July 27, 2020; Washington Post
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute (Reagan Foundation), which manages Reagan’s presidential library in southern California’s Simi Valley, has demanded that the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Trump campaign halt any use of Reagan’s likeness in its fundraising.
Melissa Giller, the Reagan Foundation’s chief marketing officer, said in an email Saturday that the RNC had been contacted by phone earlier in the week and that they had agreed to stop.
A campaign solicitation for Trump’s reelection campaign offered a “limited edition” commemorative coin set, one with President Trump’s likeness and one with Reagan’s, purportedly to honor the 40th anniversary of the 40th president. The set, along with a copy of a photograph of the two from a 1987 meet-and-greet, could be had for a suggested political donation of $45. These actions raised a “red flag” for the Reagan Foundation.
As of Saturday, the offer was still online, with proceeds going to Trump’s Make America Great Again Committee, benefitting the RNC along with the Trump campaign.
The Reagan Foundation objected to this use of Reagan’s image for two reasons. The reason most noted in the media is that the Reagan Foundation owns the use of Reagan’s likeness, and it did not give permission for the minted coin depicting Reagan’s face or for his name to be included on the letter. Nancy and Ronald Reagan legally granted the Reagan Foundation sole rights to both their names, images, and likenesses in the 1990s. News organizations and historians may use pictures that are part of their archives or in the public domain, but the Reagan Foundation is vigilant in stopping the use of such images for commercial purposes.
The Reagan Foundation would never have given their permission for those coins, but political campaigns committees should be aware of the second reason, which is that the Reagan Foundation is a 501c3 public charity and, therefore, must abide by Internal Revenue Service regulations, along with California charity guidelines.
As a 501c3, the Reagan Foundation’s federal Form 990 filing is available to the public; it has 156 employees and an annual budget of around $25 million, according to its 2018 Form 990 report. IRS regulations are clear on how nonprofits can use their name or logos if they wish to retain their tax exemption.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501c3 organizations are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.
The Reagan Foundation did not use Reagan’s image for a political campaign, but it owns the image and the RNC misused it, which falls into indirect use. Legally, to preserve its tax-exempt status, the Reagan Foundation is compelled to intervene.
The RNC accepted the foundation’s demand regarding the collective coin emails, but “we still have a lot of additional work,” Giller says. She adds that lawyers may still be involved, depending on the coin sale numbers and emails circulated. The chair of the Reagan Foundation board, Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, did not comment.
Last July, Trump retweeted a fake Reagan quote, continuing to share it even after the chief administrative officer of the Reagan Foundation, Joanne Drake, had already denied Reagan ever said it through the website PolitiFact.
The Trump family has participated in fundraisers for the Reagan Library; the library charged admission last November for what was billed as a lecture and book signing by Donald Trump, Jr.
RNC communications director Michael Ahrens pointed out in an emailed statement to the Washington Post that Reagan’s image was used by the Reagan Foundation and library to raise money and the library hosted presidential debates:
Given that the Reagan Foundation just recently hosted the Trump family to raise money for its organization and has not objected to us using President Reagan’s likeness before, their objection came as a surprise. Even though we believe our use of the image was appropriate, we will stop emailing this fundraising solicitation as a courtesy.
But federal law is clear. Using an image owned by a 501c3 to promote a political candidate is never appropriate.—Marian Conway