From the depths of scandal, Michael Avenatti gave an interview to Vanity Fair. He cried four times and said: “Some would argue at this point that I flew too close to the sun. As I sit here today, yes, absolutely, I know I did. No question. Icarus.”
Michael Avenatti isn’t Icarus, or any other Greek mythical figure. He’s just a jerk. The quote is the self-promoting sleaze-dog lawyer version of Alex Rodriguez owning two portraits of himself in the form of a centaur.
Already charged for attempting to extort Nike and for embezzling $12 million from a batch of clients, he’s been hit with a new indictment. He’s accused of blowing the proceeds of porn star Stormy Daniels’ book deal on things like his monthly $3,900 Ferrari payment, while stalling her with excuses that the publisher was late or “resisting… due to poor sales of [Daniels’s] book.”
The fate of Avenatti-Icarus feels intertwined with Ed and Brian Krassenstein of #Resistance fame. The flying Krassensteins have just been removed from Twitter, allegedly for using fake accounts and “purchasing fake interactions.”
This comes three years after their home was raided by federal agents, and nearly two after a forfeiture complaint made public the Krassensteins’ 13-year history of owning and operating sites pushing Ponzi-like “High-Yield Investment Plans” or HYIPs. Authorities said the pair “generated tens of thousands of complaints by victims of fraudulent HYIPs.” (Emphasis mine)
After their Twitter ban this week, in one of the most perfect details you’ll ever find in a news story, the Krassensteins were contacted by Jacob Wohl, the infamous pro-Trump conspiracy peddler who is himself banned. Wohl reportedly proposed they all band together to “fight Twitter and internet censorship.”
Confused? You shouldn’t be. The Krassensteins and Wohl are just two sides of the same coin, just as Avenatti is a more transparently pathetic version of the man he claimed to oppose, Donald Trump.
The Trump era has seen the rapid proliferation of a new type of political grifter. He or she often builds huge Twitter followings with hyper-partisan content, dishing out relentless aggression in the form of dunks and hot takes while promising big, Kaboom-y revelations that may or (more often) may not be factual. They often amplify presences using vast networks of sock-puppet accounts.
Avenatti had 254 cable appearances last year, including 147 on MSNBC and CNN alone in a 10-week period. Cable news bookers fell so madly in love they nearly propelled him into the presidential race, during a time when, among other things, he was allegedly bilking $1.6 million from a paraplegic.
Waytago, cable! Congratulations for giving air time to any slimeball who throws enough coal on your ratings furnace, beginning of course with the president.
The first time I covered Trump, I thought it was obvious what he was up to:
We let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go.
And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He’s way better than average.
Trump understood the modern press is not only weighted toward the outrageous, but discouraging of moderation in any form. In the WWE-ized landscape, people like Jeb Bush and John Kasich appeared as tomato cans for Trump to knock over, using shareable insults, extravagant policy promises and ratings-stimulating antics.
Trump, it seemed clear, got into the presidential race as a publicity stunt, maybe as a way to sell books or steaks or whatever. He knew if you peddle vicious conspiracy tales about things like Obama’s birth certificate, you can get billions in free PR from stations like Fox. What he couldn’t have known is America is so screwed up, its collection of ostensibly real politicians so universally loathed, that his burn-it-all-down Bulworth act would end up being more trusted than “legitimate” alternatives.
In it for the money, he ended up with a dubious consolation prize called the presidency – which comes with all sorts of unpleasant legal complications, as well as buttloads of real responsibility (not that he would ever be tempted to embrace it).
The press supposedly learned its lesson after Trump won, adopting a “Democracy Dies in Darkness” mantle of intellectual gravity. Then they turned around and immediately began falling for the same con.
Avenatti became an instant celebrity after he filed a lawsuit seeking to void the non-disclosure agreement between Trump and Daniels, in which she received a $130,000 payoff to be quiet about what she would later call “the least impressive sex I ever had.”
