The publication of a special “Stop Trump” issue of National Review was heralded in a blaze of publicity. Editor Rich Lowry appeared on Fox News and was interviewed by Trump nemesis Megyn Kelly, where he proceeded to denounce The Donald as a threat to the intellectual integrity of the conservative movement. A “symposium” of anti-Trump conservatives was published featuring such luminaries as Thomas Sowell, Bill Kristol, Michael Medved, and a score of others likening the flamboyant real estate mogul turned GOP presidential frontrunner to Hitler, Mussolini, Juan Peron, and Andrew Dice Clay (!).
These polemics are accompanied by a furious editorial, which attacks Trump as “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.” Furthermore, the editors instructed their readers that “he is not deserving of conservative support in the caucuses and primaries.” Sneering that Trump is a “huckster,” they end their polemic with a fiery rhetorical flourish worthy of Smaug:
“Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”
The icing on the cake is the cover of the print issue, which is emblazoned with the battle cry “Against Trump,” decorated with a Roman-esque curlicue that one assumes is supposed to give the contents the look if not the weight of a Papal interdict.
All well and good: there are plenty of reasons for principled conservatives (and libertarians) to oppose Trump. However, there’s one big problem with this well-publicized blast at The Donald.
In March of last year, Politico reported that National Review was becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, which would enable it to solicit tax-deductible donations: “Since its launch, the magazine has operated as a not-for-profit business, even as it came to rely on more and more donations in recent years. Starting next month, it will become a nonprofit organization, which will make it exempt from federal taxes. National Review also plans to merge with the nonprofit National Review Institute, its sister organization, according to a source with knowledge of the plans.”
Rich Lowry averred that the shift would be good for the magazine, which was fighting a costly lawsuit and had never been profitable anyway. “We're a mission and a cause, not a profit-making business,” he told Politico. “The advantage of the move is that all the generous people who give us their support every year will now be able to give tax-deductible contributions, and that we will be able to do more fundraising, in keeping with our goal to keep growing in the years ahead.’”
This anti-Trump issue of National Review is, in effect, a campaign pamphlet directed against a political candidate—indeed, the cover proclaims “Against Trump”—and, as such, is in clear violation of IRS statutes regulating nonprofit organizations.
The regulations are quite explicit that nonprofit organizations must “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
The IRS web site informs us that “The regulations further provide that activities that constitute participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate include, but are not limited to, the publication or distribution of written statements or the making of oral statements on behalf of or in opposition to such a candidate.”
Lest there be any confusion on anyone’s part, we are given no less than twenty-one examples of specific situations where the question of endangering the organization’s nonprofit status might arise. We are told that the leaders of a nonprofit are free to endorse or campaign against candidates as individuals: therefore, say, the minister of a church may call a press conference and announce his support for—or opposition to—a candidate for office. Since he is speaking only for himself, and not the church, and is not utilizing church resources, this is perfectly legitimate under the law as written. However, the IRS goes on to cite another example that fits the anti-Trump issue of National Review to a tee:
“President B is the president of University K, a section 501(c)(3) organization. University K publishes a monthly alumni newsletter that is distributed to all alumni of the university. In each issue, President B has a column titled ‘My Views.’ The month before the election, President B states in the “My Views” column, ‘It is my personal opinion that Candidate U should be reelected.’ For that one issue, President B pays from his personal funds the portion of the cost of the newsletter attributable to the “My Views” column. Even though he paid part of the cost of the newsletter, the newsletter is an official publication of the university. Because the endorsement appeared in an official publication of University K, it constitutes campaign intervention by University K.”
National Review, as a nonprofit entity under section 501(c)3 of the IRS code is clearly analogous to “University K.” The magazine is the publication of the tax-exempt National Review Institute, whose editors are urging their readers to oppose Trump. In spite of the fact that the collected polemics in this issue are presented as a “Symposium,” there is no debate, there are no dissenting voices. The verdict is unanimous: Don’t vote for Trump!
And it isn’t just the content that constitutes a violation of the rules, but also the timing. As the IRS puts it: “A communication is particularly at risk of political campaign intervention when it makes reference to candidates or voting in a specific upcoming election.” In their editorial, the editors make specific reference to the Iowa caucuses, which are scheduled to begin in a week. There is no ambiguity here: National Review’s editors are brazenly violating the law.
This is odd, since their editorial inveighs against Trump on the grounds that “His obsession is with ‘winning,’ regardless of the means—a spirit that is anathema to the ordered liberty that conservatives hold dear.” Methinks they, too, have been possessed by the same obsessive spirit—although, as far as I can tell, Trump, unlike Rich Lowry, hasn’t broken any federal statutes in his hot pursuit of victory.
This may seem like nitpicking to some, but there is a very real principle involved here, one conservatives would do well to observe: it is the rule of law. That law applies equally to everyone. I work for a nonprofit which is engaged in commentary on current events, and I often write about candidates and political parties, and yet I am careful to observe the bright shining line between commentary and partisan advocacy. We do not endorse candidates, although we do discuss them—and we allow for opposing viewpoints in order to fulfill our educational mission. This takes effort and forethought, neither of which the editors of National Review bothered with when they conceived and published their “Against Trump” issue. Are they above the law?
They certainly act as if they are. I wonder, however, if Donald Trump and the IRS will share that opinion. Somehow, I don’t think so.