In a battle of high-profile personalities, the millionaire comic struck back at the billionaire mogul Friday—and took a swipe at the latter’s Cooley attorney for good measure.
The fracas between acid-tongued comedian Bill Maher and seemingly ubiquitous real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump began last month when Maher appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
In a thinly veiled allusion to Trump’s repeated questioning of President Barack Obama’s legitimacy as a candidate during the 2012 presidential campaign, Maher told Leno during the Tonight Show appearance that he would donate $5 million to a charity of Trump’s choosing if Trump could prove he isn’t "the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan."
After making himself the so-called birther movement’s most famous face by insisting the president was not born in the United States, and therefore not qualified to occupy the nation’s highest elected office, Trump later offered to donate $5 million to a charity of the president’s choosing if he would produce his undergraduate college records.
Trump, whose net worth Forbes pegged at $3.1 billion last year, responded to Maher’s comments by filing a $5 million suit against him Los Angeles County Superior Court on February 4. On Friday’s episode of his weekly HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian fired back with several sarcastic blasts at Trump and his lawyer, New York–based Cooley litigation partner Scott Balber. (Click here for a copy of Trump’s suit, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.)
"Really, we’re going to court about this?" Maher said in closing the show’s "New Rules" segment. Uttering several expletives, Maher said that if Trump is going to sue him for $5 million in an effort to prove "he’s not the love child of an orangutan," he needs to learn "what a joke is and what a contract is."
While the president—whose personal lawyers from Perkins Coie moved to lay the birther issue to rest in early 2011 by releasing his long-form birth certificate—never officially responded to Trump’s college-transcript challenge, he did made a joke about the subject at Trump’s expense during his own Tonight Show appearance last year. On Friday, Maher explained the logic behind his Trump jab.
"So playing on the fact that the only other thing in nature with the same color hair as Trump’s is the orange-haired orangutan, I joked that Donald Trump needed to show me his papers to prove he wasn’t hiding a bad secret about his birth," Maher said on Real Time. "This is known as parody, and it’s a form of something we in the comedy business call a joke."
Continuing to riff on Trump’s much-discussed hair, which some have described as gravity-defying, Maher explained to the Real Time audience that he had told Leno he would make a $5 million donation to a charity of Trump’s choosing—the Hair Club for Men was mentioned—if The Apprentice star produced his own birth certificate.
"This upset the Donald [so much] that they could barely stop him from flinging his feces," said Maher. "Public figures, of course, don’t always like what’s said about them, but that’s how we roll here in America." Added Maher: "We love our free speech, and we love celebrities getting taken down a peg, so Don, just suck it up like everybody else."
Maher then produced a letter sent by Cooley’s Balber to Real Time’s Los Angeles studios that was accompanied by a copy of Trump’s short-form birth certificate.
"Attached hereto is a copy of Mr. Trump’s birth certificate, demonstrating that he is the son of Fred Trump, not an orangutan," Balber wrote in a portion of the letter Maher displayed on air. ( Click here for a closer look at a copy of Trump’s birth certificate and the text of Balber’s letter, in which the lawyer asks that Maher remit the promised $5 million in equal amounts to five charities: Hurricane Sandy Victims, The Police Athletic League, The American Cancer Society, The March of Dimes, and The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.)
Amid laughter from the audience, Maher wondered aloud whether "these morons even know it’s impossible for people and apes to produce offspring?" before focusing his attention on Balber’s signature at the bottom of the letter.
"Look at the lawyer’s signature—it just kind of trails off, as if to say, ‘I’m too embarrassed to even finish this,’" Maher said. "So I ignored the letter like I ignore all letters I get from crazy people, and I forgot about the whole thing until this week when Trump and his lawyer, pictured here, [Maher displayed a photo of a monkey next to a telephone]—when they actually sued me for the $5 million."
Maher went on to note that rather than base the suit on a libel claim, Trump aims to break new legal ground.
"They seem to be trying to set a bold new precedent that jokes on late night talk shows are now legally binding agreements between the comedian and the person they’re making fun of," Maher said. "Yes, I’m sure this will go all the way to the Supreme Court.
"The legal system in this country is not a joke, it’s not a toy for rich idiots to play with," Maher continued. "And frankly, Mr. Balber, what you released raises more questions than it answers. At least it does to a growing chorus of patriotic Americans who call ourselves ‘Apers.’ "
Maher followed the tongue-in-cheek reference to those who question the circumstances surrounding the president’s birth by asking whether Trump’s Cooley lawyers had actually provided a legitimate copy of their client’s birth certificate.
"Where’s the original long-form certificate?" Maher asked. "A short-form copy of a birth certificate unsigned by an attending physician isn’t proof of anything—you know who I learned that from? I learned that from Donald ‘But I’m White’ Trump!" (Trump once said he would not accept a similar document provided by the Obama administration as proof that the president was in fact born in Hawaii in 1961.)
Balber and a trio of Cooley press representatives did not respond to requests for comment about Maher’s Friday diatribe. (The other Cooley lawyers named on the complaint are New York–based special counsel Jonathan Cross and national litigation department chair Michael Rhodes, who is based in San Francisco and San Diego.)
Trump himself boasted last week on Twitter about hiring the firm to handle the case. "The big and highly respected Cooley LLP is handling the [Maher] case for me," Trump wrote in one tweet. "A top firm like Cooley will only submit a case they believe in and can win."
Balber—who joined Cooley as head of financial services litigation last October from Chadbourne & Parke, where he cochaired the commercial litigation practice—has a history of handling litigation for Trump-affiliated entities.
He was part of a Cooley team that secured a $5 million defamation award in December in favor of the Trump-owned Miss Universe organization in an arbitration proceeding with former Miss Pennsylvania Sheena Monnin, who claimed that the beauty contest was rigged. (Monnin asked last week that the judgment be overturned.)
Trump, whose older sister Maryanne Trump Barry is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, has had occasion to employ his share of attorneys over the years, with The Am Law Daily previously reporting on the lawyers who have represented him in casino bankruptcies, real estate acquisitions, and Scottish golf resort projects.
In interviews this week, Trump acknowledged the personal nature of his skirmish with Maher.
"[Maher] talked badly about my father," Trump told Howard Stern on the shock jock’s satellite radio show. "The venom with which he said it . . . that wasn’t comedy."
Trump also called in to the gossip news show TMZ Live, telling host Harvey Levin, himself an attorney, that Maher crossed the line by suggesting his mother had mated with a primate.
"What [Maher] said about my father is disgraceful . . . and what he said about my mother, who’s deceased, was in a certain way, even more disgraceful," Trump told TMZ. "I’ve never heard anything like that said about my parents . . . who were truly great people."
Trump said he would drop the suit if the New Jersey–bred Maher, who purchased a share of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets last year, agrees to make payments to the five charities Trump has selected.
If the comedian’s Friday comments are any indication, Trump shouldn’t expect that to happen anytime soon.