I met Michael Avenatti exactly once, in the green room of MSNBC’s Morning Joe in New York on March 16, 2018. That hour’s guests were three: Avenatti, me, and the monstrously productive legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who had just edited a book on authoritarianism. Avenatti, not yet at the apogee of his fame, went first. He began the interview with officious and dramatic lawyer-speak (“I cannot say at this time”; “I have no comment”), but darkly implied presidency-ending evidence that his then-unknown client, Stormy Daniels, would soon divulge. He teased the hosts with the prospect of further reveals and was rewarded by having his guest spot extended by several minutes. In those extra minutes, he said Daniels believed that the president of the United States had dispatched a thug to menace her and her child in a Las Vegas parking lot.
Avenatti was found guilty yesterday of three serious crimes related to his attempt to extort the sneaker company Nike for tens of millions of dollars. Even that morning, I saw signs that he was a strange man. When Avenatti came back to the green room, Sunstein and I talked with him, and I congratulated him on milking the segment for maximum drama. I’m quite sure I did not sound sarcastic; I was genuinely impressed. Then the commercial break ended, and the hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, began discussing the exciting news that Avenatti had just delivered. We heard them on the television in the green room. In mid-sentence, Avenatti stopped talking with us, turned his back, and approached the television, standing very close to it—utterly hypnotized by the clips they were running of his interview. I tried to talk with Avenatti and offered him a pastry, but his eyes had glazed over in a way that suggested a higher level of consciousness. All attempts to converse with him were in vain, as if we were trying to interrupt a monk in his third decade of silent meditation.