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Federal investigators associated with the FBI and the Mueller investigation have raided the offices of President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen and seized communications between Cohen and his clients. USA TODAY

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WASHINGTON — Michael Avenatti, the combative California lawyer representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in her legal battle with President Trump, operates far outside the staid worlds of federal banking regulations and campaign-finance law.

But his bold move to sue Trump to free Daniels from a deal to keep quiet about her alleged 2006 sexual encounter with the future president appears to have helped set in motion one of the most aggressive moves by federal prosecutors to date: an FBI raid on the office and home of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney and longtime confidant.

Avenatti, who has sought the media spotlight ever since filing Daniels’ lawsuit on March 6, isn’t shy about taking credit for himself and his client.

“There is no question that the courage of Ms. Clifford and our legal efforts brought considerable attention and pressure to bear,” he told USA TODAY on Tuesday via email. Daniels’ legal name is Stephanie Clifford.

Avenatti declined comment when asked whether Daniels has been contacted by the FBI or the Justice Department in connection with the Cohen raid. But he indicated in a late afternoon tweet Tuesday that he and his client would “fully cooperate with any search for the truth.” 

Monday’s high-profile raid on Cohen’s offices, home and hotel room mark the latest twist in a legal drama that experts say could pose serious risks for Cohen and Trump alike. They include allegations that the $130,000 Cohen has acknowledged paying Daniels days before the presidential election amounted to an illegal, excessive campaign contribution.

But Cohen also could face fresh questions about the statements he made to banks as he sought a home-equity line of credit to fund Daniels’ payoff. He also created a limited liability company in Delaware to transfer the money to the client-trust account of Daniels’ former lawyer.

“The banking question may be a bigger issue than the campaign-finance issues,” said Fred Wertheimer, who runs the watchdog group Democracy 21. “The issues there are whether he misled the bank about what the money would be used for. That seems pretty straightforward.”

A spokeswoman for Cohen's attorney, Stephen Ryan, did not respond to an interview request.

Watchdog groups, including Common Cause, had lodged complaints with Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission about the Daniels' payment months before Avenatti's lawsuit. They also have asked regulators to investigate a $150,000 payment by the National Enquirer's parent company to a former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also says she had an affair with Trump.

Twitter and cable wars

But Wertheimer and other legal experts say Avenatti’s lawsuit made public for the first time the details of the nondisclosure agreement Daniels signed with Cohen. The agreement, included as an exhibit to the lawsuit, was reached 11 days before the 2016 presidential election as Trump’s campaign grappled with multiple allegations of his sexual misconduct.

In the weeks since, the media-savvy Avenatti has helped keep the spotlight on the case, shepherding his client through a high-stakes 60 Minutes interview, sparring with one of Cohen’s lawyers on cable news, taunting Cohen and Trump on Twitter and hinting at startling new developments.

Earlier this week, for instance, he promised to soon unveil a forensic sketch of the unidentified “thug” he said threatened Daniels in 2011 to keep quiet about the alleged Trump affair.

In a tweet Tuesday about the Cohen raid, he expressed vindication. The case, he said, "has ALWAYS been about the threats, cover-up and the lies that have been told to the American people."

The legal battle has spurred Cohen and Trump to make public statements that are “quite incriminating,”said David Super, a Georgetown University law professor.

Among them: Trump's comments to reporters last week, denying knowledge of the Daniels payment or the source of the hush money. "You'll have to ask Michael Cohen" why the payment was made, the president told reporters on Air Force One.

If Cohen acted on his own to pay Daniels, Super said, "then there's no attorney-client privilege, which may have made (the FBI) more comfortable doing this raid."

Trump's statements "have exacerbated his problems severely," Super added. "If he had taken the usual lawyers' advice to clients and referred all questions to the lawyers and declined comment, I don't think we would have seen this raid and I don't think this lawsuit would be any big deal."

Trump has met "his match"

Avenatti's representation of Daniels is not the trial lawyer's first time in the media glare.

The Newport Beach, Calif., attorney has appeared twice before on 60 Minutes when he filed a lawsuit alleging a California cemetery was desecrating remains and, again, when he sued a surgical gown manufacturer, alleging its gowns did not fully protect doctors and nurses from viruses, such as HIV. Last year, he won a $454 million judgment against the manufacturer, one of the largest in California history.

As a plaintiff's lawyer, Avennati is "incredibly tenacious" and isn't afraid of "rubbing people the wrong way," said Brian Kabateck, a Los Angeles trial lawyer and the incoming president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

"He doesn't have to behave in a way that conforms with the establishment," Kabateck said. "I think maybe Trump has met his match in this guy."

Paul Ryan, Common Cause's top lawyer, said his group played a key role in making a legal case with federal election regulators and Justice Department's lawyers to examine the payoffs.

But, he said, "Michael Avenatti has very skillfully used the press to build hype around himself and his client. One effect of Avenatti's skillful use of the press is that the Department of Justice knows and the Trump administration knows that the public is watching."

 

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