald Trump is found in the boardroom segments, at the end of each episode, in which he “fires” one contestant.
In theory, the boardroom is where the best performers in the week’s challenges are rewarded and the screw-ups punished. In reality, the boardroom is a new game, the real game, a free-for-all in which contestants compete to throw one another under the bus and beg Mr. Trump for mercy.
There is no morality in the boardroom. There is no fair and unfair in the boardroom. There is only the individual, trying to impress Mr. Trump, to flatter Mr. Trump, to commune with his mind and anticipate his whims and fits of pique. Candidates are fired for
- being too nice to their adversaries (weak), for
- giving credit to their teammates, for
- interrupting him.
The host’s decisions were often so mercurial, producers have said, that they would have to go back and edit the episodes to impose some appearance of logic on them.
What saves you in the boardroom? Fighting. Boardroom Trump loves to see people fight each other. He perks up at it like a cat hearing a can opener. He loves to watch people scrap for his favor (as they eventually would in his White House). He loves asking contestants to rat out their teammates and watching them squirm with conflict. The unity of the team gives way to disunity, which in the Trumpian worldview is the most productive state of being.
And America loved boardroom Trump — for a while. He delivered his catchphrase in TV cameos and slapped it on a reissue of his 1980s Monopoly knockoff Trump: The Game. (“I’m back and you’re fired!”) But after the first season, the ratings dropped; by season four they were nearly half what they were in season one.
He reacted to his declining numbers by ratcheting up what worked before: becoming a louder, more extreme, more abrasive version of himself. He gets more insulting in the boardroom — “You hang out with losers and you become a loser”— and executes double and quadruple firings.
It’s a pattern that we see as he advances toward his re-election campaign, with an eye not on the Nielsen ratings but on the polls: The only solution for any given problem was a Trumpier Trump.
Did it work for “The Apprentice”? Yes and no. His show hung on to a loyal base through 14 seasons, including the increasingly farcical celebrity version. But it never dominated its competition again, losing out, despite his denials, to the likes of the sitcom “Mike & Molly.”
Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” boardroom closed for business on Feb. 16, 2015, precisely four months before he announced his successful campaign for president. And also, it never closed. It expanded. It broke the fourth wall. We live inside it now.
Now, Mr. Trump re-creates the boardroom’s helter-skelter atmosphere every time he opens his mouth or his Twitter app. In place of the essentially dead White House press briefing, he walks out to the lawn in the morning and reporters gaggle around him like “Apprentice” contestants awaiting the day’s task. He rails and complains and establishes the plot points for that day’s episode:
- “I am the chosen one!”
Then cable news spends morning to midnight happily masticating the fresh batch of outrages before memory-wiping itself to prepare for tomorrow’s episode. Maybe this sounds like a TV critic’s overextended metaphor, but it’s also the president’s: As The Times has reported, before taking office, he told aides to think of every day as “an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”
Mr. Trump has been playing himself instinctually as a character since the 1980s; it’s allowed him to maintain a profile even through bankruptcies and humiliations. But it’s also why, on the rare occasions he’s had to publicly attempt a role contrary to his nature — calling for healing from a script after a mass shooting, for instance — he sounds as stagey and inauthentic as an unrehearsed amateur doing a sitcom cameo.
His character shorthand is “Donald Trump, Fighter Guy Who Wins.” Plop him in front of a camera with an infant orphaned in a mass murder, and he does not have it in his performer’s tool kit to do anything other than smile unnervingly and give a fat thumbs-up.
This is what was lost on commentators who kept hoping wanly that this State of the Union or that tragedy would be the moment he finally became “presidential.” It was lost on journalists who felt obligated to act as though every modulated speech from a teleprompter might, this time, be sincere.
The institution of the office is not changing Donald Trump, because he is already in the sway of another institution. He is governed not by the truisms of past politics but by the imperative of reality TV: never de-escalate and never turn the volume down.
