VENICE, Calif. — Inside a two-bedroom apartment, 11 blocks from the ocean, there is a man in free fall, though he has nowhere to go. He wears a monitor on his right ankle, government-issued, blinking green beneath his tapered track pants. He doesn’t leave, except for court appearances and medical appointments. He makes calls on a red flip phone, designed for seniors by a company called Jitterbug: big buttons, no internet, cell service from Cricket Wireless. His old iPhone — the one where he handled his TV bookings, tapped out tweets and called reporters, wresting each story into the version he wanted, with charm, with pure aggression, with whatever the day required — now goes straight to voicemail. Maybe you had his number. Back then, for a while at least, who didn’t?
Behind a tall fence in the backyard, he can hear the lilt of brunches on Rose Avenue, laughter and music. There’s an ice cream parlor he likes on the corner, 482 feet away, but to get delivery, as with anything requiring internet access, the order must come from his roommate Jay Manheimer, the childhood friend from St. Louis who took him in almost two years ago when he was released on home confinement. The apartment sits beneath the flight path to the Santa Monica terminal where he used to fly jets. Engines roar overhead. The last time he flew private, in January 2020, he was shackled. Federal marshals chartered a plane to take him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where he spent 74 days in solitary confinement, in the high-security cell once occupied by El Chapo, one level above the unit where Jeffrey Epstein was held.
The last time he drove a race car, his most beloved and expensive habit, was 1,411 days ago. The last time he had a Grey Goose martini (up, two olives) and a New York strip at Craig’s, his preferred hangout in West Hollywood, was 709 days ago. The last time he wore his five-figure Patek Philippe Nautilus watch, before it was seized by the government, was 708 days ago. The last time he talked to his former client, Stormy Daniels, was February 2019. The last time a reporter asked him about running for president was March 24, 2019, the Sunday before his arrest. The last time he saw his parents was Thanksgiving 2019. His Twitter account, where he once held the attention of nearly 900,000 followers (now 680,000), sits frozen in September 2018: In the video that plays on loop in his last pinned tweet, he is on MSNBC, attacking the president and his party: “They want to make me the issue.” He’s staring into the camera, eyes level, talking fast. “I noticed earlier tonight, in fact, Don Jr. got in the mix by calling me a ‘porn star lawyer.’ Evidently he forgot that his father was the one that had unprotected sex with my ‘quote’ porn-star ‘close-quote’ client while his stepbrother was four months old at home with his stepmom.”
This Michael Avenatti doesn’t exist anymore.
That much is evident when you sit across from him in this small backyard, miles from the nearest green room. I spent several days this fall interviewing Avenatti about his role in a national moment — nine months in front of the camera — that feels as distant as it does unresolved. From March to December 2018, Michael Avenatti was a central figure in the most important political story in America: the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency. He was an unlikely resistance hero, maybe the first. His credentials were pure hot celebrity and a willingness to get in the mud and fight, filling a vacuum in the Democratic Party at a time when people were still afraid to use the words “liar” and “lies.” He was, by some unspoken consensus, serious enough to merit the platform. The words “potential Avenatti presidential run” were not a joke. In a world where the president established a zero-sum style of civic discourse, a talent for public combat was seen as its own justification. It propelled Avenatti, and it can be argued it also undid him. Almost as quickly as Avenatti arrived, he disappeared, undone by scandal, his enemy still in the White House. The only question left is whether the “cage fight” mentality he embraced so willingly — the thing that made him famous — will be what saves him from prison and obscurity.
To ask Michael Avenatti to explain what happened is both vivid and vexing. The details of the last three years come easily — dates, names, locations, tweets, dinners, his thoughts at the time. It’s the big picture that causes difficulty, and certain topics in particular: why he put himself on the nation’s largest stage, when he owed millions in taxes, according to federal prosecutors; when he had financial disputes with his former law partner; when his house (in the most general terms) was not in order, despite assuring informal advisers, two of them told me, that he had no skeletons in his closet. “Not a goddamn thing,” two people remember him saying at dinner in 2018, though he disputes “any suggestion that I led anyone to believe that I led a pristine life.”
