When it comes to money matters, mixing things up with Donald Trump can be a costly proposition. This means that even making a bet with the real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host can earn someone a court date and maybe even set the person back a couple million dollars. Not even if the bet was meant as a joke. Not even if the person on the opposite side is a well known comedian. Like Bill Maher.
Here’s what happened: This past January, Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and mocked Trump as “the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.” Maher then said that if Trump could show proof that what he [Maher] said wasn’t true, he would give $5 million to Trump, which the billionaire would be free to donate to any charity of his choice, such as “Hair Club for Men, the Institute for Incorrigible Douchebaggery, whatever charity…” To drive his point home, Maher also claimed that the color of Trump’s hair and the color of an orange orangutan were the only two things in nature of the same color. The audience laughed loudly and applauded. And most people regarded Maher’s offer as merely mimicking or mocking Trump’s own offer a year earlier to donate $5 million to any charity of Barack Obama’s choosing if Obama would produce his birth certificate and college transcripts.
Well, as it turned out, if the comedian was joking, the billionaire apparently didn’t take it like a joke: Two days later, Trump produced his birth certificate to Maher and then demanded that the funnyman pony up, as promised. When that didn’t happen, Trump made a most unexpected move: He sued Maher in a Los Angeles court, for breach of contract.
Lately, it seems like The Donald has been busy trying to teach folks out there some lessons in the courtroom. Last December, just one month before the start of his dust-up with Maher, Trump was awarded $5 million dollars in his lawsuit against ex-beauty queen Sheena Monnin, a former Miss USA contestant, who in June last year pulled out of the pageant after alleging that the competition was fixed. In response, the Trump Organization, owner of the pageant, hit her with a defamation lawsuit, claiming that her false statements had hurt the reputation of the Miss USA Competition. The arbitrator agreed, and ordered Monnin, a former Miss Pennsylvania, to pay $5 million to the Trump Organization.
However, in the comedy industry, Trump’s lawsuit against Maher has not won him a lot of admirers. At stake here is the longstanding freedom of comedians to go on comedy talk shows and just parody public figures without even thinking about it. Needless to say, whatever Trump’s chances of winning the case, his accusers fear that if he wins the lawsuit against Maher, it could open a brand new door against comedians which people had assumed did not even exist. To be sure, this sort of apprehension flows in the same stream as the so-called ‘chill’ factor on free speech rights in general.
But what are Trump’s odds of actually winning? Can he even sue Maher for breach of contract in a situation like this one? For starters, when most folks think about breach of contract, they often imagine a situation where two people have made promises to one another and then one of them either refuses or fails to keep his word. In such situations, the agreement is made ahead of time, with each party knowing exactly what he promises to do and what he gets in return from the other side. Needless to say, they both recognize that the agreement is ‘binding’ on them and that they can be sued in court if they don’t keep their promise. This kind of contract is called a ‘bilateral’ contract and is obviously not the sort of situation that Trump and Maher are involved in.
But that’s not all. There are other situations that might involve people who have never negotiated or ‘bargained’ with each other or perhaps have never even known each other or met each other before. Yet, as long as an offer is made by one person and accepted by the other, a contract situation can arise between them. Again, it must be clear to both parties that the agreement is ‘binding’ on them and that they can be sued in court for not honoring the agreement. Here’s a situation where that could happen: Jose loses his dog and offers to pay $200 to anyone who finds and returns his lost dog to him. Three days go by and Jimmy finds the dog and returns it to Jose. At that point, Jimmy has ‘accepted’ the contract by actually performing it and Jimmy can sue Jose for breach of contract if he fails to pay up. This kind of contract is called a ‘unilateral’ contract and it is obviously less commonplace than the other kind of contract, discussed above. And for whatever it is worth, this is the kind of contract that Trump’s lawsuit assumes exists between the billionaire and the comedian.
Still, Trump has a real problem here as far as trying to establish that he and Maher entered into a contract. The crucial piece that is missing in their situation is something called ‘intent to enter into legal relations.’ Translation: Did Maher intend to make an offer that is ‘binding’ at law? Usually, when it comes to whether a person means what he says to stand as a valid offer or promise, the ‘context’ of the statement can be pretty crucial. Naturally, not every offer will qualify as valid. Consider the case of a ‘puff’ in a product ad. As the court recognized in an old English case from 1893, it is possible that what might seem to one party like a promise or an offer from the other party may be ‘only a puff from which no promise to pay could be implied.’ In layman’s language, a ‘puff’ is just an exaggeration or swagger about something, and when it comes to offers, stuff like ‘puffs’ are out.
