CNN | 6/26/2019 | Listen

How Michael Avenatti's flash-in-the-pan celebrity perfectly fit Trump's Washington

Updated 7:32 PM ET, Tue March 26, 2019

(CNN) - A mere 264 days ago, Michael Avenatti announced -- via Twitter -- that he was considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Today, the celebrity lawyer was indicted on both coasts -- almost simultaneously -- for allegedly attempting to extort Nike and wire and bank fraud.

The rise and fall -- and potential criminal collapse -- of Avenatti is both not at all surprising and sadly typical of the circus-like political environment in which we all find ourselves.

Avenatti is the sort of person who, in this climate, can't and won't be ignored, even as everyone (maybe including Avenatti himself) knew that none of this would end well. At all.

Avenatti came onto the national radar thanks to Donald Trump. He was hired by porn star Stormy Daniels to represent her in a suit in which she sought to end the confidentiality agreement she signed in the run-up to the 2016 election to keep her allegations that she had an affair with Trump in the mid-2000s quiet. Soon after he was brought on in spring 2017, Avenatti, who had always harbored a flair for and love of television, became a near-constant presence on cable news -- making the case, loudly, that he had proof that Trump had coordinated payments to Daniels.

And events conspired to make Avenatti look like he had the receipts. Thanks to dogged reporting, led by The Wall Street Journal, it became clear that Trump lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen had repeatedly lied about the payments -- from where he got the money to whether Trump knew about what he was doing. (Cohen eventually flipped on Trump, cutting a plea deal with the Southern District of New York and testifying under oath that Trump directed and coordinated payments to Daniels as well as to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who also alleged an affair with Trump in the mid-2000s.)

Suddenly, Avenatti was everywhere. His seeming ability to back up his braggadocio coupled with his never-say-no attitude toward cable TV appearances and always-lively Twitter feed made him catnip for a political-media culture that has become addicted to the reality TV aspects of Trump's candidacy and presidency.

So, when Avenatti tweeted -- on July 4, no less! -- that "IF (big) [Trump] seeks re-election, I will run, but only if I think that there is no other candidate in the race that has a REAL chance at beating him," it made a sort of weird, up-is-down, what-if-C-A-T-really-spelled-"dog" sense. If Republicans had just elected Trump, a celebrity with only the loosest grasp of policy and an even thinner affiliation with the GOP, who was to say that Avenatti might not be the Democratic answer?

As I wrote about Avenatti's political aspirations the day after his "I will run" tweet:

"The truth is we know very, very little about Avenatti. He's done an incredible job of taking Daniels' case, which appeared to be dead in the water before Avenatti arrived, and pushing it into the center of the national conversation. Whatever she is paying him to represent her, she should double it! But simply being good at getting attention for allegations about the sexual proclivities of the President does not make you qualified to be President. Neither does being a good talker on cable TV. Or being famous for being famous.

"Of course, the easy rejoinder to my case against Avenatti above is that Trump is the President of the United States. Which renders all traditional ways in which we measure someone's chances of being president totally moot."

In a world in which Donald Trump is the President of the United States, how could anyone say, definitively, "X person cannot be president"? The answer: You couldn't. Because Trump is the living, breathing embodiment of famed philosopher Kevin Garnett's pledge that "anything is possible!" Someone like Trump has never been president before. By all traditional standards of political measurement, Trump should have never even sniffed the 2016 GOP nomination much less beat Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president. And yet, here we are.

In short: It's simply impossible to overstate how dramatically Trump rewrote the rules of politics in 2016. And Avenatti, for a moment at least, benefited from that rewriting -- or, really erasing -- of the rules.

But in the end, what Avenatti proved is not how much Trump changed politics but how anomalous Trump actually is.

By December 2018, Avenatti had ended his never-started presidential bid, making clear that his family didn't want him to run. The fact that a month earlier he had been arrested on suspicion of domestic violence -- although the case was never prosecuted -- likely had something to do with Avenatti's decision, too. He, like so many who had come before him, had enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame, tried to parlay it into something bigger, and been bitten. Trump, like him or hate him, has been famous for almost four decades and somehow always managed to stay at least marginally relevant without ending up like Avenatti did on Monday.

Trump may have created the environment in which someone like Avenatti could be taken semi-seriously as a presidential candidate. But Avenatti's fall also proves there is only one Donald Trump out there.


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