Michael Avenatti, the attorney for adult film star Stormy Daniels, positioned himself on Friday in Iowa as the only possible presidential candidate prepared to hit President Donald Trump as hard as Trump hits Democrats.
Avenatti, who had told CNN on Thursday that he was seriously considering a presidential bid, delivered a complete rebuke of the idea that Democrats need to go high in a response to a President who often likes to go low, a maxim first delivered by then-first lady Michelle Obama but fully embraced by some Democrats during the Trump era.
“What I fear for this Democratic Party that I love so much is that we have a tendency to bring nail clippers to a gunfight,” he said in an almost 30-minute speech at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding dinner, a fundraiser in the northern part of the state that is a frequent stop for presidential hopefuls. “I believe that our party, the Democratic Party, must be a party that fights fire with fire.”
Cribbing but amending Obama, Avenatti added, “When they go low, I say, we hit harder.”
Avenatti’s trip to Iowa, which included meetings with top Democrats and multiple visits to the Iowa State Fair, is the clearest step the lawyer has taken toward considering a run for President. The first-in-the-nation caucus state is a traditional testing ground for presidential candidates – a fact Avenatti is well aware of – and his visit was an attempt to show he is serious.
Avenatti’s speech, partially an admonition of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which embraced the strategy of going high against Trump, demonstrated how a run by the hard-charging lawyer would be almost mono-focused on Trump. Avenatti’s remarks mentioned Trump by name over a dozen times and indirectly referenced him countless more.
“I know some of you may disagree with me. The answer to Donald Trump, you may say, is to do just the opposite of Donald Trump. Being noble, being kind, being classy. And I am all for each of those things,” he said. “But tonight, with our country under an unprecedented assault by a con man who fights only for himself and degrades the vulnerable and the powerless and regular hardworking people day in and day out, I believe that we must honestly ask ourselves as a party whether those we fight for can afford our gentleness.”
He added, “The moment we are living in is grave. It is critical. Trump doesn’t have the character, the heart, the knowledge or the wisdom to be President of the United States of America.”
Avenatti urged Democrats to bring Trump voters back to the party, casting the President’s supporters “not as evildoers, but as victims of a great con.”
“Look, we have all been taken advantage of before. One thing I know from my work as an advocate is that decent people get conned all the time,” he said. “And let’s face it: Trump is a very good con man. He sold many of us a bill of goods. In the finest tradition of the snake-oil salesman, he sold the perfect potion to many of us to cure all that ails us.”
He also acknowledged the uniqueness of the fact that he, the lawyer who represents Daniels in her defamation suit against Trump, was onstage in the Surf Ballroom, the historic Iowa venue where rock-and-roll icon Buddy Holly played his last show before dying in a plane crash nearby.
“What, you may be asking, is a quote-unquote porn star lawyer doing here tonight to speak with you about our party and our republic?” he said. “In normal times, I would not be here. I would be home in Los Angeles enjoying my life. But these are anything but normal times.”
Avenatti was not the only candidate to urge fighting with the President, either.
“I am ready to get into a bit of a fight,” said Ohio’s Rep. Tim Ryan, another Democrat considering a presidential bid. “We need to come together and get in a big fight here in America.”
Ryan urged Democrats to, like him, embrace an Irish adage: “Is this a private fight or can anyone get into it?”
It was clear throughout the night, though, that most of the dinner attendees were there to meet and see Avenatti, partly because of excitement and partly because of utter fascination.
When Randy Black, chair of the dinner, announced the slate of politicians and would-be politicians speaking at the event, Avenatti’s name got the biggest applause. And that was reflected in conversations with dinner goers – some of whom were not Democrats.
“I’m a Republican who came here to prove that all of us do not approve of the President,” Ed Enright, a self-identified Iowa Republican, said standing outside the dinner with a sign that read, “Mr. Avenatti keep the heat on lying Trump.” “If Avenatti runs I’ll help him here in North Iowa and try to make a difference for him.”
But even as Avenatti boosted turnout, he made it difficult for some of Iowa’s Democratic candidates to attend the event.
The party’s gubernatorial candidate, Fred Hubbell, did not attend the dinner, citing a scheduling conflict. Neither did Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer, two Democrats running for Congress in Iowa.
Black said the event sold around 300 to 400 extra tickets he attributes to Avenatti, but he added that Hubbell, Iowa secretary of agriculture candidate Tim Gannon and state auditor candidate Rob Sand all decided not to attend after Avenatti was announced.
“People want different. Look at what Trump did,” Black said. “He was a fascination and look, he spawned all kinds of different people who had never been there before, never flirted with politics. And look what happened.”
The only congressional candidate to attend was J.D. Scholten, the Democrat challenging controversial Rep. Steve King in a deep red district.
Those hopefuls who did attend, though, tried to ignore Avenatti.
“I haven’t thought about it for a second,” Rep. John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat who has been running for president for over a year, told CNN. “I think I have a very different message and I’m a different kind of Democrat, and I think what I stand for and who I am is what people are going to look for and it won’t matter who is in the race.”
But the crowd of Iowa Democrats in Clear Lake on Friday are hungry for Democrats to come to Iowa and eager for yet another presidential election season to arrive in the Hawkeye State.
Avenatti provided those loyal party members with a clear vision and encapsulated it by quoting a Latin saying: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”