As it currently stands, Penn’s most famous alumnus is undoubtedly Donald Trump, a 1968 Wharton graduate who rose to political fame after a life spent out of government.
But Trump may soon have a competitor for that title. If the plans of 1996 College graduate Michael Avenatti come to fruition, Trump may face a challenger to not only his political fame, but his presidency as well.
In an exclusive interview, The Daily Pennsylvanian talked to the firebrand lawyer Avenatti about his “non-traditional” time at Penn and how his political interest was sparked as a student here.
The 47-year-old Californian thrust himself into the public spotlight this year as the hard-talking, no-nonsense lawyer who is also a chief liberal opponent to Donald Trump. Avenatti is representing Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who had an alleged affair with Trump and is now suing the president to annul a non-disclosure agreement.
For months, Trump and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, have offered varying explanations for the $130,000 given to Daniels. These include denying that the president knew about the payment to the film star and denying that Trump had any relationship with Daniels in the first place.
Most recently, in what pundits call the most devastating day for the Trump presidency, Cohen testified that he had paid Daniels "at the direction" of the president, "for the principal purpose of influencing the election." This was an astonishing admission, and a significant win for both Daniels and Avenatti.
In recent weeks, Avenatti has also turned his crusade against Trump into political ambition, traveling to key presidential primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire in a bid to explore a 2020 run on the Democratic ticket. But before he was rubbing shoulders with celebrities at the MTV video music awards or holding "resistance rallies" in Texas, Avenatti was a student at Penn.
He transferred to the school after studying for a year at St. Louis University, and lived in Stouffer College House during his early days on campus. He described his time at Penn as “a very non-traditional experience.”
“Shortly after I came to the University, I took some time off to work on a number of political campaigns,” Avenatti said. “Then I largely came back to Penn as a part-time student; I was in the College because I was a political science major, but I took a number of courses at Wharton which I enjoyed.”
Avenatti said a course he remembers was a class taught by pollster Frank Luntz that dealt with campaigns, consultants, and elections. In the course, Luntz brought in a number of high-profile political consultants to speak, including longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, according to Avenatti.
During Avenatti’s time off from Penn, he worked in politics, conducting opposition research and media relations for a firm run by current Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel — a story documented in a Buzzfeed News article recapping his start in politics.
Between 1990-1997, Avenatti said he worked on over 150 political campaigns in 42 states, including Lynn Yeakel's 1992 Pennsylvania senatorial race, Penn professor Joe Biden’s Delaware senatorial race, and 1965 College graduate Ed Rendell's bid for Philadelphia mayor.
Avenatti urged Penn students to stay active in politics ahead of what he says will be the most important elections of their lifetimes.
“I think it’s more critical than ever that the younger generation turn out to vote and become politically active,” Avenatti said. “There’s an enormous amount at stake — if Donald Trump is reelected in 2020, it will usher in dramatic changes in the American way of life because the Supreme Court, in a minimum, will go to 7-2. That could have a dramatic impact on students’ abilities to live their lives and enjoy the freedoms that everyone has fought so hard for over the last 100 years.”
Student leaders on Penn’s campus share Avenatti’s enthusiasm for the upcoming elections. Penn Democrats President and Wharton junior Dylan Milligan said the student vote could be crucial in November, and credited Avenatti with helping express the public’s frustrations with Trump.
“I think [Avenatti] is a very cogent voice for the frustrations people have with Donald Trump and the administration,” Milligan said. “He's done a good job of riling people up and getting people upset about the criminal behavior the administration has done.”
But Milligan said he did not want to weigh into the presidential race until after the midterms and maintained that the official stance of Penn Democrats was "no comment."
This hesitancy to wait until after the November elections before focusing on the 2020 race was echoed by Penn College Republicans, with President and College senior Ryan Snyder declining to comment on his thoughts on Avenatti.
As the 47-year-old lawyer contemplates a run for the presidency, he credits his years at Penn for shaping his current endeavors.
“There’s no question that the relationships formed at Penn and the experiences I had at Penn and the various courses, including the course I mentioned with Frank Luntz, had a significant impact on laying the foundations for who I ultimately became professionally,” Avenatti said.
If the 1996 College graduate can emerge from the Democratic field and gain the nomination in 2020, then the presidential election could be contested by two Penn alumni. Nevertheless, many may have to wait quite some time until that prospect becomes a reality: The Iowa Caucus isn’t until Feb. 3, 2020.
Recently, President Trump and Avenatti have publicly butted heads on Twitter and engaged in a high-profile war of words.
Avenatti took issue with both the characterization of his client and himself, hitting back and labelling the Wharton 1968 graduate a "disgusting misogynist and an embarrassment to the United States."