This conveniently echoes the mantra he learned from his early mentor, Roy Cohn: Always attack and never apologize. He serves up one “most shocking episode ever” after another, mining uglier pieces of his core each time: progressing from profanity about Haiti and Africa in private to publicly telling four minority American congresswomen, only one of whom was born outside the United States, to “go back” to the countries they came from.
- The taunting.
- The insults.
- The dog whistles.
- The dog bullhorns.
- The “Lock her up” and “Send her back.”
All of it follows reality-TV rules. Every season has to top the last. Every fight is necessary, be it against Ilhan Omar or Debra Messing. Every twist must be more shocking, every conflict more vicious, lest the red light grow bored and wink off. The only difference: Now there’s no Mark Burnett to impose retroactive logic on the chaos, only press secretaries, pundits and Mike Pence.
To ask whether any of this is “instinct” or “strategy” is a parlor game. If you think like a TV camera — if thinking in those reflexive microbursts of adrenaline and testosterone has served you your whole life — then the instinct is the strategy.
And to ask who the “real” Donald Trump is, is to ignore the obvious. You already know who Donald Trump is. All the evidence you need is right there on your screen. He’s half-man, half-TV, with a camera for an eye that is constantly focused on itself. The red light is pulsing, 24/7, and it does not appear to have an off switch.
Criticism of the media by a president is not necessarily a bad thing
Depending on your perspective, one of President Trump’s real talents, or one of his most baleful traits, is his knack for the zinger label, pinned on a political or institutional foe. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “The Swamp” — the labels often stick . . . and sting.
But who exactly is “the enemy of the people”? Trump maintains that he is not referring to the entire press, only to “fake news” coverage by mainstream-media outlets. Is such line-drawing appropriate? Even if the public at large may validly make such distinctions, should they be drawn by a president of the United States, or does that specter imperil constitutional free-press protections?
.. Before Trump zapped our politics with his lightning rod, it was a commonplace in conservative circles to complain about that most pernicious practice of the political press: the pretense of objectivity. No, we did not begrudge the New York Times and Washington Post their editorial pages, nor resent opinion pieces and programs clearly advertised as such. Our objection was to patently biased news coverage that was presented as if it were dispassionate, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting. The bias is seen and unseen, but pervasive. It is found in the reporting itself. It is intimated in the description of sources (e.g., conservatives always described as “conservative”; left-wing sources — the ACLU, SPLC, CAIR, etc. — described as civil-rights groups with no partisan agenda). Most important, it is concealed in editorial decisions about what gets covered and what does not, camouflaged by the thread that gets emphasis and the “lede” that gets buried... By reporting this way, the media inculcate in the public the assumption that there is no other side of the story. The Left’s Weltanschauung is not presented merely as a worldview; it is portrayed as objective, inarguable fact, and any other way of looking at things is subversive, cynical, or psychotic... Nietzsche was right that we are hard-wired to exaggerate when speaking about what ails us. That goes double for political discourse. To limn one’s political opposition as “the enemy” is common. It has been throughout history, and I’m sure I’ve done it myself. No more thought goes into it than into a sportscaster’s use of “warrior” to laud some running back who just gained 100 grueling yards. It’s just rhetoric. When we resort to it, we’re not intentionally trivializing the danger posed by actual enemies or diminishing the courage of real warriors... Still, the older one gets, the easier it is to see why referring to partisan opponents as “enemies” is unhelpful. Over time, political coalitions shift. Notions about friend and foe change. To coexist and govern, we have to compromise, and casual condemnations of our opposite number as “the enemy” make compromise harder. When I was a prosecutor, I had genial relations with most of my defense-lawyer adversaries. We fought hard but saw that letting it get too sharp-elbowed, too personal, could rupture the working relationships needed to get through the case . . . and the next one. The stakes were high, but it was markedly less polarized than politics has become... This president runs hot and cold in a nanosecond, so it’s probably a fool’s errand to analyze his rhetoric too closely —
- one minute you’re “rocket man,” the barbaric dictator;
- the next minute, you’re the “funny guy” with the “great personality” who really “loves his people,
not that I’m surprised by that.”
