LOS ANGELES — Michael Avenatti has assembled a team of Democratic political veterans who are helping him coordinate meetings with donors, connect with national and state party officials, craft messaging and build out a digital fundraising apparatus designed to enable a 2020 presidential bid.
Avenatti’s already long prospects suffered a blow Thursday after he was quoted in Time magazine saying that the Democratic presidential nominee who will battle President Donald Trump “better be a white male” — remarks he contends were taken out of context. The same day, the Senate Judiciary Committee referred Avenatti and his client Julie Swetnick to the Justice Department for an investigation over accusations she leveled last month against Brett Kavanaugh, then a Supreme Court nominee.
But the Los Angeles-based attorney most famous for representing porn star Stormy Daniels fought back aggressively against both Time magazine and Grassley, and said Sunday he intends to move forward in his preparations with a team of 12 core political advisers, some on an informal or part-time basis.
On a recent afternoon in a Los Angeles brewhouse, a sharply dressed Avenatti, turning occasional heads in seeming familiarity, argued that the campaign professionals and donors quietly showing interest in his campaign — some of whom have extensive Clinton ties — would shock his foes.
“I think a lot of people underestimate me,” Avenatti told POLITICO. “I’m battle-tested, unlike some of the other likely candidates. They’re not tough enough … If you put them in a kinder, gentler time; or against someone else? They’d be great. They’d be better than me. But they don’t have a chance in hell against Donald Trump.”
That’s how Avenatti is positioning himself: a ferocious foil to Trump, uniquely skilled at drawing blood from either White House or courtroom adversaries, all the while projecting a gritty authenticity that escapes polished politicians. In a possible field of sitting U.S. senators and a former vice president, Avenatti believes he would stand out as the anti-establishment candidate who’s tough enough to bring the fight to the president.
Two sources close to the Avenatti operation confirmed that John Robinson, who worked as a chief operating officer for Bernie Sanders‘ 2016 campaign and has worked with former presidential candidates John Edwards and Al Gore, has consulted with Avenatti for about two months. If Avenatti runs, he is likely to tap Robinson as his own operations chief, the sources said.
Also among those whom Avenatti regularly, but unofficially, seeks advice from is Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel under Bill Clinton. Quinn said he plays no formal role in any campaign but acknowledged he’s given Avenatti advice as he would to any potential 2020 candidate.
Quinn’s wife recently threw a private dinner for Avenatti at the couple’s home, bringing him in front of D.C. media, while Quinn took Avenatti to an economic summit event in D.C., according to an Avenatti aide.
Another experienced Democratic hand, Adam Parkhomenko, a Hillary Clinton adviser who founded the Ready for Hillary super PAC, is acting as a liaison between Avenatti and Democratic National Committee members, superdelegates, and state party leaders.
“He’s absolutely the person I’m supporting in the 2020 primary, should he decide to run,” Parkhomenko told POLITICO. “I think he is 90 to 95 percent leaning toward doing it.”
Last week, Avenatti announced Roger Salazar, a Sacramento-based operative, would help handle media. Salazar’s political pedigree includes advising the Clinton White House and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Tracy Austin, a Los Angeles consultant, is assisting with fundraising and Amy Wills Gray, who also served as the Ready for Hillary committee treasurer, is acting as treasurer and compliance officer to Avenatti’s The Fight PAC.
By Nov. 7, Avenatti will have held or taken part in political events in at least 20 states, including five visits to Ohio, multiple trips to Iowa, California and Texas; three visits to New Hampshire, and six trips to South Carolina. Avenatti even plans to travel to Puerto Rico in November for a state party chair meeting.
Over the past 60 days, Avenatti says he’s spoken with at least 20 Democratic superdelegates.
Those in and around Avenatti’s nascent political organization say the on-the-ground visits and personal outreach demonstrate how seriously invested he is in a potential presidential run, belying the notion that the attorney is floating the idea in a quest for publicity, as some critics believe.
