DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So if you turn on the TV these days, it is pretty hard to miss Michael Avenatti. He is the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who says she had an affair with President Trump. The case began as a dispute over a hush money payment, but it's turned really into a free-for-all with Avenatti near the center ring of the circus. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson brings us this profile.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: From his earliest days in law school, Michael Avenatti was hard to miss.
JONATHAN TURLEY: Michael did, in fact, stand out in his class.
JOHNSON: Professor Jonathan Turley remembers Avenatti as one of the best students at George Washington University Law School. He was also, Turley says, a guy in a hurry.
TURLEY: He first spoke to me about his desire to join a litigation team in his first year. And I joked that he might want to find out where his locker is before he joined a litigation team.
JOHNSON: Avenatti is the first person in his family to graduate from college. He put himself through school by doing opposition research for political candidates, Democrats and Republicans. This year, those two paths have converged, the political and the legal, in spectacular fashion. Avenatti has managed to take a boring fight over a nondisclosure agreement with Stormy Daniels and turn it into a vehicle to attack Michael Cohen, the president's personal lawyer and the president himself.
TURLEY: He put a series of tripwires in front of the president's lawyer. And Michael Cohen literally tripped over every one of them.
JOHNSON: Cohen is now under federal criminal investigation. The FBI raided his hotel room, his office and his home. Outside the courthouse in New York yesterday, Avenatti said he's just getting started.
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MICHAEL AVENATTI: We've got a whole host of information that we're going to be releasing relating to Mr. Cohen and relating to Mr. Trump, so they'd better buckle up.
JOHNSON: Avenatti won't say how he wound up representing Stormy Daniels, but, he says, she wasn't referred to him by anyone with a political axe to grind.
Mr. Avenatti, do you sometimes do or say things just to unsettle the president?
AVENATTI: No. I think I do and say things to advance the interest of my client and our cause and the cases at issue. And to the extent that that may be unsettling to the president, that's not surprising because he's a party opponent in litigation.
JOHNSON: Avenatti says the Daniels case is funded entirely through crowdsourcing, $525,000 donated so far, according to the CrowdJustice website. Lately, money has been a touchy subject. This week, Avenatti told a judge he's a finalist for a trial lawyer of the year award, citing a jury verdict of $454 million.
TED BOUTROUS: It's really misleading for anyone to talk about that verdict without noting that it has been massively reduced.
JOHNSON: Ted Boutrous is a lawyer on the other side of that case from Avenatti. Boutrous says that verdict has been cut to under $20 million and even that's now under appeal. Meanwhile, Avenatti's own financial situation has become news. In court this month, a government lawyer said Avenatti missed a tax payment connected to the bankruptcy of his old law firm, Eagan Avenatti. Avenatti tells me his tax situation is beside the point.
AVENATTI: There's no question that these personal attacks are designed to undercut our case and our message and our efforts. There's no question that a lot of it is politically motivated. It's absurd, frankly, it's malicious, it has nothing to do with the case.
JOHNSON: There are a few more questions about Avenatti in legal circles. This year, he released information about Michael Cohen, the president's lawyer, that appeared to come from a confidential government database. The Treasury Department has launched an investigation. Lawyers usually take care not to use materials that may be gathered illegally. And in this case, attorney-client privilege does not seem to apply. Eventually, Avenatti could be legally compelled to reveal his source, setting up another public showdown with him at the center.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.