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Trump’s SNL Tweet Proves He Understands Neither Defamation Nor ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’


I’m not sure what’s more disturbing – that our president is tweeting about suing Saturday Night Live,or that he doesn’t understand It’s A Wonderful Life.   

In this special holiday edition of The Boy Who Cried Libel, our president now appears confused about the difference between sketch comedy programs and news broadcasts, and believes that anything with potential to hurt his delicate feelings “can’t be legal.”

The skit that so enraged Trump was a parody of the classic Christmas movie in which the cast and guest stars explored what a world without a Trump presidency would have been like.  Sarah Huckabee Sanders would have had a cushy job as a corporate publicist, Michael Cohen would have stayed out of jail, and Robert Mueller would have had a lot more time on his hands. 

I know we’ve discussed the legal standard for a valid defamation lawsuit before, but since Trump still hasn’t gotten the message, we’ll try again. A defamation case would require Trump to prove that NBC made a statement of purported fact (as opposed to opinion), that the statement was untrue, and that the falsity caused the Trump to suffer quantifiable harm. Oh,and as Trump is a public figure, he’d also have to prove “actual malice” – that NBC delivered its lies knowing they were false, or with reckless disregard for their truth.

A “test” in court would fail here on literally every front.  Most glaringly, exactly zero parts of NBC’s parody would come close to constituting, “a statement of fact.”  Comedy sketches would rarely be considered to purport fact, and are almost always understood in context as opinion or rhetoric; parodies and satires (so long as they are comedic on their faces), are even more logically distinct from fact. The entire point of any parody is to mimic an existing concept in a manner that is made-up. 

In the particular case of It’s a Wonderful Life – the point is even clearer.  The entire concept of the movie (and of the parody) is to portray a hypothetical alternate reality– and therefore, not fact. All this time, I’d been sure that Trump was someone who simply identified with Potter, and honestly, that was bad enough; now, I realize that he’s either never seen the movie, or worse — that he simply doesn’t get it.

Apart from the obvious lack of factual assertions in the SNL skit, the rest of Trump’s imagined lawsuit against NBC is equally absurd. Not only could there be no falsity proven, but neither is there any way in hell Trump could prove financial damages.  In fact, for a while now, Trump has been accusing SNL of having become irrelevant and suffering from failing ratings.  It’d be kind of difficult for Trump now to claim that SNL is influential enough to cause financial damages to a billionaire president on the basis of a five-minute cold open.

Trump has a long history of not getting the joke. He’s sued comedian Bill Maher for making a birther joke, and the head of Univision for instagramming a doctored picture. These absurd lawsuits never make it very far, but somehow, he never seems particularly deterred.

Bottom line, if Trump wants to “test” an episode of SNL in court, NBC will easily move to dismiss his claim, and probably move for sanctions to boot.  This may come as a surprise to our president, but there are actual rules prohibiting lawyers from filing nonsensical lawsuits when they know the law doesn’t support their claims.

Since we’re talking courtrooms, this might be a good time to point out that if Trump’s battle cries were ever taken seriously, NBC might be a perfect claimant.  You see, many states have legislation called “anti-SLAPP laws.” These are laws that sanction plaintiffs who try and use defamation cases as bully techniques.  When a lawsuit is deemed a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” – one intended to intimidate or silence critics by bringing on the massive burden of costly litigation, the bully-turned-plaintiff gets sanctioned.

Trump shouldn’t be a total stranger to anti-SLAPP statutes, because one in Texas helped quite a bit in his recent case against Stormy Daniels.  In that case, Trump played defense after Daniels sued him for defaming her via tweet; Trump defeated that lawsuit on the grounds that the case had been frivolous.  Apparently, though, the experience taught Trump little about how defamation law works.

Any Trump v. NBC lawsuit would likely proceed in New York.  New York’s anti-SLAPP statute (which, admittedly, is weaker than the Texas one that was used in the Stormy Daniels case), allows a defamation defendant to recover costs and fees when it proves that a SLAPP had “no substantial basis” in fact or law. Legal action against NBC for the It’s A Wonderful Trump skit is as clear an example of a claim lacking substantial basis in law as could exist.   I hate to mix Christmas metaphors, but perhaps there are three ghosts available to give the president a refresher on tort law.

[Image via NBC screengrab]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos