Donald Trump’s Loathsome Lawsuit


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.


Facts: Politico

Sources: Hollywood Reporter, Althouse

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at


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21 thoughts on “Donald Trump’s Loathsome Lawsuit

  1. You are the first to quote Maher correctly. As you stated “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 am not an attorney but common sense would tell you that a birth certificate is not proof that his mother didn’t have sex with an orangutan..or..anyone else. It just proved that Trump was born at the time and place stated on the document, and that the alleged father signed it.
    The old adage applies here: Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe. Short of a DNA analysis. paternity cannot be assumed by the signatory of the certificate.
    What would you think about the ethics of an attorney who would file such a frivolous lawsuit? Trump’s continuing idiocy is simply ego inflating self promotion!

    • I think that an attorney should reject the lawsuit as an abuse of process, and because he’d be taking Trump’s money for a hopeless case. But an attorney who thought Trump had an appreciable chance of winning—and there would be some—is not violating the professional ethics rules even if he personally thinks its a dumb suit. A case cane be made—not as especially strong case, but a good faith case, if the lawyer is a dummy. ABA Rule 3.1 is kind to dummies and bad lawyers.

      • Jack, your comment made me wonder though. Trump has lawyers, probably a good many on retainer that are truly “his lawyers”. These are lawyers that do a great many things for him in the legal realm. If a very profitable client like Trump wanted to direct .5% of his legal spend in one year to a case the lawyer knows has absolutely no chance of prevailing, what are the lawyer’s options? Lose the client? Find a junior lawyer to torpedo?

        • Tell the client that it’s an unethical lawsuit, and you can’t do it. Law firms have sometimes been held liable by juries for taking bad cases for exactly this reason. It’s a real risk, in addition to being wrong. Maher’s counter-suit would NOT be frivolous, either.

  2. Frankly, both are such low lifes that I’m surprised you’re even talking about them. The best was to shut people up is to ignore them. But Maher and Trump have gotten what they want — even more undeserved publicity.

  3. I knew that box of microwave popcorn would come in handy!

    Seriously, can we get a special court that decides things like this to keep from clogging up the courts that have important business? Can we get a Reality TV “Celebrity Court” show that will decide such weighty matters with whipped cream pies, endurance races, and lightning-round quiz-show questions? They deserve no better.

  4. I don’t understand why Maher had to drag Trump’s Mother into their philosophical disagreement. Hasn’t that sort of thing always been considered out of bounds, ethically speaking? Why couldn’t Maher have just written a joke to make fun of Donald Trump himself, if the object was simple levity? The answer is easy: “Because it wasn’t!”

    These EA comments seem to imply that it was ok because Maher was “just kidding,” and that something (even more than usual) is wrong with Trump because he “can’t take a joke.” So, the attack extends from Trump the public figure, to his parentage. Taboos, even as tame as this one (“Don’t mention my Mama!”) exist– even in the lowest echelons of Society– precisely because they serve a valuable function. If we allow obnoxious, attention grabbing oafs (liberal or conservative) to pry open these essential floodgates to decency, we are likely to be deluged by all sorts of despicable social exchanges.

    What will be next? Maher “making fun” of the mentally challenged children of certain politicians he doesn’t happen to agree with? Then will the ethicists cry “Foul!” ?? How is it that someone like Will Rodgers always managed to get HIS point across without uttering a mean word?

    • It is stipulated that Maher is a total, irredeemable, mega-creep of the first water, and you are right: pulling a celebrity’s parents (or children) into this kind of public insult-fest is crude and bad form. The issue really isn’t whether Trump should “take a joke”–he has no choice. He’s a celebrity, and it does with the territory. Plus he’s a celebrity who habitually acts and talks like an ass, so it REALLY goes with the territory. The point is that Trump isn’t, and can’t, suing Maher because he denigrated his mother to take a shot at Trump. He’s making a frivolous and dishonest claim of a broken promise to get back at Maher for doing so, which is unethical in the extreme.

  5. The Pepsi Points are important to this discussion because the AV8 Harrier II Jump Jet was NOT REAL, meaning Pepsi did not have one to award; nor was there any previous instance where the offer was made and the Jet was on hand to be awarded. Under these circumstances, the Judge was correct to rule as he did, in favor of “Comedy”.