Avenatti is now a convicted felon, found guilty of attempting to extort Nike in a scheme the government describes as a desperate shakedown. He is facing two and a half years in prison, pending his appeal. He is juggling three federal indictments, claims of fraud, embezzlement, and attempted extortion, the details of which he commands as if he were representing himself, which he did in the second of the three cases, in California, where federal prosecutors accused him of stealing millions of dollars from his own clients. Remarkably, the case ended in a mistrial after Avenatti successfully argued that federal prosecutors withheld evidence favorable to his defense. He spends his days now filing legal briefs, motions, appeals, letters to the court(s), and reviewing evidence. The second-floor apartment is filled with boxes of files labeled things like “CONTEMPT MOTION,” though they could very well say “BULLSHIT” — boxes and boxes of “It’s Bullshit” and “I Don’t Traffic In Bullshit” and “The Whole Premise Is Complete Bullshit” — which is generally where he lands on the case against him, both legally and in the public eye.
His main contention, his genuine belief, is that he would never have been pursued by federal prosecutors in three separate cases, on two coasts, held in solitary confinement alongside suspected terrorists and national security threats, if his name were not Michael Avenatti.
This is not to say that he doesn’t admit to mistakes — he does. But these regrets are often punctuated by his own preoccupations and obsessions, some of them significant, some of them seemingly irrelevant: The way his partner in the Nike negotiations, a prominent criminal defense attorney, never faced charges. The way Andrew Yang keeps mocking Avenatti’s performance at an Iowa Democratic Party dinner that happened three years ago. The way Stormy Daniels, the central figure in the third federal case against him, in which prosecutors say he stole some of the proceeds from her book deal, now works as a paranormal private investigator, which his lawyers say undermines her credibility. And finally, the way Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, served his own house arrest in his “multimillion-dollar luxury apartment,” Avenatti says, “with his Miró f—ing painting on the wall behind him when he does his YouTube interviews and his cable TV hits.”
When I suggest to Avenatti that he could do his own live hits, launch his own podcast, reconnect with his friends at MSNBC and CNN — his old dinner partners in New York — he stops me.
“I don’t think it would be smart. I don’t think it’d be a good look, and, you know, why risk it?” To hear other people bring up his name without being on set to challenge them, to yell like he used to — “it’s not killing me,” he says, “but it’s — it’s infuriating.”
Avenatti always performed best with others watching, and no one has been watching for a very long time. He has endless days and weeks to think about the downward trajectory of his life, which he doesn’t like to do when he is alone, which, inconveniently, is most of the time. “If I start thinking about the relationships I had that I no longer have, the opportunities I had that I no longer have, the freedom I had that I no longer have, the wealth and things I used to have that I no longer have, the notoriety and the adoration I used to have that I no longer have — I mean, it’ll destroy me,” he says. “I have to push it out of my mind, because it’s been such a gargantuan fall.”
Avenatti is fighting for the most basic reason a person could have, which is his freedom. But there is a more ineffable struggle going on inside the Venice apartment — one to preserve a sense that he mattered, not as a cartoonish figure in our political circus, but as a player of substance who cannot be dismissed. He helped create the binary media environment of the Trump era — but as he falls, eyeing the uncertain landing ahead, he is now desperate to be seen as a figure of complexity, to establish a public perception that will withstand the impact.
“I am not a Boy Scout, and I am not a serial killer,” he says. “It’s easier for us when it comes to judging other human beings, to say, ‘He or she is 100 percent good, or he or she is 100 percent bad.’ Right? Because that makes it easy.”
It wasn’t hard to get in touch with him again.
A friend reached out to another friend, and within minutes, he called me from his Jitterbug. “The last time we talked I was deciding whether to base my presidential campaign in St. Louis or Los Angeles,” he said as soon as I picked up. This was a joke, and not exactly true: The last time we’d spoken was in the fall of 2018, when things were starting to go bad. But Avenatti was doing what he always did with a reporter on the other line — massaging, doling out bits of color, inserting himself not just into the writer’s story, but the making of it.
He’s done it so many times before. Even in the beginning, when he was a little-known plaintiff’s attorney in California, before his license was suspended, he had cases appear on “60 Minutes” three times in five years. “It’s never been done,” he says. In front of a camera, he is at ease. In 2016, during his second appearance on the program, representing hospitals that claimed they’d been sold ineffective personal protective equipment, when asked to respond to one of the health care executives, he surprised himself with an ad-libbed line: “Evidently he forgot the 11th commandment,” Avenatti told Anderson Cooper. “Do not lie to ‘60 Minutes.’” As soon as he said it, he knew it would make the final cut.
A week after we first spoke in September, Avenatti stood waiting for me outside the second-floor apartment in Venice. He looked smaller in person, though he still stands just under six feet tall. He still talks close to your face. He still has veins on his temples that ripple with intensity. This was the favorite detail of the writers who profiled him in 2018 — a suggestion of the “cage fight” he promised against Donald Trump. He knows how they would write the detail today: defensive, bitter, defiant. Sitting in the small backyard of Manheimer’s apartment, he can be all those things at points, but also charming and plainly smart. As soon as we sit down, he shifts easily back into the mode of a trial attorney, every audience a jury with a checkbook.
