Michael Avenatti—the California litigator who became a liberal celebrity while representing Stormy Daniels in her 2018 lawsuit against then-President Donald Trump—will now defend himself in Manhattan federal court as he fights charges he stole money from the porn actress.
On Tuesday, the second day of Avenatti’s fraud trial, Judge Jesse Furman granted the 50-year-old lawyer’s request to dump his public defenders and represent himself. Before his ruling, Furman warned Avenatti his choice would be final.
Avenatti’s bombshell maneuver means that he’ll end up questioning Daniels, 42, when she takes the stand. The adult film actress turned paranormal investigator is expected to testify against her onetime legal eagle on Wednesday.
Prosecutors say Avenatti, who faced millions in debt, embezzled $300,000 from Daniels’ book advance by forging her signature on a letter to her publisher. He faces a count of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft and a maximum of two decades in prison if convicted.
He asked to go “pro se” just before his attorneys were prepared to cross examine Judy Regnier, the former office manager at his Newport Beach law firm. Earlier that morning, Regnier testified that Avenatti’s firm was “having trouble making ends meet” when Daniels hired him and that she frequently checked the company’s accounts to ensure they had “enough money to make it to the end of the day.”
According to Regnier, Avenatti believed pursuing Daniels’ case against Trump would bring a windfall for his ailing business, which was evicted from its offices. Regnier also testified that Avenatti used his law firm’s funds to pay his girlfriend, his second ex-wife, his rent, and his car payment.
Furman initially said he was inclined to deny Avenatti’s request to represent himself, saying his right to do so is “sharply curtailed” once a trial begins.
But on the jury’s lunch break, Avenatti claimed he was encountering a “breakdown of communication” with his counsel. He argued that he already had deep knowledge about Regnier and her previous testimony against him in his California case. (Avenatti’s Santa Ana trial for allegedly stealing clients’ settlement money ended in a mistrial.)
Furman questioned Avenatti on his state of mind, his educational background, and experience with the legal system before ruling him competent to lead his own defense.
Far from press shy, Avenatti answered queries from a flock of reporters after court ended for the day. They trailed him as he walked and peppered him with questions including “Are you ready to cross Stormy Daniels?” and “Are you going to testify in your own defense?” followed by “Will you question yourself if you testify?”
One reporter referred to Daniels’ ghost-hunting TV project, asking Avenatti, “Do you think that belief in the paranormal means that someone isn’t trustworthy?” He didn’t answer.
But on his decision to represent himself in federal court, Avenatti said, “It’s my arena, it’s where I’m most at home, and I think it gives me the best chance at winning.”
Before Avenatti’s trial began, he issued a statement to the press saying he was “completely innocent.”
“The government is spending millions of dollars to prosecute me for a case that should have never been filed,” Avenatti said.