It was almost disappointing for me to see Stormy Daniels‘ case against Michael Cohen and President Donald Trump end the way it did. In a court decision that was overshadowed by stories like Paul Manafort‘s sentencing, the case over her hush agreement was brushed aside, kicked out of federal court because the judge felt there was no reason to keep it going any longer. It was an anticlimactic conclusion to one of the most widely-covered stories of the past year–Daniels’ alleged affair with Trump and the efforts to cover it up–and the immediate reporting wrongly focused on how it ended–in a virtual dismissal–instead of why.
Make no mistake about it, Stormy Daniels won this case, and it’s because she and her attorney Michael Avenatti beat Trump and Cohen into submission. Naturally, Avenatti agrees.
“There is no question that Ms. Daniels prevailed,” he told me on Friday. “And there is also no question it was due to her fortitude and our strategy, especially our media approach.”
I’ve been highly critical of Avenatti in the past when it came to his court filings in this matter and others related to it. I’ve said in the past that I think their case had significant weaknesses. Avenatti often undermined decent arguments by supplementing them with weak ones. The defamation claim he tacked on against Cohen was nonsense. But he knew that this case wasn’t going to be won in the courtroom, so he took it to the airwaves.
It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.
Avenatti took advantage of the eye-catching nature of the case–a porn star suing the president–to get on television. Cable hosts fawned over his polished, yet aggressive presentation, making him a ubiquitous presence on CNN and other outlets. He took advantage of Trump’s obsession with the media to turn it against him.
Donald Trump is certainly no slouch himself when it comes to using the press to his advantage, but it turned out that those in his orbit weren’t nearly as savvy. Avenatti ran circles around Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, and embarrassed Cohen’s lawyer and friend David Schwartz.
Reporters asked questions about what really happened when Stormy agreed to keep quiet about a an alleged affair between her and Trump. Cohen initially claimed that Trump had nothing to do with the agreement. He said he took care of it on his own, paid Daniels $130,000 on his own, and was never reimbursed. He claimed there was no problem with entering into the agreement without Trump’s knowledge because he wasn’t acting as Trump’s lawyer.
The more Avenatti pushed in the press, however, the more the story unraveled.
Trump himself, while denying knowledge of the payment, told reporters to address questions to Cohen, because Cohen was his lawyer. Giuliani said on television that Cohen was reimbursed by Trump after all.
The changing stories not only gave Avenatti fodder to blast his opponents, they also put the payment to Daniels under a microscope, raising questions as to whether it constituted a violation of campaign finance law since it was made at the height of Trump’s push for the presidency.
The more Daniels’ opponents spoke out against her, the deeper the hole they dug.
What started out as a relatively boring contracts case spawned a federal criminal investigation of Cohen that resulted in him pleading guilty to violating campaign finance law, and claiming that–despite past claims–Trump himself was behind the whole thing.
Suddenly, Cohen and Trump had a lot more to worry about than an adult film actress who was suing to be able to tell a story that had already been told. In the end, Cohen and Trump agreed that they wouldn’t even try to enforce the hush agreement, essentially giving Daniels exactly what she asked for. They realized that even if they won the case, they wouldn’t have gained anything.
If they had backed off a year ago, maybe the whole story would have gone away. Instead, Michael Cohen is fresh off of a string of Congressional hearings that included testimony about Trump’s role in paying off Stormy Daniels. Legal experts are speculating that Trump himself could face charges when he leaves office. In less than two months, Cohen will be going to federal prison.
Stormy’s case may have gone away quietly, but the noise it made is still being heard loud and clear.
Ronn Blitzer is the Senior Legal Editor of Law&Crime and a former New York City prosecutor. Follow him on Twitter @RonnBlitzer.
[Image via Tara Ziemba/Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.