“You can have what you perceive to be the greatest fact in the world, and if it’s not gonna resonate, then it’s worthless,” he says. When he got into the public arena, it was the same: “All I was doing was speaking to another jury. Instead of 12 people, it was millions.” At other times he compares it to racing cars, introducing a level of danger to the routine act of persuasion. “If you’re good, you don’t just go barreling into the corner and hope you make the corner, right? If you are on the edge of the envelope, you’re taking in all these sensory moments around you. You’re putting 100 inputs into the steering wheel, the throttle — constantly looking ahead.”
And so it was that Avenatti who came down around the track in March of 2018, hoping he’d make it.
In the beginning, at least, when he agreed to represent Stormy Daniels, it went well. “It could not have gone better, frankly,” Avenatti says. “I would love to see anyone do better. Hundreds, thousands of decisions went into this thing along the way. And we also had a lot of good luck. But this wasn’t just some f—ing accident that happened.”
In 2018, he refused to tell the story of how he and Daniels met, so much so that writers started describing it as “a secret.” He did this, he says, because of (1) attorney-client privilege, and (2) control. “I didn’t want the focus to be on anything other than what I wanted the focus to be on in 2018,” he says. But when he told me the story in Venice this fall, it was clear that their relationship did contain an element of chance. Avenatti only met Daniels, in February 2018, because another lawyer passed on the case. Just before the 2016 presidential election, Daniels had taken a $130,000 payment from Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, to stay quiet about sleeping with Trump in 2006. Now she wanted out of the NDA, upset that Cohen was talking about the agreement in an effort to deny the affair. Avenatti told her they had something bigger on their hands than a simple NDA dispute. He agreed to represent her, immediately taking control of her media strategy. Daniels had been in on a “Make America Horny Again” tour across the country, and was in talks with the Lifetime channel to do a five-part series, Avenatti says. He told her to pull out of everything: “You need to do a solid interview for free, and that’s how you need to tell your story in order to push the reset button,” he remembers saying. “Suburban housewives in middle America aren’t going to identify with the ‘Make America Horny Again’ girl.”
“Ideally, you need to go on ‘60 Minutes.’”
On March 6, he filed the first lawsuit on behalf of Daniels, alleging the hush-money payment constituted a campaign violation. You could see the Avenatti fandom develop in real-time. As he walked away from the mics after a press conference in New York, a woman screamed: “GOD WILL PROTECT YOU, MICHAEL!” Less than three weeks later, “60 Minutes” aired their interview with Daniels and Avenatti. Twenty-two million people watched.
In April, he was invited to a “top 100” media event in New York at the Seagram Building. Gayle King was there, he says, Don Lemon, Anthony Scaramucci, Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity (“he was very complimentary towards me, actually”) — all of them new “friends.” Martha Stewart came running up to him to ask for a picture. “You’re going to be our savior,” he remembers Stewart saying. (A spokesperson for Stewart did not respond to a request for comment.)
“It was very heady at the time,” Avenatti says.
It is worth pausing here to remember this exact moment, just over a year into Trump’s presidency, with Democrats out of power in both chambers of Congress, the Mueller investigation carrying on out of view. There was so much energy in the party — and it poured daily into a vacuum. Obama was gone. No one wanted to hear from Hillary. The leaders in the party were — who? Tom Perez, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi. Democrats frequently miscalculated: On the day of the women’s march in January 2017, the party’s leading strategists weren’t in Washington, shoulder-to-shoulder with tens of thousands of enraged voters. They were at a donor summit at a Florida resort instead. By the time Avenatti came on the scene, impeachment talk was still fringe. Democrats couldn’t decide whether they would call him a liar on TV.
Avenatti appeared to be an answer to the problem for Democrats who feared their leaders weren’t fighting on Trump’s terms. If part of Trump’s attraction to his supporters was that he said what they were thinking, Avenatti performed a similar function for Democrats. He had in his hands a case that not only validated their instincts about the character and quality of Donald Trump, but seemed to promise more bombshells to come. People saw him as a vessel for their animus; they sent him information.
