What came to the foundation’s attention — and compelled officials there to complain — was a fundraising email that went out July 19 with “Donald J. Trump” identified as the sender and a subject line that read: “Ronald Reagan and Yours Truly.”
The solicitation offered, for a donation of $45 or more, a “limited edition” commemorative set featuring two gold-colored coins, one with an image of Reagan and one with an image of Trump. The coins were mounted with a 1987 photograph of Reagan and Trump shaking hands in a White House receiving line — the type of fleeting contact that presidents have with thousands of people a year.
“Friend,” the fundraising email purportedly from Trump said, “I just saw our new Trump-Reagan Commemorative Coin Sets and WOW, these coins are beautiful - I took one look and immediately knew that I wanted YOU to have a set. These aren’t any ordinary coins. They symbolize an important time in our Nation. This year, in addition to being re-elected as YOUR President, it also marks the 40th anniversary of our Nation’s 40th President, Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, we already sold out of the first batch we had in stock. But I liked these coins so much that I asked my team to rush order another batch for my TOP SUPPORTERS ONLY.”
It cautioned: “I’ve authorized a very limited production of these iconic coins, which is why I’m ONLY offering them to our top supporters, like YOU. This offer is NOT available to the general public, so please, do NOT share this email with anyone.”
Proceeds from the coin sales went to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising operation that benefits both the Trump campaign and the RNC.
The joint committee website, where the coins were for sale, noted: “The President only authorized the production of 5,000 sets of these iconic coins, which is why we’re ONLY offering them to our TOP supporters.”
In the 1990s, both Reagan and his wife Nancy signed legal documents that granted the foundation sole rights to their names, likenesses and images. Of course, there are countless photos and videos of Reagan that are in the public domain. But the foundation claims power to block them from being used for commercial purposes and political endorsements. When Reagan Foundation officials were made aware of the Trump email solicitation, they decided “within seconds” to put a stop to it, said Giller.
Although the RNC accepted the foundation’s demand regarding the fundraising emails, “we still have a lot of additional work,” Giller said. The foundation is looking into how many people might have seen the email and how many of the coin sets were sold, and may still decide to get lawyers involved, she added.
Frederick J. Ryan Jr., who chairs the Reagan Foundation board, is also publisher and CEO of The Washington Post. He declined to offer a comment for this column.
This isn’t the first time the 45th president has traded on the name or likeness of the 40th, who is revered among conservatives, for his own purposes. In July 2019, he shared as “Cute!” a fake quote by Reagan that was making its way around social media. According to the apocryphal story, Reagan upon meeting Trump supposedly said: “For the life of me, and I’ll never know how to explain it, when I met that young man, I felt like I was the one shaking hands with the president.”
Trump continued to spread the made-up quote, even though Joanne Drake, the chief administrative officer of the Reagan Foundation, had already told the fact-checking website PolitiFact that Reagan “did not ever say that about Donald Trump.”
Relations between the Trump family and the Reagan Foundation have generally been cordial. Last November, Donald Trump Jr. appeared for a lecture and book-signing at the Reagan Library, for which the foundation charged admission. The event sold out.
“President Reagan was a proud Republican and supporter of a party that has carried on his fight for conservative principles of economic opportunity and limited government. His likeness is used by thousands of Republicans each year who gather around the country for ‘Reagan Dinners,’ and his library regularly hosts debates for our presidential candidates," RNC communications director Michael Ahrens said in an emailed statement. "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.”
As of Saturday afternoon, it appeared that the coin sets were still available on the joint fundraising committee website.
Nancy Reagan, who died in 2016, was leery of those who invoked her husband’s name, even in efforts to pay tribute to him. In 2003, for instance, she publicly opposed a push by conservative House Republicans to replace Franklin D. Roosevelt’s profile on the dime with an image of Reagan, who by then was nearing the end of his battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“While I can understand the intentions of those seeking to place my husband’s face on the dime, I do not support this proposal and I am certain Ronnie would not,” the former first lady said. “When our country chooses to honor a great president such as Franklin Roosevelt by placing his likeness on our currency, it would be wrong to remove him and replace him with another.”
Nancy Reagan understood that a president’s place in history is precious, unique and vulnerable to the opportunism of those who claim to follow in his footsteps. It is not hard to imagine what she would have thought of the “iconic” coins that Trump has been hawking.