.. Topsy-turvy, to be sure, but Trump’s mercurial outbursts, his cavalier resort to words like “enemy” — words other presidents have been circumspect about — does not mean he perceives no difference between Jim Acosta and Osama bin Laden.
So . . . what does the president mean by “the enemy of the people”? More specifically, to whom is he referring? Well, there was an interesting exchange about that last weekend, during Trump’s sit-down interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace.
.. In the discussion, Trump several times tried to clarify that when he refers to “the enemy of the people,” he is not speaking of all journalists; he is referring to a large subset of journalists that he calls “the Fake News.” According to the president, these are the mainstream-media outlets that align with Democrats and treat him as a partisan opponent, resulting in dishonest and inaccurate coverage of his presidency.
.. Now, you can agree or disagree with him on that, but he is entitled to his opinion. To my mind, there has been plenty of dishonest and inaccurate coverage of Trump. To be sure, there has also been plenty of honest and accurate coverage of the president saying things that are dishonest or inaccurate. Nevertheless, the sheer contempt in which this president is held by journalists is manifest. Even for those of us old enough to remember the coverage of Nixon and Reagan (as well as the Bushes), it is something to behold.
.. For one thing, the effort to delegitimize Trump’s presidency by claiming that he “colluded” in the Kremlin’s 2016 election-meddling has been tireless, and apparently effective. The effort was fueled by selective intelligence leaks and the modern media melding of opinion journalism with news reporting. After over two years of digging, investigators have lodged no collusion allegation; to the contrary, the indictments that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has filed tend to undermine any theory of a Trump–Russia criminal conspiracy. Yet the president remains under suspicion and the media routinely insinuate that Mueller’s mere issuance of indictments validates that suspicion — even though the indictments have nothing to do with Trump.
.. As Power Line’s John Hinderaker relates, recent polling by The Economist and YouGov found that nearly half of American women (48 percent) and fully two-thirds of Democrats (67 percent) actually believe that “Russia tampered with the vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President” — notwithstanding that investigators have never even suspected Russia of tampering with vote tallies, for Trump or anyone else. (The investigation involves allegations that Russia hacked Democratic email accounts.)
.. As Wallace framed the matter, there is only one press, all the journalists are part of it, and no distinctions may be drawn. “We are all together . . . we are in solidarity, sir,” he told the president, adding that, for these purposes, there is no difference between CNN, the New York Times, and Fox. Even though Wallace acknowledged that some coverage of Trump is “biased,” he maintained that the press is a monolith; therefore, the argument went, to condemn a subset of journalists is to condemn the whole of journalism.
.. While he did not air them fully (it was, after all, an interview of the president), I imagine he worries that the “enemy of the people” formulation is a case of Trump wrongly conflating opposition to Trump with opposition to America. Perhaps the issue is not so much the drawing of distinctions between worthy and unworthy journalism, but rather that the president of the United States should not be doing the drawing. The president, clearly, is not just anyone. He is the highest official of a government that is constitutionally obligated to respect freedom of the press, to refrain from threatening it. If people hear an analyst decrying media bias, that is one thing; if they hear the president decrying “the media,” they may not grasp that he intends to rebuke only a subset of the media. They may not be so sure that the rebuke is good-faith criticism, as opposed to despotic intimidation. They may conclude that free-press principles are imperil
.. The fact that Trump’s bombast makes many of us wince — “enemy” — is a style point. If you don’t like it, do a better job running against him next time. After all, when vivid language is directed at conservatives, rather than at themselves, journalists are quick to tell us that life and progress in a free society require thick-skinned toleration of objectionable language and transgressive gestures. What’s sauce for the goose . . .