It was only a few weeks before the Daniels case started to grow into something bigger — not for his client, who only did a fraction of the appearances he did, but for Avenatti himself. He welcomed the attention, becoming a regular on cable news, once hitting five networks in a single day. On Facebook, a “Hottie Avenatti” page appeared. Before attending night classes at George Washington University Law School, Avenatti had spent six years working on Democratic campaigns in opposition research, and he now had an audience for his commentary on the party’s failings. “Off topic,” he wrote on Twitter that June, “the candidate in 2020 better be a take no prisoners street fighter who is prepared to go 15 rounds in a VERY brutal campaign.” The tweet spun into stories about “Avenatti 2020.” If reporters believed they were in on the joke, Avenatti wasn’t. The more he went places other Democrats wouldn’t, the more the coverage bent in his direction. He seemed to prove his own premise.
At the “top 100” media event that spring, he remembers standing at the bar with MSNBC host Ari Melber, another new friend. As people came up to Avenatti, Melber leaned over and said, “You’re the belle of the ball.” An MSNBC spokesperson confirmed the exchange.
“Yeah,” Avenatti replied.
“I’m going to look back some day and say, ‘This was the peak. It was all downhill from here.’”
Actually, the “peak” came later, in August 2018.
By this time, the adviser had his own advisers — a small group of informal political operatives helping him think about running for president. He had his own super PAC, formed under the name “Fight PAC,” which took in more than $100,000, about a third of which went directly to Avenatti for reimbursements, according to election filings. He visited Youngstown, Ohio, on his own sort of listening tour. He appeared at more than 20 political events, not as Daniels’ lawyer, but as a possible presidential candidate. He came unannounced to the Democratic Party’s annual summer meeting in Chicago — it was never clear exactly for what purpose — and reporters swarmed. He had meetings with operatives like Rahm Emanuel, his colleague from the old days in opposition research. Emanuel walked into the meeting, sat down at a conference table, and before a “hello,” snapped, “You’re not f—ing running for president,” according to Avenatti. The two parried back and forth. “I said, ‘OK, then you tell me who you think is going to beat this guy, and if you can make a case for them, then I agree with you, I’m not going to run.’” Later that summer, Avenatti appeared as the headliner at his first major Democratic Party event, the Wing Ding dinner, held every presidential season in an Iowa town called Clear Lake.
Reporters rolled their eyes, he says. “They all kind of have this attitude of, ‘So, uh, Michael, like, what are you doing here? Isn’t this a publicity stunt?’” That night on stage, he told Democrats they needed to “fight fire with fire,” playing off Michelle Obama’s line at the Democratic convention two years earlier: “When they go low, I say, we hit harder,” Avenatti said. The crowd gave him multiple standing ovations. (“As I remember, there were five.”) Through his eyes, the reporters in the press gallery looked ashen. “I will say this is one of the highlights of my life,” he says. “It was so f—ing great seeing the look on all of these reporters’ faces.” Afterward, Avenatti says he finished off a bottle of Fireball with Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman, at a house party in Clear Lake. (A spokesperson for Ryan did not respond to a request to confirm the incident.)
If he could stop time anywhere, it would be at the Wing Ding. He doesn’t believe he would have made the best president, but he could have been a great candidate, he says. “That was really when I thought to myself, ‘I’m pretty decent at this. Give me six months, and I’ll be f—ing great.’”
He didn’t have six months, as it turned out. He barely had four.
The signs were there: He was in a lengthy dispute with his former law partner. Journalists wrote about his failed venture as the owner of Tully’s Coffee, the Seattle-based company he purchased in 2013, working alongside the actor Patrick Dempsey. As he headlined political events in the summer of 2018 he talked to at least one friend, that person told me, about how he needed money. He had multiple race cars, a private jet, an expensive divorce from his second wife, a $13.5 million house on the water in Newport Beach, an apartment in Ten Thousand, the West Hollywood apartment complex popular with celebrities. Avenatti denies that he was living above his means at the time. “I was not desperate for money anytime in the fall of 2018,” he says.
He was combative in public, and people liked that. But he wasn’t just fighting Trump. He started arguments on Twitter with random users, with reporters, with other Democratic operatives. He was the kind of subject who “can be extremely aggressive in pushing back,” Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Finnegan said on a podcast after Avenatti’s arrest. He could “oscillate between charming and aggressive,” another reporter told me. “He wants to manage the story.” Later, in a Vanity Fair piece in May 2019, cable news bookers would complain he was aggressive and rude. This is another preoccupation of Avenatti’s. He says he prided himself on his good relationships with bookers. “I never became a diva. I never thought I was better than other people. I wasn’t rude to people.” If he had been, he says, they wouldn’t have invited him back again and again.
