Stormy Daniels had never been intimidated by big-talking men. If anything, it’s the other way around. The porn star who Donald Trump failed to muzzle with hush money and an NDA faced her disgraced former lawyer Michael Avenatti Thursday in a Manhattan federal court, where he stands accused of forging Daniels’ signature and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her. (He has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud and identity theft.) Since Avenatti decided on the first day of proceedings to ditch his counsel and represent himself, he gets to questions witnesses. This set up the possibility for a dramatic face-off between accuser and accused.
Daniels strode into the courtroom in high heels, a black dress, and a maroon duster. When she spoke, she often tilted her chin down and looked up from beneath her brow, like she was ready to fight, head-on. As Avenatti approached the podium to begin his cross-examination, she took a sip from a bottle of water. The two hadn’t spoken since February 2019, when Daniels claims she learned he’d been lying to her about book payments from her publisher and keeping them for himself.
Avenatti’s first big swing, oddly, was to ask Daniels whether she had any documentation that he’d ever said he wouldn’t take any money from her that she earned for her book deal. No, she said, matter-of-factly. “How was I supposed to get paid for all the work I and my law firm did for you over the course of 12 months?” he asked next. His voice sounded small. (The judge actually asked Avenatti at one point to move closer to the microphone.) Daniels pointed out that her contract with Avenatti had stated he’d get a cut of a presumed settlement with Donald Trump, and that he could be paid from a crowdfunded legal defense fund. “Any other ways?” he asked, as though she might suggest rerouting payments from her book publisher to his own bank accounts. “Not that we agreed upon,” she said.
Avenatti asked her to confirm that he’d never offered to work for her for a dollar, something his own flamboyant former lawyer testified on Wednesday that he’d overheard Avenatti offer Daniels. “You never mentioned one dollar,” she said. It was arguably the only point Avenatti scored.
In one instance, he began questioning Daniels about a broad range of claims she’s made in the past — that she had a photographic memory and the ability to talk to the dead. (She said both are correct.) He seemed to be trying to make Daniels sound crazy, but she succeeded in plugging the ghost-hunting show she’s developing called Spooky Babes. He asked her if it was true she claimed to be able to “speak with a haunted doll named Susan,” and if Susan speaks back to her. “Susan speaks to everyone on the show,” Daniels said. “She’s a character on Spooky Babes….She even has her own Instagram.”
Even if he could make her seem a little kooky, the prosecution’s case rests heavily upon documents: emails, contracts, bank receipts, and hundreds of pages of Whatsapp messages between Avenatti and Daniels, messages that an investigative analyst for the U.S. Attorney spent all morning explaining the veracity of. Avenatti asked at one point, sounding almost hopeful, whether deleted messages might have gone overlooked in his extractions from Avenatti’s iPhone’s cloud storage. “We certainly have the ability to recover deleted messages,” the witness said.
Daniels was already about three hours into her testimony when Avenatti began questioning her. When she first took the stand around 11 a.m., she seemed flustered, fumbling to remove her mask once she was in the plexiglass witness box and fidgeting in her seat. But she soon settled into the questioning by prosecutor Robert Sobelman. He asked her early on whether she preferred to be addressed as Stormy Daniels, her stage name from adult films and other performances, rather than her given name of Stephanie Clifford. She did. He asked why she stopped working with Avenatti in early 2019. “I hired a new attorney because he stole from me and lied to me,” she said. Avenatti had intercepted the second and third of four payments her book publisher sent her after she signed an $800,000 deal with St. Martin’s Press, she claimed. He eventually sent her the sum of the second payment by cashier’s check, claiming the publisher had screwed up.
For around two hours, Sobelman took Daniels through dozens of Whatsapp messages between her and Avenatti from the signing of her book deal in Apr. 2018 until she went silent on him in Feb. 2019 when, she said, she discovered he’d lied to her. In the messages, she became increasingly insistent on finding out where her late payments were — and increasingly incensed at her publisher, who Avenatti blamed for the delays.
That July, she says she finished the manuscript and turned it into the publisher. That’s when she expected to get her second payment, but it didn’t come. In August, Avenatti messaged her asking her to approve an actor to read the audiobook version. When she didn’t respond right away he pressed her. “Pretty annoying how they’re all over us for something they need but still haven’t paid,” she messaged him. Avenatti consistently stalled saying he was “working on it,” and it would only be another two weeks, or that it should be resolved by the end of that week.
Just after Labor Day, 2018, Daniels testified, she reached a breaking point. “I did not get paid today. I am not fucking happy,” she wrote in a Whatsapp message that was entered into evidence. Thats’s when Avenatti sent her a cashier’s check. Daniels said she was “confused and extremely irritated” when he told her the publisher had sent a check to his office instead of wiring the funds to her business checking account, as she’d instructed. She even sent Avenatti screenshots of the banking info on multiple occasions, messages show. “Just another way to nudge,” she said on the stand. “Are publishers trying not to pay me?” she asked in early October. “No on the publishers,” he replied. “Not going to be an issue.” At one point he even said he was preparing to threaten the company with litigation. It wasn’t until February, when Daniels finally got payment records from the publishers, that she said she learned what Avenatti had done. She texted him that she’d gotten a new lawyer and he could speak to her through him.
At one point, Sobelman asked Daniels why she’d trusted Avenatti. “Because he was my attorney,” she said. Avenatti will continue his cross-examination on Friday. The prosecution has two more witnesses to present after Daniels and then will rest its case.