MANHATTAN (CN) – Criminally charged from coast to coast, embattled attorney Michael Avenatti already has told one federal judge that President Donald Trump is behind his prosecution. On Tuesday, his attorney delivered the same message to another.
Prior to becoming a defendant, Avenatti appeared in the Southern District of New York last year as counsel for Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actress involved at the time in litigation related to President Trump’s then-fixer Michael Cohen. The high-profile match-up made Avenatti a celebrity and frequent fixture of the cable airwaves, where the attorney predicted that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would be the downfall of Trump and his son Donald Jr.
Avenatti’s attorney Dean Steward told a judge today that his client “made some very, very powerful enemies” during those heady days, with the “president of the United States” topping the list.
Avenatti has now formally blamed his opposition to Trump for separate indictments in California and New York, where he is accused of defrauding Stormy Daniels and extorting Nike. Steward told U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts today that both cases are vindictive.
“Vindictive?” Batts asked, incredulously.
Appearing taken aback, Batts added later: “This office is not known for being vindictive.”
The so-called “Sovereign” District of New York is known for being fiercely independent from Washington. Prosecutors from the Southern District have jailed billionaires in insider-trading cases and embarrassed heads of state from several countries, including Turkey, Honduras and the United States.
Steward suggested times have changed during the tenure of U.S. Attorney General William Barr, whom he called a “lapdog” for Trump.
“That may be,” Batts replied, before questioning what Barr had to do with the case.
Though Steward did not fully explain his theory in open court, Avenatti took shots at Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman last week with a similar motion in the Nike case.
Appointed by ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Berman’s rise to serving as the Manhattan U.S. attorney post raised eyebrows because of his history as a former law firm partner of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney. Avenatti’s motion in the Nike case noted that Berman donated $5,400 to Trump’s electoral campaign and briefly served on his transition team.
Never approved by the Senate, the Republican Berman had his term extended via a unanimous vote of Southern District judges.
Calling Avenatti’s vindictive prosecution claims “frivolous,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Sobelman predicted that the pending claims would fail in both courts.
Since his term took off in early 2018, the Manhattan U.S. attorney allayed critics’ concerns by recusing himself from the Cohen investigation.
Avenatti questioned why Berman did not step aside again in his case.
“It did not provide an explanation for why USA Berman recused from the Michael Cohen investigation but not from Mr. Avenatti’s,” the Oct. 3 motion says.
Quoting Trump’s swipes at him as a “total low-life” and “third-rate lawyer,” Avenatti noted that the Southern District made a surprise entrance into a high-profile legal battle to shield president’s tax returns from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
Berman’s office filed the initial letter stating the United States would intervene in Trump’s support, before Justice Department attorneys took over the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky, who is prosecuting Avenatti in both the Nike and Stormy Daniels cases, wrote last month that the celebrity lawyer “does not even attempt to offer ‘direct evidence’” of his allegations impugning the district’s integrity.
Avenatti took more shots at Trump and prosecutors at a makeshift press conference following this afternoon’s hearing.
After declaring the “biggest criminal in America occupies the White House,” Avenatti added that Trump “uses the Department of Justice to target his enemies.”
“Welcome to Russia,” he told reporters, before disappearing into the elevator.
Judge Batts scheduled his trial on the Stormy Daniels charges for April 21. Trial on allegations that Avenatti extorted Nike previously had been scheduled Nov. 12.
Berman made a point after his office convicted former Republican Congressman Chris Collins, the first sitting member of Congress to endorse Trump, to note at a press conference that the congressman broke the law by trading inside tips “while standing on the White House Lawn.”
After the ex-congressman’s conviction, Berman told reporters earlier this month: “No one is above the law.”
Collins’ indictment, unsealed by Berman’s office a little more than a year ago, angered Trump as politically inconvenient in the lead-up to the midterm elections. The president complained that the “Obama-era” investigation put the then-congressman’s seat in jeopardy.