Around that time, two political advisers told him that the next step in any serious presidential campaign would be a self-vetting process. On at least two separate occasions, they recalled, he promised them he had nothing to hide. One time was at a small dinner in 2018 in Washington, where a member of the party told me they remember asking Avenatti if he had had any “skeletons in his closet.” Avenatti, the person told me, looked around the room, took a “pregnant pause” and said, “Nope, not a goddamn thing.” Avenatti denied he ever told people that he was “as pure as the driven snow.” He says the only time he can remember someone asking him a question about “skeletons in his closet” was in October 2018, at a Vanity Fair event with the writer Emily Jane Fox. “I think everyone’s got some baby skeletons rolling around under the floorboards,” he told her. In an August appearance on ABC News, he promised to release his tax returns. At the time, according to federal prosecutors, he owed millions to the IRS.
On one trip to Florida, after an appearance at a Democratic Party dinner, one former adviser said, he bought drinks for everyone at the hotel bar, charging the bill to his room. A few days later, the former adviser got a call from the hotel saying the credit card on file had been declined. The bill was for a couple thousand dollars. The former adviser ate the charges. (Avenatti says he doesn’t remember the incident, “because it never happened.”)
Christine Carlin, Avenatti’s first wife and the mother of his two daughters, said her ex-husband could be loose with particulars. “I worried sometimes that he was always a bigger-picture person,” she told me. “He was just off doing the big things. And I don’t know if he kept his eyes on the little things as much as he should have.”
What came next happened quickly. In September, Democrats accused him of damaging their case against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was contending with allegations he had sexually assaulted a woman in high school. A new client of Avenatti’s, Julie Swetnick, said she had witnessed Kavanaugh and his friend getting girls drunk “so they could be gang raped.” She later contradicted parts of her account in an interview with NBC News, giving conservatives ammunition to disparage the accusations against Kavanaugh as a smear campaign. (“I deserve no blame for what happened in connection with Kavanaugh. Period,” Avenatti says now.)
In November, he was arrested by police on suspicion of domestic violence in an incident with his ex-girlfriend, who accused him in a Vanity Fair report of verbal, psychological, and physical abuse. “He has two extremely different personalities,” she told the magazine. Avenatti denies he has ever been violent. No charges were ever filed by prosecutors in connection with the arrest.
In November, his relationship with Stormy Daniels was starting to unravel in public view: She claimed that the defamation case Avenatti had filed that summer against Donald Trump had been brought without her approval. “Michael has not treated me with the respect and deference an attorney should show to a client,” she told the Daily Beast. (Daniels later pursued the case to the Supreme Court with new counsel.) Weeks earlier, Daniels had defended Avenatti and his political aspirations in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon. Yes, people were sending her messages about all the attention he was getting — “they think that Michael has abandoned me, or I’m not important to him anymore,” she told Lemon — but they still spoke every day, she said. “He always puts me first.” In early December, Daniels said she and her lawyer had “sorted shit out.”
By February 2019, he was no longer representing her. (Avenatti provided a copy of the termination letter he sent Daniels late that month, citing a “lack of communication” and a “general lack of appreciation for our work.”)
At the time, federal prosecutors in California were already investigating allegations that Avenatti had stolen from clients. “In the back of my mind, was I thinking: ‘Oh, I’ve stolen millions of dollars from people, and that’s gonna come to light?’ No. Because I haven’t stolen millions of dollars from people,” he says. He won’t discuss the details of the California case beyond saying he should have exercised better judgment. He has had years to think about this crisis point, and he has concluded that he was naïve — not necessarily about his own actions, or the way he handled his business, but rather about the consequences he would come to bear as a result.
“Of course I made mistakes — you don’t end up in this situation without making mistakes. Whether those mistakes should put me where I am now is a different story,” he says. “I haven’t been naïve in a long, long time, but I was naïve about this.”
In the spring of 2019, he hastily took on the case of Gary Franklin, a coach who alleged he had evidence of a big problem at Nike: the company, in partnership with Franklin, was paying parents of recruits. Avenatti teamed up with Mark Geragos, a criminal defense attorney who had worked with Nike before, to negotiate a settlement, including a pitch for the two lawyers to lead a well-funded internal investigation to clean up the problem “because we didn’t trust Nike and its outside law firm Boies Schiller to do it properly or ethically,” Avenatti says.
Six days after his first meeting with the company, on March 25, 2019, he was arrested on charges of trying to extort at least $25 million. (Geragos was never charged. “The fact that my life has been destroyed as a result of the Nike conviction and the government has given Geragos a complete pass while he continues to travel around the country on his private jet like a big shot," Avenatti says, “is a travesty.” Geragos declined to comment, citing his past representation of Avenatti in connection with his domestic violence arrest.)
