As Michael Avenatti saw it, he would be battling President Trump for the White House this summer.
Instead he’s battling to stay out of jail yet again, having won a coronavirus release as long as he stays locked in an apartment in Venice, California, while he awaits sentencing on one extortion conviction and trials in two other fraud cases.
Based on court proceedings Wednesday, he may not be free for long.
The man who promised to watch over Avenatti during his coronavirus release, Jay Manheimer, testified Wednesday that he helped Avenatti perform internet searches, logged into Avenatti’s email account and allowed access to his computer at least once — any of which might be considered violations of the terms of release.
But Mr. Manheimer denied allowing broader access, despite a court document filed earlier this month that seems to show it was drafted on his device. Mr. Manheimer was unable to shed much light on how the document, with multiple references to internet documents, could have been drafted without Avenatti having used the computer.
“I don’t recall,” Mr. Manheimer told prosecutors.
Should Avenatti have his release canceled it would be yet another dagger for the lawyer who at one point thrilled Democrats as a potential 2020 foil for President Trump, but who is now starring in a three-ring legal circus — one ring for each of the criminal proceedings he’s facing.
What makes Avenatti’s fall so intriguing is that he was so eager for the attention that eventually brought him down.
Plenty of lawyers have clients who have sued Mr. Trump, but only Avenatti combined that with a stunning 121 appearances on CNN and 108 appearances on MSNBC, and a nascent presidential campaign that included an appearance at the Iowa State Fair and a visit to New Hampshire — the two earliest states in the primary system — in summer 2018.
Politico, a news outlet popular among D.C. insiders, ran an article in 2018 proclaiming Avenatti was “winning the 2020 Democratic primary” — not because he would be the nominee, but because his Trump-bashing style was setting the terms of the debate.
Another Politico column argued Mr. Trump needed to fear the lawyer’s courtroom crusading on behalf of porn star Stormy Daniels than special counsel Robert Mueller’s taxpayer-funded investigation staffed with FBI agents.
Ronald Richards, a Beverly Hills lawyer who’s tracking Avenatti’s travails, called it “stunning” that someone with so many flash points — from battles with his law partners to his clients to his ex-wives — would have put himself so far out there.
“That’s a true psychopath in the criminal sense,” Mr. Richards said.
Mr. Richards has been a prominent voice in the legal community puncturing Avenatti, who he said “violates every ethical canon that was designed in the rules of professional conduct.”
“When he was doing his press attacks on the president and Justice [Brett M.] Kavanaugh and other people, what I noticed was he would say things that were to a trained lawyer’s ear were total nonsense,” Mr. Richards told The Washington Times. “I was realizing the public was sort of getting duped because an ethical lawyer would never act like him.”
Avenatti was convicted in federal court in New York in February on extortion charges. Prosecutors said he sought $25 million in hush money from Nike, the sports apparel giant, in exchange for not making public allegations about the company’s attempts to woo college athletes.
He’s awaiting sentencing for that case.
Also in New York, he faces another federal trial over accusations he bilked Ms. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. Avenatti has been highly critical of that prosecution, complaining in one court brief that it was “highly unusual” to have prosecutors pursue criminal charges over “less than $150,000.”
The California case, though, is the biggest one, which federal agents had been pursuing even before the Daniels and Nike cases fell into their laps.
In that case, he’s accused of tax evasion and bank and wire fraud.
Mr. Richards said he can’t see Avenatti winning either of the fraud cases. There are just too many ethical violations stacked up against his own clients,
Avenatti is desperately trying to delay the two remaining trials.
Wednesday’s proceeding was bizarre for many reasons, not least of which because it was taking place amid severe coronavirus restrictions.
It took place at a shuttered government office building, with six people, spaced out in a room that could hold 60.
Phones were placed in front of Mr. Manheimer and the lawyers doing the questioning so the proceedings could be broadcast over the phone, allowing the public access.
More than 100 listeners joined the line, making the proceedings difficult to hear. At one point Avenatti burst in, complaining he couldn’t follow what was going on.
“I have an entitlement and a right to due process in this case,” he thundered.
Another voice came on the line: “Mr. Avenatti you’ve spoken enough. Please stop.”
Avenatti’s Twitter account, which once lit up newsrooms across the country when he posted about the president or dished advice on how fellow Democrats should handle Mr. Trump, is now a time capsule.
The last entry is from Jan. 14, when he complained that Democrats in the House of Representatives were bungling the impeachment effort against Mr. Trump.
A day later, his bail was revoked by U.S. District Judge James Selna after prosecutors said he violated the terms by engaging in more fraud and money laundering.
He was sitting in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York when the coronavirus crisis struck.
Not only did that delay his two remaining trials, but it also gave him an opening for a reprieve from confinement. He argued he was high risk should he contract COVID-19, and after a lengthy back-and-forth Judge Selna agreed — but ordered strict conditions, including the ban on access to a computer with internet access.
Mr. Richards said there can be little doubt Avenatti broke those terms. The briefing papers filed are too passionate to the the work of a lawyer with the emotional detachment required to defend a case.
Mr. Manheimer didn’t provide much help for Avenatti, saying he couldn’t recall having typed out any of the legal arguments — though he didn’t rule out the possibility. Mr. Manheimer is also on the hook, having promised to supervise Avenatti the whole time to make sure he complies with the conditions of his release.
Despite Avenatti’s fears of contracting the coronavirus, Mr. Manheimer said, he has had visitors, including a girlfriend and his daughters. And Avenatti supporters have been sending gifts to the Venice, California, home.