“It’s not a publicity stunt, that’s absurd,” he said. “If I weren’t serious about this I wouldn’t go through all this effort to explore.”
Earlier this month, Avenatti launched The Fight PAC, allowing him to take in donations to pay for his operation to date and for candidates he’s supporting in the midterms, including Texas Democratic Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke.
While Avenatti was taunted on social media for taking a cut of the donations he sought for O’Rourke, it’s a common practice employed by other 2020 potential candidates. But in a sign of the skepticism surrounding a potential Avenatti bid, Priorities USA chief Guy Cecil over Twitter posted a competing link urging donors to give 100 percent of their money to O’Rourke and not Avenatti.
Parkhomenko asked Cecil on Twitter if he planned to do that with other candidates who employed the same practice.
“Nope, just his,” Cecil wrote. “Thanks for the reply.”
With the PAC as a fundraising vehicle, Avenatti is already building a small-dollar donor base through Facebook ads and a voter email database. The vendors with which he’s contracted for The Fight PAC, including Blue State Digital and NGP VAN, are often used in presidential campaigns and are capable of scaling up should Avenatti run.
Nearly a dozen strategists, party officials or operatives who have met Avenatti privately or watched him speak in front of crowds report similar impressions: he comes across as combative, authentic, and more knowledgeable about the issues than they expected. He also can get a crowd on its feet.
“If he chooses to run, Michael would bring some clear assets, most specifically, some pretty decent name recognition, clearly, an abundance of intellectual talent and lastly, a pugnaciousness that would serve him well in a race against Donald Trump,” Quinn, the former White House counsel, said. “Would he be the only one who has some or all of those assets? That remains to be seen.”
While Quinn acknowledged that he’s given advice to Avenatti, he said he has no plans to sign on to Avenatti’s campaign, or anyone else’s.
“I know Michael, I like him. I consider him a friend,” Quinn said. “But I have a lot of other friends who also want to be president.”
Despite sharp criticism from some Democratic quarters surrounding Avenatti’s role in representing Julie Swetnick — a third accuser against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh who leveled accusations involving gang rape at parties in the 1980s — the attorney’s ability to attract interest from longtime Democratic strategists suggest the backlash was limited.
“The institutional Democrats now look at Avenatti as a threat. Now they’ve got to discredit him and blame him,” said David Betras, the Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman who this summer met Avenatti in his visit to Youngstown, Ohio. “They weren’t blaming him in the spring when he was knocking the socks off of Donald Trump and Michael Cohen. They weren’t calling him a bad guy then.”
To many Democrats outside of D.C., Betras said, Avenatti is admired as an anti-Trump icon — the onset of the Stormy Daniels narrative, he explained, familiarized the public with the idea that Trump’s personal attorney acted as a fixer.
“When our Democratic base was dead, beaten and broken, he came and breathed life in the party,” Betras said. “No one else was breathing life into the party. No one else was doing that.”
Avenatti, who has said he expects to make a formal decision by Jan. 1, will still need to clear up some issues surrounding his personal life. Last week a story posted in the Daily Beast detailed a trove of legal entanglements facing Avenatti, including tax liens, a failing coffee business, unpaid rent and eviction proceedings.
It also laid bare a messy divorce, in which his second wife sought $215,643 a month in family support, describing a lavish lifestyle that included multi-million dollar homes, high-end cars and a personal pilot. Last Monday, a Los Angeles judge issued an order saying Avenatti must pay $4.85 million to a former law colleague who claimed he was owed millions of dollars in profits.
Avenatti said he hasn’t lived his life as if he were running for president.
“There’s all kinds of things I would not have done. Do I think any of them are disqualifying? No. Do I think any of them are disqualifying in the age of Donald Trump? Absolutely not,” he said. “But look, I’m a real guy. I’m a genuine guy. But if I decide to do it and some of these things come out, I’m going to own them.”