Now, speaking of ‘context’ and ‘intent,’ here’s the big question in this lawsuit: what is the ‘intent’ of a comedian making a funny statement on a late night show in America? Is he looking to make an agreement that is ‘binding’ upon him at law, even if he’s mentioning somebody else by name? The short answer here is that any average person (think: a ‘reasonable’ person) who understands the nature of American talk shows as well as how comedians generally behave probably would not think so. More likely, he or she will think that the comedian was merely joking around.
There is another angle to Trump’s lawsuit: As he took Maher to court, Trump rejected the idea that Maher may simply have been joking when he made the offer. “I don’t think he was joking. He said it with venom,” Without directly saying so, this talk about ‘venom’ seems to hint at ‘malice’ on the part of Maher. An accusation that somebody made a statement or did something with malice likely would be more relevant and even helpful in a different lawsuit than a breach of contact claim. Because of this, one just might wonder why Trump did not choose to sue Maher for something like defamation instead of breach of contract. By the way, Trump presented his birth certificate in an attempt to show that Maher’s statement was false. And we note that a false statement that hurts someone’s reputation is the whole point of a defamation claim. Plus, as a billionaire with huge financial interests in the business arena, the money he can recover against someone who has damaged his ‘reputation’ would be a lot more than $5million. After all, defaming a billionaire like Trump is not like defaming a cabbie or a janitor.
So, why didn’t he sue for defamation instead? Well, apparently because Trump is smart or at least his lawyers are. To be sure, whatever his odds of winning his present breach of contract claim against Maher, his odds of winning a defamation claim against the comedian are even longer. Much longer indeed! A defamation claim against a comedian for what he said on another comedian’s talk show will quickly be consumed by much legal wrangling and bombast over the First Amendment and free speech. Long story short, between the notion that Trump is a ‘public figure’ and other matters that the free speech law concerns itself with, such a messy fight will most likely end up as a losing proposition for him.
In a defamation kind of situation, either Maher’s statement will be found to be a mere joke or parody, given the ‘context’ in which it was made, or it would be considered as a mere statement of opinion rather than fact. One way or the other the result will be the same for Trump – a defeat! Yet, for all the talk about ‘context,’ the law as they often say, remains ‘an ass’ and one can imagine a situation where something that a comedian says even on a talk show can still get him in trouble in a courtroom. For one thing, there is always that old principle that ‘a person is not allowed to murder another’s reputation in jest.’ But that’s not the situation we have in this lawsuit, it seems.
Well, in life, it is said that you win some and you lose some and Trump certainly had a big win in that defamation case against Miss Pennsylvania. But there are real differences between the case he won against the beauty queen and any possible defamation case that he could bring against the comedian here. The biggest difference is that the beauty queen made a statement of fact that the pageant was rigged, which turned out to be a false statement. It is awfully easy to imagine the serious damage that such a rather ill-advised statement can cause to the reputation of both the Trump Organization and the competition itself. Consider the context of the two statements: The Miss USA Competition is a serious event where folks win money, careers are made, role models emerge and media interest is high. On the other hand, Maher is a comedian who likely was merely grandstanding or bloviating on another comedian’s talk show, a program which opens every weeknight with a traditional stand-up monologue. The two scenarios are vastly different from one another.
In the end, Maher most probably won’t end up paying $5 million on Trump’s breach of contract case. But between paying his lawyers and going to court in this lawsuit, perhaps Maher has ‘picked on the wrong marine’ and has made a joke that will bring him an unexpected hassle. Despite his likely defeat in this case, The Donald is a tough customer who plays hard ball whenever the whistle is blown in any fight. From all indications, he will not be in any position in the present lawsuit to teach the comedian the kind of ‘expensive lesson’ (as he put it) that he taught the beauty queen. Yet, at the end of the day, he likely will have made his point with his lawsuit – a move that some have angrily denounced as an outrageous attack on comedy.
Please stay tuned for my upcoming book “Comedy Under Attack…”. Coming out soon!