‘Individual 1’: Trump emerges as a central subject of Mueller probe

“There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it,” Trump said. “When I’m running for president, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to do business.”

Trump often grows aggrieved seeing Cohen on TV, aides say. Among White House advisers, ­Cohen is seen as an existential threat — as much or more so than the Mueller investigation itself because of his longtime role as Trump’s fixer. Trump’s legal team did not learn until Thursday that Cohen had sat for dozens of hours of interviews with Mueller’s office, according to a senior administration official.

.. Trump was infuriated earlier this year when Cohen released tapes of him, and asked his lawyers and advisers if anything could be done to stop him from releasing any more.

.. According to a person familiar with the investigation, Cohen and the Trump Organization could not produce some of the key records upon which Mueller relies. Other witnesses provided copies of those communications.

.. Many in the White House try to avoid talking with the president about the Mueller probe, for fear they will be subpoenaed. And both of the aides said it was unclear why Trump was complaining more about the investigation recently. During the midterm campaign, the president occasionally told advisers that people had forgotten about the Mueller probe and remarked positively that it was no longer dominating TV headlines.

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.”

Content isn’t king

subscription streaming has more or less ended the strategic importance of music to tech companies. In the past, any music you bought for your iPod had proprietary DRM and could only be played on Apple devices

.. Your music library kept you on a device. With streaming these issues mostly go away.

.. if you do switch to a different service you’re not giving up tracks you’ve paid money for, just a list of your favourites. Switching became easy.

.. Since music no longer stops people from switching between platforms, it’s gone from being a moat .. to a low-margin check-box feature.

.. A Taylor Swift exclusive for Apple Music might drive some iPhone sales, just as a cool new ad campaign might, but there’s no strategic lever here – no lock-in. 

.. whenever I talk to music people or book people, very quickly the conversation becomes a music industry conversation or a book industry conversation. What matters for music are artists and touring and labels and so on, and what matters for books are writers and publishers and rights and Amazon’s bargaining power in books and so on. These aren’t tech conversations.

.. The big tech platform companies rolled into these industries and changed everything, but then moved on to bigger things.

.. Amazon has a big ebooks business, but Prime and perhaps Alexa are the strategic levers.

.. Tech needed content to make their devices viable, but having got the content (by any means necessary), and with it of course completely resetting the dynamics of the industry, tech outgrew music and books and moved on to bigger opportunities.

..  the shows that are watched mainly because they’re broadcast at 8pm on Saturday will suffer, and so will the channels that are watched because they’re high up on the program guide. Channel brands, shows and episodes are unbundled. We’ve been talking about this in theory for over a decade, but finally, praxis is here.

.. Amazon and Netflix have entered TV content creation and ownership in ways and on a scale that no-one from tech ever did for music or books. Amazon did try to get into book publishing and has a significant self-publishing arm, but it had little success recruiting existing mainstream authors

.. neither Apple nor Spotify created a record label. In TV, though, Amazon and Netflix are already spending more on commissioning original and exclusive content than many traditional channel brands.

.. Cancel the subscription delivery service and you lose access to all Amazon TV shows.

.. For Google and Facebook, there’s no subscription to cancel – there’s no binary (renew/don’t renew, cancel/don’t cancel) decision you might take that would cut off your access to that great TV show. You don’t close your Facebook account – you just go there less. You might stop paying for the Youtube TV service, but that won’t cut off your access to any other part of Google – nor would anyone want it to – the purpose of these businesses is reach.

.. cancel Prime and you’d lose Amazon, but what do Google & FB have to cancel? Without some platform decision to lock you into, content is marketing, and revenue, but not a lever.

..  You pay an average of $700 or so every two years (i.e. $30/month) and Apple gives you a phone. Buy an Android instead and you lose access to the (hypothetical) great Apple television service. This is why people argue that Apple should buy Netflix.

.. From a pure M&A perspective, buying Netflix and immediately limiting its business to Apple devices would halve its value – why buy a business and fire half the customers? Buying it without such a restriction would have no strategic value – Apple would just be buying marketing and revenue.