In a successive press conference on the West Coast, California prosecutors charged Avenatti in the second federal case, accusing him of stealing from clients “in order to pay his own expense and debts.” Afterward, Avenatti agreed to three interviews to talk about the arrest. It was the last time he was in front of a television camera.
“Of course, I’m nervous,” he told one network. “I’m scared.”
For the next 10 months, Michael Avenatti lived at home in Los Angeles. He was still working as a lawyer, representing victims of the rapper R. Kelly, but by comparison to the year before, he carried on in relative obscurity, only occasionally heard from on Twitter or in the news.
Most people had already moved on from the story when, on Jan. 14, 2020, prosecutors issued a new warrant for his arrest. He was at a state bar disciplinary hearing in downtown Los Angeles that day, for the California embezzlement case. Prosecutors claimed he had made financial transactions that posed an “economic danger.” Even though they took him into custody, charges were never brought on those claims. But it was enough to revoke Avenatti’s bail hours before he was set to fly to New York, preparing to meet with his lawyers seven days before the Nike trial.
Federal agents took him to the jail in Santa Ana, Calif., and placed him in solitary confinement, according to Avenatti and his lawyers. On his third day in Santa Ana, at about 5:30 a.m., a guard knocked on the cell door and told him to “pack up your shit.” He asked where he was going. Pack up your shit, the guard told him again. Jesus Christ, he thought. Here we go. What’s next?
He was taken to another part of the jail, where he put on the same Tom Ford suit he had been wearing at the bar hearing three days earlier. U.S. marshals cuffed his wrists and legs, and put a chain around his waist. A few hours later, he was on a private jet to Teterboro, N.J.
Avenatti didn’t know much about the Metropolitan Correctional Center before he arrived at 6:30 p.m. that evening. He knew the name MCC the way most people do: It’s the jail where Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in August of 2019, awaiting trial on child sex abuse charges.
But he had never heard about 10 South, the highest security block in the jail. Epstein had been held in 9 South, one floor below, a “special housing unit” for alleged criminals who could be targets in general population. 10 South is the most secure floor in the facility, known primarily for handling prisoners who are held under “special administrative measures,” or SAMs, most often to guard against witness intimidation, or in cases that pose a threat to national security. In SAMS cases, detainees are placed in special facilities like 10 South, with severely limited contact with the outside world. Avenatti’s lawyers don’t believe the Federal Bureau of Prisons ever placed Avenatti on special administrative measures, making his placement in 10 South highly unusual. One of Avenatti’s federal public defenders, Andrew Dalack, who has represented multiple clients in 10 South, said: “I’m not personally familiar with any case in which a person was put on 10 South for a substantial period of time without SAMs or a high-risk security concern related to their communication.”
After he was processed at MCC, Avenatti met with a jail psychologist. It became apparent that she was trying to assess whether he would attempt to kill himself. He says he pleaded with her not to be placed in solitary confinement. “You can record me. You can do whatever you need to do,” he told her. “Put me in general population. I’ll take my chances.” At one point, he brought up Epstein. “I’m not going to embarrass you or the jail if you put me in general population.”
When the cell door locked behind him in 10 South, Avenatti was in shock. “In a cocoon almost,” he says, “like a self-created protective cocoon.”
His cell at MCC was about eight by 20 feet long. Everything inside was metal or concrete except for the mattress pad. There was a shower and a toilet. The windows were frosted except for a few worn slivers. If he positioned his head just so, he could see New York. There were two cameras in the cell, one on each side. Avenatti was told he couldn’t cover himself, even to use the bathroom, or he’d be punished. He couldn’t see the other cellmates in 10 South, but he came to learn that his neighbors included three suspected terrorists and a CIA officer accused of treason.
The 10 South block was known to get particularly cold. At night, Avenatti wore every jumpsuit he had with him. One guard eventually brought him a set of used long johns. Early on, he asked if he could get a book. The guards gave him The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump. Later, he was able to assemble a small collection of whatever he could get his hands on: David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day; Martin Luther King Jr.’s Strength to Love; Tim Tebow’s Shaken; a thick volume on the history of Iran.
When I shared the details of Avenatti’s case with Maureen Baird, a federal prison consultant and a senior executive warden at MCC from 2014 to 2016, she said she’d never heard of a white-collar case in 10 South. Normally, according to Baird, high-profile detainees are housed in the jail’s regular special housing unit, 9 South, while the warden reviews him for general population.
