After a year in the spotlight, Avenatti claims 'I've been humbled'

'I'm a fighter,' attorney says

By Sara Sidner, CNN
CNN Video

Humble is perhaps the last word anyone would use to describe Stormy Daniels' former attorney Michael Avenatti. But that is exactly how he is describing himself these days.

"I've been humbled. I've been humbled significantly. There's been a lot of highs and there's been a lot of lows, and, frankly, I've attempted not to get too high," Avenatti said in a wide-ranging interview with CNN. "Sometimes I've failed, but I've attempted not to get too high. Right now I'm trying not to get too low."

Just like his highs, his lows came in rapid succession from coast to coast. The US attorney's offices in the Southern District of New York and the Central District of California charged him with a plethora of financial crimes that carry more than 300 years of potential prison time, including charges of extorting Nike and 36 criminal counts related to alleged financial crimes. He has denied the charges.

"I'm a fighter. I've always been a fighter. And I anticipate that there's going to be a lot of evidence and a lot of facts that are going to come out that are going to change perhaps the opinion that people have having now only seen one side of the story. We don't convict people after only hearing one side of the story," he said.

Avenatti's brazen style catapulted him into the spotlight. His constant legal maneuvers and media savvy kept him there. His entry into the American consciousness began with a lawsuit. He represented adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who sued President Donald Trump and the shell company created by the President's personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

Whether in a courtroom or a television studio, conceding defeat is not in Avenatti's wheelhouse, but his current situation is a long way from even a few months ago, when he began exploring a run for the Democratic presidential nomination and speaking at fundraisers across the nation.

During the interview, tears began to form at the corners of his eyes as he began thinking about what he had and what he has to lose.

"It is about the journey and regardless of what happens, um, I have had an enormous life. I have had a lot of opportunities that a lot of people could only dream. I've done a lot of things over my 48 years a lot of people would never have an opportunity to do," Avenatti said.

Then he responded to the possibility of prison time.

"If I wasn't afraid of that, there would be something fundamentally wrong with me as a, as a man, as a human being."

How we got here

The Daniels case involved a non-disparagement agreement signed days before the 2016 presidential election. Daniels walked away with $130,000 in exchange for keeping her mouth shut about a sexual affair she said she had with Trump in 2006. Trump denied there was an affair.

"Stormy only wanted to be released from the NDA initially. I saw the case in a larger sense," Avenatti said. "I saw the case as Donald Trump and Michael Cohen rigging the 2016 election by covering up his relationship with Stormy Daniels. I recognized the campaign finance violations from the very first meeting that I had with Stormy Daniels."

The day after Avenatti filed the lawsuit for Daniels, using her legal name, Stephanie Clifford, he was on a nonstop loop of television, newspaper and magazine interviews.

"I expected to be in New York a maximum of three days in connection with the case. I left New York three weeks later," Avenatti said. "So this took off far greater than I ever anticipated. It became a significant financial burden. And there's no question about that."

Over the many months Avenatti railed against the President and Cohen, Avenatti's opponents noted his never-give-in attitude with sarcasm and disdain.

"Clifford's attorney would claim victory if he got run over by a bus," Cohen's attorney Brent Blakely said after a judge eventually threw out Daniels' case against his client.

But Avenatti wasn't about to walk away from the fight. He continued his zealous defense of his client. After months of challenging Cohen's involvement in the hush deal, there was a major break in the case. The FBI raided Cohen's office and home.

It turned out the Southern District of New York had been investigating Cohen's financial dealings after the case was referred to it by special counsel Robert Mueller. Cohen eventually admitted to nine criminal counts, including lying to Congress. He is set to report to prison next month.

Avenatti and Daniels had their "I told you so" moment.

"SDNY deserves credit for the work they've done. Others deserve credit as well. But did I have a hand in that? A significant hand? No question," Avenatti said.

Daniels and Avenatti parted ways. It was amicable. But then came his arrest, and Daniels tweeted that she was "saddened but not shocked" and then accused Avenatti of treating her "extremely dishonestly."

Extortion and fraud allegations

The Southern District of New York, however, is now going after Avenatti. He is charged with extortion in a case involving Nike.

The criminal complaint says Avenatti was threatening to go public with accusations of college recruitment rigging if Nike didn't comply with his demands: $1.5 million for his client, between $15 million and $25 million to hire him and his co-counsel to lead an internal investigation or a payment of $22.5 million and no investigation.

Instead of making a deal, Nike called the FBI saying it was being extorted, and the FBI began recording the meetings.

Avenatti vehemently denies the charges against him.

He is still accusing Nike of rigging the college basketball recruitment process by bribing amateur players to attend Nike Sponsored Schools.

In a statement to CNN, the company said: "Nike will not respond to the allegations of an individual facing federal charges of fraud and extortion. Nike will continue its cooperation with the government's investigation into grassroots basketball and the related extortion case."

For the past decade, it appeared Avenatti has hit his targets. He's lived a lifestyle of the rich and famous, racing cars, buying a coffee chain, wearing Tom Ford suits and fancy watches.

But prosecutors in California say that at least some of his lifestyle was fueled by fraud.

And now he's facing a new, much darker prospect: the potential of prison time. In California the federal charges against him include failing to file taxes, failing to pay taxes, stealing from five clients and defrauding a bank.

"There's a lot of things contained within that indictment. Many, many, many, many things that I completely disagree with," Avenatti said. "I stand by my track record of nearly 20 years as an attorney fighting on behalf of Davids versus Goliath. I have over $1 billion in verdicts and settlements. I have thousands of clients that are incredibly grateful for my work and the work that I've done."

When asked about the irony that he is now facing more charges than his favorite target, Cohen, Avenatti didn't miss a beat.

"The difference is that Michael Cohen's been convicted. I haven't been," He said.

But as he began recounting his life and his life's work, his eyes reddened again.

"I can't allow it to eat me up, because otherwise, you know, I might as well just do, I guess, the crawl into a fetal position and wither away," he said, "and I'm not going out like that, and I'm not planning on going out -- period."

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