..  Apple has always preferred a very asset-light approach to things that are outside its core skills. It didn’t create a record label, or an MVNO, and it didn’t create a credit card for Apple Pay – it works with partners on the existing rails as much as possible

..  it does so with nothing like the kind of negotiating power that it had in iPod days – Amazon and Netflix (if not also Google and Facebook) have seen to that.

.. Part of ‘content is king’ was the idea that (at least in theory) content companies can withhold access to their libraries entirely, and in the past one might have presumed that that meant they had the power to kill any new service at birth. In reality, rights-holders have always had too strong a need for short-term revenue to forgo broad distribution, and few of them individually had a strong enough brand to extract a fee that was high enough to justify exclusivity.

.. They always have to take the cheques – individually to meet their bonus targets, and collectively to meet their earnings estimates.

.. for a media company to give a tech platform exclusivity is immediately to build up that platform’s power over the media companies.

.. Similar problems apply to the somewhat chimerical idea that content companies should go direct to consumer – few of them have the skills, fewer have the brand and content, and fewer still, again, have a shareholder structure to allow the short-term revenue hit.

.. the device is the phone and the network is the internet. The smartphone is the sun and everything else orbits it. Internet advertising will be bigger than TV advertising this year, and Apple’s revenue is larger than the entire global pay TV industry.

.. This is also why tech companies are even thinking about commissioning their own premium shows today – they are now so big that the budgets involved in buying or creating TV look a lot less daunting than they once did.

 

A Hoover Restoration

Buckley’s great achievement was in elevating television to fit his intellectual agenda rather than fitting himself to the demands of the medium. Firing Line was in fact one of the most un-television-y things in the history of television. But it worked.

.. In the second half of the 20th century, television was almost precisely the opposite of what it is today: The entertainment programming was almost uniformly mindless — BonanzaBewitchedGomer Pyle USMC— but there was an audience for high-quality public-affairs programming. (Not a huge audience.) Now, we have excellent television dramas and endless first-rate documentaries . . . and Sean Hannity, who combines the subtlety of Father Coughlin with the wit and originality of late-period Three’s Company.

.. The thing about Firing Line — the thing that is missing from our current political debate — is that it was a genuine conversation. Not that Buckley was Mr. Nice Guy — far from it. As a debater, he was predatory — but the other guy got his say, too.

.. Debating the Reverend Jesse Jackson on the subject of drug legalization (Buckley for, Jackson against), he offered this guidance: “I would hope we emancipate ourselves from the superstition that that which is legal is necessarily honorable. It’s perfectly legal to contract syphilis, but it doesn’t mean that society is in favor of syphilis. For that matter, it’s perfectly legal to vote for Jesse Jackson — that doesn’t make it reputable, does it?”

.. candidates for what today goes by the polite name “de-platforming.” But rather than try to silence those whose views he himself found abhorrent, Buckley put them on television’s most prestigious public-affairs program.

.. Christopher Hitchens advised his fellow radicals that they’d never get a more open or fairer hearing than on Firing Line, and he was right about that.

.. The new Firing Line presents an opportunity for revitalized discourse in an era dominated by antidiscourse — which is to say, communication that is designed to prevent the exchange of information and ideas rather than to enable it.

.. Antidiscourse is the stock in trade of the arsonists at Berkeley and the screamers at Yale

.. Buckley could simply have denounced the segregationist Democrat George Wallace when he was getting ready for his third-party presidential run in 1968. It would have been easy to do, given the richness of the material. A different kind of man in a different time might have simply done a mocking, Jon Stewart–style montage of Wallace’s grossest offenses, ridiculing him at arm’s length, or made a self-serving self-righteous spectacle congratulating himself for “not giving a platform to hate.”

.. “I feel he occupies a position roughly equivalent to Huey Long,” Buckley later told Stars and Stripes. “Huey Long embarrassed a lot of Democrats because he was saying the kind of things a lot of left Democrats wanted said but saying them uncouthly.” Plus ça change . . .)

.. What has not passed is our need for serious and substantial conversation about the things that matter most in our public life. And that’s worth pursuing, under Firing Line or any other name.