In that, Avenatti had something cable television wanted more than anyone ever wanted anything: details about the president’s “smaller than average” tackle and Daniels’ tale of “getting fucked by a guy with Yeti pubes and a dick like the mushroom character in Mario Kart.”
Avenatti leveraged being the gatekeeper of this story into daily TV appearances, where he quickly became a political figure in his own right, someone who would play the Democrats’ bare-knuckle answer to Trump.
By last summer in Iowa, he was already giving speeches as a presidential hopeful. CNN gushed:
Cribbing but amending Obama, Avenatti added, “When they go low, I say, we hit harder…”
Whether by calling Michael Cohen a “thug,” or demanding an “immediate indictment” over the hush money issue, Avenatti could be counted on to take the maximally aggressive posture. Media figures couldn’t praise him enough. He was great, emotionally satisfying TV! Our own version of Trump!
Ana Navarro compared him to the “Holy Spirit” on The View, while Joy Behar said “being a lawyer is minimal compared to what he’s doing.” MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle said, ”The Democrats could learn something from you.” Brian Stelter, who later excused his admiration on the grounds Avenatti showed “Trump-like mastery” of media, said Avenatti should be taken “seriously as a contender.” In another forum he was called the “savior of the Republic.”
Avenatti wasn’t the savior of anything. He turned out to be an epic buffoon and massive net minus for Democrat causes. His performance in the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation last fall – where the Maya Angelo-quoting self-described feminist ended up having his own witness tell NBC he’d “twisted” her words – was just one faceplant.
He was soon after arrested for domestic violence. This helped lead to cancellation of campaign events, as Democratic organizers realized they’d come within a hair’s breadth of printing bumper stickers and posters for an unraveling one-man Enron.
The indictments of Avenatti read like a slapstick novel about a testosterone-brained chiseler who throws an armful of juggling pins in the air, then tries to lie his way into the White House before they land. If Hollywood doesn’t make a smart, dialogue-driven black comedy about his exploits (The Disbarrable Lightness of Being?) it will be a shame.
Mark Strong comes to mind for the lead, but Avenatti’s story is such a peculiarly American brand of scumbaggery that the casting will scream for a homegrown performer with a gift for weasely antihero roles. Kevin Spacey would have been perfect, but there’s always William Fichtner, or maybe Corey Stoll…
There is a literature of Avenatti denials now, and they have a certain style. Of course, it’s Trump’s style. He uses impenetrable narcissism in hopes of making his defense sound as convincing to us as it must to him, i.e. “In my mind most of all, I am completely innocent of all charges issued by the many ungrateful jealous losers out to get me.” Sadly, both are probably too self-involved to appreciate the irony.
The Krassenstein tale is another head-scratcher. The forfeiture document from 2017 described how the brothers operated a network of sites offering a “forum for the promotion and discussion of” those Ponzi-like investment vehicles.
Essentially, the Krassensteins were pulling an Internet version of a “big store” con, creating the illusion of a thriving marketplace of multiple sites that was in fact a handful of people working in concert to help lure in the fish. Feds seized a property they said was “purchased with wire fraud proceeds,” and as part of a settlement deal, the Krassensteins consented to giving up $450,000 of the sale.
Political audiences literally did not care that these dopes had been outed as mini-Madoffs of the Internet world. They liked the message and flocked to it. The #Resistance Twins even made an effort to bolster their credibility by creating the “Krassencast,” a podcast so excruciatingly boring that recordings of it will someday be used to force hostage-takers to surrender.
Like Avenatti, they took maximalist positions, pushing for indictments and impeachment, with Ed even saying Trump lawyer Michael Cohen invoking the Fifth Amendment meant “basically admitting that he’s a criminal.”
From Charles Ponzi to Mike Milken to L. Ron Hubbard to Bernie Madoff to Jack Abramoff, Americans have a long history of embracing snake-oilers and schemers, showering them not just with money but social approval. In America, even after exposure, the huckster is often still worshipped for being enterprising. In a weird way, we tend to admire the effort.
It’s one thing to give these clowns our money and time. But do we have to give them our respect, too? Make them political heroes? Are we really that stupid?