“It’s an anomaly. It’s bizarre,” she said.
Avenatti is convinced there is a more nefarious explanation.
One day in February, he was on his way back to MCC from court, accompanied by three guards, when a senior correctional officer intervened, he says. The senior officer led him upstairs, pausing in the vestibule outside 10 South. “You know why you’re here, right?” he said. Avenatti says the officer told him he was in 10 South at the direction of the attorney general, Bill Barr, and to have his lawyers “look into it.” Then he picked up the phone and buzzed Avenatti back to his cell. Dalack, Avenatti’s public defender, said the placement in 10 South was another example of the government “pursuing this as aggressively as they could.” At Avenatti’s sentencing hearing in the Nike case, Judge Paul G. Gardephe cited the “horrific conditions” in 10 South as a reason for imposing a lighter sentence — just 30 months in prison. “It’s hard to believe they could occur in the United States of America,” he said in the courtroom. The MCC warden at the time, Marti Licon-Vitale, explained that Avenatti was placed in 10 South out of “serious concerns” for his safety in general population, according a letter sent at the request of Judge Gardephe. (In a written response to questions, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, Donald Murphy, said the department does not comment on “anecdotal allegations” or provide information about individual inmates. Murphy said inmates are held outside general population “as necessary” for safety reasons.)
In March, Avenatti finally moved to general population. For most of that time, the jail was on lockdown, first after a detainee smuggled a loaded handgun into the facility, and later, because of the pandemic. Avenatti requested to be released on home confinement. The request was initially denied. Trump, now in the final year of his presidency, managing the first few weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, tweeted in response to the news: “Gee, that’s too bad. Such a fine guy. Presidential aspirations you know!”
There were only a few times in 10 South that Avenatti was able to use the unit’s single rec room: It’s a big, cold room, with a stationary bike, a caged TV, a remote, a lawn chair, a large green parka, and a slatted window where winter air pours through.
The first time he went there was Valentine’s Day 2020. A guard he befriended allowed him to eat dinner and watch TV. It was the night of his conviction in the Nike case. Back home in in California, his daughters Lauren and Nicole, now ages 19 and 17, were reeling.
Lauren was in class before lunch when a friend texted her, “Hey, I’m sorry.” She didn’t know what he was talking about. “Have you not read the news?” he wrote. She opened up Google and that’s when she learned that her dad had been found guilty. “My heart stopped,” she told me.
“I just couldn’t even wrap my head around the fact that my dad was going to prison,” she said. “I hadn’t seen my dad as a criminal, ever. In that moment, I had to grow up really fast.”
Back in New York, Avenatti turned on CNN. Anderson Cooper and Jeffrey Toobin were discussing his conviction. “So I sat there on Valentine’s Day, as a convicted felon in 10 South, watching AC360 with Jeffrey Toobin, who was relishing the fact that I had just been convicted on multiple felony counts, as I ate my meal out of my plastic tray.”
“Anderson actually pushed back at one point.” Cooper, the “60 Minutes” host, had interviewed Avenatti all three times he appeared on the program.
“At one point Anderson said, ‘Well, you know, I mean, Michael Avenatti was a real attorney with real cases, right?’”
For a man in free fall, there are three options.
“I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about this, and there are only three.”
The first two are escape or suicide, neither of which he says he’s considered. The first never works, he says, “and I’ve never run from anything in my life.” And the second would be too painful for his family. “I wouldn’t want to deliberately hurt my kids, my parents, and the people who care about me.”
“Or there’s the third option,” he says, “you can fight. That’s what I’m doing.”
Michael Avenatti’s fight is many things: legal, reputational, personal, historical. Maybe you find his arguments and his many gripes persuasive. Or maybe you find them absurd. Maybe you were one of the people, in the summer of 2018, who felt desperate to send someone after Trump. Perhaps you asked him for a selfie, or admired the skill with which he handled himself on television. Maybe you were a reporter who, like me, briefly covered his presidential aspirations. Maybe you thought, as Avenatti still does, that for a while, he was the best guy to beat Trump. Or maybe you hated him all along. When it started to crumble in late 2018, you knew there was something about that guy. You always had a feeling he was “full of shit.” Maybe you were right. Or maybe you haven’t thought about him since. But the reckoning for Avenatti, as with so much from Trump’s four years in office, is not finished. No matter where you land on the question of his downfall, we are a part of this story, too. He used the media, and we used him.
