The whole thing might have been dismissed as just another publicity stunt from Mr. Avenatti, who has a penchant for making provocative statements about Mr. Trump and who has even mused about running for president in 2020.
But now that Mr. Cohen has pleaded guilty, he may no longer be able — or choose — to avail himself of the Fifth Amendment’s safeguards. Because of that development, Mr. Avenatti vowed last week to ask the judge to lift the stay and to let him question Mr. Trump about Ms. Clifford by taking his deposition.
“The developments of today will permit us to have the stay lifted in the civil case & should also permit us to proceed with an expedited deposition of Trump under oath about what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it,” Mr. Avenatti wrote on Twitter on the day that Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty. “We will disclose it all to the public.”
The legal maneuver arguably remains something of a longshot for Mr. Avenatti.
Still, if he is eventually permitted to depose Mr. Trump, he could direct his inquiries toward several unanswered questions that have lingered at the heart of the hush-money arrangement:
Was Mr. Cohen indeed reimbursed, as prosecutors claim, by the Trump Organization? Which executives there were involved in the transaction? Was the payment made, as Mr. Cohen noted in his guilty plea, to influence the election?
The non-disclosure agreement silencing Ms. Clifford was dated Oct. 28, 2016, and was meant to be signed by four people: her first lawyer, Keith Davidson; Mr. Cohen; Ms. Clifford herself (who was identified as “Peggy Peterson”); and Mr. Trump (who was identified as “David Dennison”).
While it may be curious that Mr. Trump never signed the deal, the omission squares with his latest explanation for his role in the imbroglio.
After denying for months that he slept with — or paid — Ms. Clifford, the president said last week that even though he was the source of the money, Mr. Cohen struck the deal without his knowledge and that he learned about it only after it was inked.