Lawyer for Trump accuser Stormy Daniels sought help from top Democratic donors

Attorney Michael Avenatti reportedly contacted an official in the network of liberal groups led by David Brock, but reiterated that "this isn't about politics".
Attorney Michael Avenatti reportedly contacted an official in the network of liberal groups led by David Brock, but reiterated that "this isn't about politics".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES)- Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic film actress who says she had a sexual encounter with President Donald Trump, has sought help for his legal battle against Trump from leading Democratic operatives.

Avenatti contacted an official in the network of liberal groups led by David Brock, while someone associated with Avenatti's law firm was in touch with two people connected to major Democratic donors, according to people familiar with the conversations.

But the discussions do not appear to have led to any financial help for the high-profile legal and public relations fight being waged by Avenatti and Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels.

Brock's groups decided not to donate to the efforts because they saw little value in spending money on a legal fight that was largely being waged in the news media, especially given Avenatti's penchant for attracting press coverage, according to two Democratic political operatives familiar with the discussions.

It was not clear why the other interactions did not lead to donations or other assistance.

The solicitations call into question Avenatti's insistence that he and Clifford have never actively sought to raise money from major political donors because "we will not allow this to be politicised".

In an interview Thursday, Avenatti reiterated that "this isn't about politics."

"I can't tell you the name of every person that I have spoken to, or not spoken to, over the last three months," he said, "but what I can tell you is that we have not taken any political-associated dollars from anyone on the right or anyone on the left. Period."

Avenatti, who has become a hero on the left for his brash condemnations of Trump and his allies, has a background on the periphery of Democratic politics.

In his website biography, he notes that during college and law school he worked at a political consulting firm run by Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, and boasts that he worked on more than 150 campaigns in 42 states, although he said on Thursday that about 50 of the campaigns on which he worked were for Republicans.

Regardless of his intent, Avenatti's efforts on behalf of Clifford have produced problems for Trump and his allies far beyond her case, which stems from a US$130,000 hush payment she received days before the 2016 presidential election from a Delaware-based company that had just been created by Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime lawyer.

The White House and Cohen have denied that Trump and Clifford had a sexual encounter.

A lawsuit brought in March against Trump and Cohen's company, Essential Consultants LLC, by Avenatti and Clifford to invalidate the nondisclosure agreement led to the revelation that Trump knew about the payment several months before denying knowledge of it, and also the admission that he had reimbursed Cohen for it, raising questions about campaign finance law compliance.

And Avenatti's release in recent weeks of a detailed - if not entirely accurate - report based on financial records that listed payments to Cohen's firms led to the revelation that he was using his long association with the president to collect millions of dollars in consulting fees from companies with business before the Trump administration.

Avenatti's efforts have also fostered a circuslike atmosphere around a criminal inquiry into Cohen in which prosecutors have sought records of payments to Clifford and another woman who alleges she had an affair with Trump, the former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Avenatti backed off from trying to formally involve himself in that case Wednesday, when he withdrew a motion that would have allowed him to participate in the proceedings after being called out by the federal judge presiding over the case, Kimba Wood. During a hearing on the case, Wood warned Avenatti that he would "not be permitted to use this court as a platform for anything." Also during the hearing, Cohen's lawyers accused Avenatti of "aggrandizement" and acting unethically in releasing his report on Cohen's finances and claiming that his law firm never represented Clifford.

It was only the latest in a series of testy exchanges between allies of Trump and Avenatti, who appears to relish the conflict and the prospect of getting under his rivals' skin. He posted a video on Twitter of one of Trump's lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, in women's clothing in response to Giuliani's calling him a "pimp." But Avenatti has bristled at questions about his financing, which escalated after Clifford admitted in late April that she was not paying his fees.

Avenatti said on Thursday that Clifford initially paid him a small amount in legal fees but is no longer footing the bill for his services, which he said are being funded entirely by donations made through a crowdfunding website.

More than US$527,000 from more than 15,000 donors has been raised on the website, which states that the money will go toward attorney's fees, arbitration, security expenses, out-of-pocket costs associated with the lawsuit and potential damages if Clifford loses.

But in the days before the website was unveiled, Avenatti called Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge, a nonprofit group and super PAC founded by Brock, and suggested that he was seeking to raise as much as US$2 million, at least partly from major Democratic donors or groups, according to the two operatives familiar with the discussions.

American Bridge is among a constellation of Brock-backed groups that raised US$65 million over the past two years and spent heavily in support of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. In the waning days of the race, American Bridge's nonprofit arm spent US$200,000 on an unsuccessful effort to encourage women to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump.

And since Trump became president, Brock's groups have focused on attacking Trump and his Republican allies, floating the idea of creating a fund to encourage victims to bring forward sexual misconduct claims against Republican politicians.

But American Bridge did not contribute to Avenatti's efforts, because the group's leaders concluded it was not a good use of their money, the two Democratic operatives said.

Avenatti was referred to Brock's groups by Mike Berkowitz, a political adviser who works with Rachel Pritzker, heiress to a Hyatt hotel fortune, and other donors, according to the two Democrats and another person familiar with the sequence of events.

Someone from Avenatti's firm reached out to Berkowitz seeking assistance for Clifford's case, but he did not relay the request to Pritzker or any of the other donors with whom he works, and instead recommended that Avenatti reach out to Brock's groups.

Beychok acknowledged that Avenatti called him in early March but declined to describe their conversation. Brock and Berkowitz declined to comment.

Avenatti said he did not recognise the names of Beychok, Brock and Berkowitz but did not dispute that he or his associates may have reached out to them.

"We've contacted people on the right and the left relating to a variety of issues," he said. "We have not sought any money from anyone on the right or the left."

In fact, he said, he had turned down "big money" from political donors on both sides of the aisle "because we're not going to have this politicised".

Susie Tompkins Buell, a prominent Clinton donor who gave US$500,000 - later refunded - to the effort funded partly by American Bridgeto coax Trump's accusers to come forward before the election, said she had not heard from Avenatti.

"I'm not sure I would be interested in supporting" Avenatti's effort, she said. But she added, "I wish them luck."