NEW YORK – An explosive plea agreement by Donald Trump’s former lawyer may give porn star Stephanie Clifford a second act in the courtroom and renew her effort to question the president under oath.
The case is “far from over,” her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, said in an interview. “I will not rest until America knows the truth about what happened.”
Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels, filed a lawsuit in March against the president and the lawyer, Michael Cohen, alleging an agreement she signed to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Trump in exchange for $130,000 was void because it violated campaign finance laws.
Trump questioned her honesty. Cohen, for months, denied wrongdoing. And the suit was placed on hold while the president’s ex-attorney was under criminal investigation in New York.
All that changed with Cohen’s appearance Tuesday in Manhattan federal court, where he admitted he facilitated payments ahead of the 2016 election to two women, Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, to keep them quiet about alleged affairs with Trump. Cohen and his lawyer said he was acting at Trump’s direction — validating Clifford’s central allegation that the payment had amounted to an illegal campaign contribution.
Cohen’s admission will allow Clifford to “jump-start” the suit in federal court in Los Angeles, Avenatti said in a telephone interview. He said he intends to use a hearing next month to ask a judge to lift a temporary hold on the suit that was put in place after Cohen said he would be forced to use his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if he were asked to testify.
Crucially, Avenatti said he will renew his effort to force Trump to answer questions in a deposition and say what he knew about about the hush payment and when he knew it. “I will ask numerous questions directly related to Trump’s knowledge of the payments, participation in the payments, agreement with Cohen and attempts to cover-up the crime,” he said.
But getting the sitting president into a conference room with an opposing lawyer won’t be easy. He can and likely will appeal any efforts to compel him to offer testimony.
“Does he wish to also invoke the Fifth Amendment? Otherwise I think he’d have to testify,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who isn’t involved in the case. “See Clinton v. Jones.”
The Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in Paula Jones’s lawsuit against Bill Clinton held that the president doesn’t have immunity in federal lawsuits over purely private acts.
Avenatti said he’ll also seek to depose Cohen.
Outside the courts, Cohen’s guilty plea also advances the agenda of Avenatti, who has said he’s considering a presidential run and frequently attacks Trump during TV interviews and in tweets.
Cohen’s plea deal “shows that from the outset of the campaign they were very nervous about the truth coming to light,” Avenatti said. “They engaged in a criminal enterprise to cover it up and hide the truth from the American public.”
“I am more motivated than ever and look forward to extinguishing this dumpster fire of a presidency,” he added.
Clifford’s suit was filed a month before FBI agents raided Cohen’s office, home and hotel room. Since the case was filed, Avenatti has gone on to represent at least three more women who claim they have hush deals with Trump, including one who alleges he got her pregnant. Avenatti hasn’t named the women or revealed if the alleged pregnancy was brought to term.
Both Avenatti and Clifford have been subjected to withering criticism from Trump’s allies, who have accused the lawyer of using the case to boost his professional and political ambitions. He says he and his client spend tens of thousands of dollars a month on security. Last month, Clifford was arrested and briefly detained in a strip-club raid in Ohio that Avenatti said was politically motivated.
Clifford responded to Cohen’s plea with a tweet: “How ya like me now?!”