.. Before President Trump started using the phrase “the enemy of the people,” fair-minded people acknowledged media bias. Conservatives complained bitterly about it. These were not attacks on journalism; they were cris de coeur for real journalism. The president’s “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” epithets are best understood as a reiteration of these longstanding complaints in the barbed Trump style. This is no small thing. While the complaints are getting more of an airing than they have in the past, the president’s manner is off-putting to many people who were once sympathetic to the point he is making.
.. The mainstream press, meanwhile, is becoming more unabashedly hostile. At least that means there is more transparency, but is that a good thing? I don’t know. It would be good to be rid of the pretense of objectivity. But there are many reporters who do not pretend to be objective; they actually are objective, even if they have strong political views, even if they dislike the president for reasons of substance or style. We need those pros. We need to appreciate what they do, not reject real news because it may be news we don’t want to hear.
.. I do not lose much sleep over a president’s lashing out at what he perceives as, and what often truly is, biased reporting. This is not Turkey; a president would be impeached before a journalist spends an hour in prison for unflattering coverage. And I don’t worry much about whether criticism of a readily identifiable portion of the media harms the entire media as an institution. If journalists are worried about that, they should police their profession better. Jim Acosta hurts journalism more than he hurts Trump, and if the president is really as awful as many journalists contend, then simply asking his administration straightforward questions, rather than posing as “The Resistance,” should expose that.
Regardless of the outcome of the midterm election, this much already has become clear: The battle for the soul of the Republican party is over, and President Trump has won.
Mr. Trump was long resisted by his party’s establishment, and rejected by a large swath of the GOP’s core ideological conservatives, many of whom formed a kind of never-Trump resistance.
Now, as the second anniversary of his election approaches, both of those opposition fronts have crumbled. For Republicans, for better or for worse, it’s Mr. Trump’s more-populist party now.
At the grass roots, Republicans have united behind Mr. Trump with surprising solidarity. In this campaign season, establishment GOP candidates have accepted his help and endorsement and, in many cases, mimicked his style and themes.
The furious Democratic opposition to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has galvanized even many Republicans dubious about Mr. Trump. They see him as a flawed but preferable alternative to a Democratic Party they dislike and fear, and appear to regard him as a useful shield against it.
Perhaps most surprising, conservatives who disdained Mr. Trump and considered his views on trade, immigration and national security to be heretical are increasingly drifting toward him. In one leading indicator, two conservative writers critical of Mr. Trump—Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin—have in recent days been attacked by other conservatives for their views.
.. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who conducts frequent focus groups with voters around the country, says he also has been observing conservatives coalescing behind Mr. Trump—and bending to his policies.
“He’s redefined what conservatism means,” says Mr. Luntz. “I’m shocked at how many now support his trade policies. They support tariffs. On immigration, they were never for a wall. But now they are for a physical separation.”Signs of this Trump dominance and conservative acquiescence are woven throughout a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll... Eight in 10 conservatives have positive feelings toward the president; by contrast, only 42% have positive views of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, largely responsible for placing dozens of new conservative judges on the federal bench... The question is how Mr. Trump, who as a candidate was openly critical of party leaders and conservative activists, has managed to establish this grip... It isn’t necessarily because Republicans like his demeanor. In fact, many still are offended by that style. A third of Republicans say they don’t like Mr. Trump personally but approve of most of his policies.Part of the embrace of Mr. Trump undoubtedly comes because the economy is humming along so well; Republicans are inclined to give him credit for that, and they want to be part of the trend.
Mr. Luntz says the Kavanaugh fight in particular made Republicans who had been put off by the president’s anger and insulting style begin to embrace those characteristics. “They have bought into Trump’s claim that nothing else works,” he says.
.. the price of fighting him has been high. “There were people willing early on to take him on and they got smashed and hammered at the base of the party and they shut up,” he says.
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.
- 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 ..
- .. 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.”
- .. 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.”