    I believe this situation is different, though. Trump’s arguement will probably be that his initial challenge to make payment of the $5 million on Obama’s behalf was a REAL offer (made in public, before witnesses, and backed up with cash), in exchange for the “proof” he was seeking. Because Maher’s offer referenced this REAL offer, countering in the exact amount (which, being rich, he obviously has), and in an equally public forum, Trump could logically claim that it was not unreasonable for him to assume Maher’s offer was likewise REAL.

    Mind, I’m not suggesting that either Trump, or I, believe this– only that there is (possibly) Reasonable Expectation of Payment in this case which did not exist in the Pepsi incident. If Trump should prevail, at least MAYBE Maher will think twice next time before dragging someone’s Mother into a media slugfest . . . .

    • Why, if the law suit can’t be justified by what Maher said about Trump’s mother? Why do you want to chill comic and satirical speech> When it’s irresponsible, as Maher’s often is (he called Sarah Palin a “twat” and Michele Bachmann a “cunt,” the consequences should be that fair and tasteful people turn his show off. (Of course, feminist hypocrites didn’t even blink.) Maher was on a comedy show, with a comic, making jokes, and his audience too it as a joke. Trump’s chances of winning are near nil, and he knows it.

  6. I like a good laugh, same as the next girl. What I don’t like is bad manners and fundamental meaness, which many so-called “Comics” seem to reek of these days. Actually, this situation reminds me of an old saying,

    “What do you have more of: Time or Money?”

    If you believe Trump, he doesn’t need the money, and he may believe his time well spent if this suit succeeds in silencing Maher. Moreover, he is probably used to looking silly, so I doubt that winning in a Court of Law will be necessary for him to claim at least a Moral Victory.

    Maher, on the other hand, is likely to gleen plenty of mileage (a.k.a., “material”) from this Battle, but it is also likely to cost him plenty of DOUGH. The best he stands to finish is 50-50 in the Court of Public Opinion (the country is, after all, ritually polarized at this point). Minus legal fees, of course. And don’t forget to add-on the Book deal. . .

    Personally, I’d rather not spend my time meeting with lawyers and rescheduling my life around such foolishness, but, after all is said and done, maybe Maher enjoys being the Center of Attention every bit as much as Trump does!

  7. Once upon a time, this entire matter would have resulted in a glove being thrown to the ground, followed eventually by a pair of gunshots. Duelling was decided to be barbaric and uncivilized, and we’ve replaced it with the courtroom – where both these ‘men’ have proven themselves to be quite adept. I take no issue with Trump being offended by the comment, nor do I see any issue with him seeking satisfaction. I do lament that the court – the house of Justice and the Law – has become the place where these unsavory duels must now takes place. Yes, Donald’s farcical suit cheapens the court. All such lawsuits do. But they’ve chosen their seconds, and it’s to be lawyers at dawn.

    • Except that the lawsuit ISN’T about Trump being offended, or if it is, he is lying and abusing process. This is not what the courts are for, and misusing them in this fashion shouldn’t be tolerated, shrugged off or laughed at.

      Trump deserves to be in jail right next to Ms. Soto.

  8. I don’t think the lawsuit is about Trump being offended (although I’m reasonably certain that he is). I think the lawsuit is about Maher putting his money where his mouth is.

    Trump is essentially saying: “Hey, I offered the President’s charity $5million in good faith, and I expected that, given exactly the same circumstances, Mr Maher would perform in good faith, too.” Trump says he is suing because of funding lost to the charities involved, so his gain (beyond self-righteousness), won’t be for personal damages, as it would if he were suing just for being his sense of public humiliation.

    As much as I can’t stand either one of these two characters, I do not see this as a wholey frivolous lawsuit. In fact, I believe it could get interesting. At any rate, I certainly don’t think “Trump deserves to be in jail,” because Maher is the one who clearly baited him into taking this action.

    • You are confusing the key difference between a buffoon (Trump) and a comedian (Maher, allegedly). What the first says is presumed to be serious, if idiotic. What the second says is presumed to be facetious.

      In W W II, the great humorist P.G. Wodehouse was captured by the Germans, and made “Axis Sally”-type pro-Nazi broadcasts over teh radio for his captors. When he faced trial for presumed treason, he argued that he knew no one who knew who he was and what he wrote about would take anything he said seriously, so he knew he could do the British cause any harm.

      And everyone agreed.

    • (SLAPP provisions protect citizens from having their First Amendment rights limited by inappropriate legal threats designed to stifle speech.)
      No, because Trump isn’t suing for defamation. He’s (supposedly) suing in contract.

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