Normally the result of a tiff between Donald Trump and Bill Maher would interest me about as much as I would be invested in the winner of a battle between Godzilla and Megalon. Trump’s lawsuit against Maher in retaliation for an obvious joke, however, is unethical and indefensible no matter how much I enjoy seeing Maher, who could only avoid being the most obnoxious human being in world containing the likes of Trump, suffer.
Maher joked to Jay Leno last month that he would pay $5 million to Trump’s charity of choice if Trump could prove that his birth wasn’t the result his mother having sex with orangutan. I missed it, Jay having joined David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel in my talk-show host Hall of Ethics Shame, but the line did make me laugh, I confess. Maher’s faux challenge was an obvious riff on the offensive offer Trump made to President Barack Obama during the presidential campaign, in which Trump raised the birther canard again and offered $5 million to the President’s charity of choice if Obama released his college records and definitive proof that he was really born in the U.S.A.
Nonetheless, Trump decided to behave as if it were a real offer. He had his lawyers send the verification to Maher (Trump’s father, the brains of the family, was a legendary real estate innovator and mogul), and now Trump is suing for the $5 million on the pretense that the comic welched on a legitimate and enforceable unilateral contract. “I don’t know whether this case will be won or lost, but I felt a major obligation to bring it on behalf of the charities,” Trump said.
I think orangutans may have a colorable suit against Maher for defamation, but Trump’s suit crosses over from stupid into unethical. To begin with, his statement is a lie: Trump’s concern for charities have nothing to do with Trump’s suit, which even an orangutan could figure out is hopeless. Trump just wants to cause trouble for Maher, whose comment ticked him off, and also to get back in the news, which is Trump’s reason for living. No court is going to find that a belief that Maher was making a serious offer was reasonable when 1) Maher is, for some reason, regarded as a satirist and comedian 2) “The Tonight Show” is an entertainment venue, 3) the object of Maher’s satire was obvious and 4) the Tonight Show audience laughed.
“I don’t think he was joking. He said it with venom. That was venom. That wasn’t a joke. In fact, he was nervous when he said it. It was a pathetic delivery,” Trump has said. Maher delivers most of his jokes with venom, Donald. The law and precedent is against you. For example, a man sued PepsiCo. in 1999 to compel the company to give him an AV-8 Harrier II jump jet on the theory that a facetious television commercial promised the jet as the Grand Prize for 7 million “Pepsi points.” The plaintiff had 15 points and sent Pepsi a certified check for $700,000 (points were worth ten cents each, according to the contest rules) to acquire the rest. In trial, Pepsi prevailed, successfully arguing that its advertisement was intended to be humorous.
The judge concluded: “A reasonable viewer would understand such advertisements as mere puffery, not as statements of fact. … The Court rejects plaintiff’s argument that the commercial was not clearly in jest.” And the plaintiff in that case had a better argument than Trump did. He also, unlike Trump, believed it himself.
Taking inventory, Trump’s lawsuit is unethical because…
- It abuses the legal system by employing it for spite, harassment, retaliation and cheap publicity.
- Trump’s stated rational for bringing it—his charitable impulses <gag!>—is a lie.
- He is trying to inhibit and punish not merely free speech, but satire and comedy.
- He is managing to make Bill Maher look good by comparison, which is unforgivable.
The Donald has been named Ethics Alarms Jerk of the Year in both 2011 and 2012. It’s comforting to know that he’s taking the honor seriously, and striving to win it again in 2013 despite tough opposition from, well, Bill Maher.
Don’t bet against him, Bill.
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