Avenatti is still embroiled in all three federal cases. He says the government has never approached him with a reasonable plea offer in connection with any legal matter. Next month in New York, he is set to begin trial in the final case to go to court, where federal prosecutors will argue that Avenatti stole $149,000 from Daniels’s $800,000 book deal, which Avenatti helped negotiate. (“I babysat that entire deal,” he says.) The case has turned personal. At Avenatti’s request, a judge has ordered Daniels to disclose her medical records, presumably to raise questions about her mental health. In the trial, you will hear “I would say a lot,” about Daniels’s activity in the paranormal space, said Robert Baum, Avenatti’s lead attorney in the case. She filmed episodes for an unreleased TV show called “Spooky Babes,” also the name of an Instagram account where a haunted doll named Susan, a mascot of sorts, is prominently featured. But the crux of the case comes down to the fee agreement Daniels and Avenatti had in place for the publication of her October 2018 memoir, Full Disclosure: Avenatti says he was entitled to a portion of the proceeds because he negotiated the deal. Daniels says Avenatti orally agreed to take nothing. As a result, Baum said, “her credibility becomes a major factor in the trial.” Daniels and her lawyer, Clark Brewster, declined to answer questions about the case.
“At this point,” Avenatti says, “the only question is: Have I hit bottom?”
On house arrest, Avenatti is able to see his young son, age 7, and his two teenage daughters. Prosecutors asked him to live in the Central District of California for his embezzlement case, according to Avenatti, precluding a stay with his parents in St. Louis. He says prosecutors also stopped him from living with his ex-wife, Christine, with whom Avenatti is still close, because she might be a witness in the California case. “The whole goal here was to cut me off from any potential support — financial, emotional, or otherwise,” he says. “They wanted to cripple me.” When Manheimer took him in at the start of the pandemic, Avenatti was only supposed to stay for 90 days. It’s been almost 20 months, his home confinement extended by the judge in the California case, because of the pandemic, the government’s failure to produce exculpatory evidence, and to enable Avenatti to prepare for the upcoming Daniels trial. “Jay has been like a brother to me.”
“When he got here, he looked as thin as I’ve ever seen him,” Manheimer told me. “But I expected him to be in worse shape mentally. Even after he told me all about it, I don’t know how he was as put together as he was. But who knows when he was in his room by himself, what those moments are like.”
Avenatti’s son isn’t old enough to understand what happened, but he will be soon. After his sentencing in the Nike case, he sat down his daughters for the first time to explain what happened. If he is open about one regret, it is as a parent. “I really wish I had been a better father,” he says. “Allowing my kids to be exposed to what they’ve been exposed to as a result of the failings of their father — no child should have to go through what my kids have had to go through because of me.” At his sentencing hearing in the Nike case, his daughters wrote a letter to the judge pleading for leniency. Avenatti says he has still not read it because it is too painful.
This year, he asked them to watch an HBO documentary on Tiger Woods. He thought it might help them understand, though Avenatti wants to be clear, “I am not drawing a parallel between me and Tiger Woods. I’m not. All right? Just so we’re clear.” But there is a scene from the second episode that resonates with him: It’s 2019, and Woods, having endured scandals over infidelity and prescription drug use and suffered through multiple potentially career-ending injuries, is marching up the 18th fairway of the Masters, about to win his 15th major title. One of Woods’s old friends is talking: “A lot of people would spin it like he was a different man now — he’s the conquering hero. But these are the same people that, when he was riding high, they were pulling for him to fall. And when he failed, they jumped on him with both feet. And when he rose again, all of a sudden he is a virtuous man now, which to me is bullshit.”
Woods was a man just like any other man, says Avenatti, with his own imperfections and failings. That’s what he was trying to tell his daughters.
These are sad stories. The saddest part, whatever you think of him, whatever he thinks, is that Michael Avenatti did this to himself, though he wouldn’t put it that way. The trouble is making sense of what it all adds up to, beyond pure entertainment value. It’s the thing he was always so good at — presenting his case, telling a story, synthesizing the facts, to a jury, to a TV camera, to his Twitter followers, to you. Now, it may be the one thing he can’t do.
If life is about “experiences,” he says, “and all those experiences coming together, almost to create a fabric of someone’s lifetime, then very few people on the planet have had the ride that I have had. I don’t know of anyone else who went from a potential presidential candidate, who I would argue was the greatest threat to Donald Trump — again, my truth, and I will always believe that and I think if some people were honest, they would agree — to El Chapo’s cell.”
“There are many times — ” He stops himself.
“There are not many times —”
He corrects again. “Basically all of the time — I don’t… I don’t see….”
“I don’t quite see how it all comes together yet.”
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