Owens, a 53-year-old nurse, bought a pair of VIP tickets for $800. She didn’t know exactly where the money was going – and she didn’t care.
“I really wanted to do my part to help ensure he could continue to do what he does, travel,” Owens said. “I know he probably doesn’t need financial help, just to do my part to support him because I believe in what he’s doing.”
In reality, the fee does not go to Trump’s Political Action Committee, his $100 million war chest for an alleged third presidential campaign. This event was not a Trump rally, where attendance is free.
Instead, it was a for-profit show, more like a rock concert. The proceeds personally benefit Trump as part of a multi-million dollar deal to speak at the events, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The program, the “American Freedom Tour,” is the work of a longtime motivational speaker promoter with a trail of bankruptcy filings and business disputes across the country. A Trump adviser said very few checks had been made on the organizers.
A spokesperson for the tour, Republican media consultant Larry Ward, said the 2020 election inspired the new venture. “The tour was inspired by a nation of disappointed voters and a love for President Donald J. Trump,” he said. Ward declined to discuss Trump’s financial deal.
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said the former president likes to supplement his own rallies with speeches at events hosted by other groups, such as the American Freedom Tour, National Rifle Association, Turning Point USA and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “There is huge demand for President Trump in every corner of the country and he is driven by his love for America to continue to lead the MAGA movement into 2022 and beyond by sharing his America First vision ahead of massive crowds,” Budowich said.
Former presidents, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, often took paid gigs after leaving office and were criticized for taking advantage of their service. But those fees were usually paid by companies, not individual fans who might not understand where the money is going. Clinton and Michelle Obama paid for book talks, with no ambiguity about what the proceeds would be used for.
“Paid presidential speeches are nothing new. It’s good work if you can get it,” said Mark K. Updegrove, president of the LBJ Foundation and author of “Second Acts: Presidential Lives And Legacies After The White House.” “The difference here is that Trump is doing this under the guise of a political rally. There could be a little deception there.
It is also common for politicians to provide access to big spenders, although the money usually goes to a campaign – not just a candidate’s direct pockets. Trump’s money-making is particularly brazen given that he is the only modern ex-president to consider running for president again.
“You have a person who is actually running for president and racking up financial IOUs,” said Jeffrey A. Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “Donald Trump never cared if his financial dealings seemed improper. Trump plays by different rules.
Indeed, many gathered outside Memphis made little distinction with Trump’s prolific fundraising campaign. Stephen Maybank, 60, bought ‘citizens’ tickets with his wife after hearing about the event through text messages and emails similar to campaign fundraising appeals. “It’s just another form of giving for us,” he said.
Inside the arena, the former president’s appearance had all the trappings of a Trump rally: he hugged an American flag, voiced grievances about the 2020 election and the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, poked fun at transgender athletes, and hinted at a third run for president.
The lecture series has attracted more than two dozen Republican figures, such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, radio host Dan Bongino and right-wing influencer Candace Owens. A speaker who participated in the program said he brokered a deal through a speakers bureau and agreed to give the talk because it was so lucrative.
Those who pay more have access to behind-the-scenes events, such as photos and private Q&As. The big dollar provides a “patriotic” experience with a private after-party and access to Trump – although the site doesn’t list how much it costs. The group declined to specify the rate, only that it was over $4,000.
Tour organizer Brian J. Forte produced events with motivational speaking stars such as Tony Robbins and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. Forte’s seminars promise to teach strategies for business success, including personal reinvention. His own career path has gone through a winding chain of setbacks.
Forte started a “Get Motivated” event business with her sister and her husband, earning $200,000 a year plus monthly bonuses, court records show. But the couple divorced in 2011, leading to a messy property dispute, including lawsuits in federal court in Florida and Virginia.
The parties eventually settled, but Forte’s business disputes didn’t end there. In 2014, a federal judge in Texas ordered a company he worked with to stop using the “Success” trademark owned by another company. Forte has also been involved in companies that have been separately accused of obstructing a production company hired to hold events in Seattle and Portland and using the “Get Motivated” trademark and customer database. ” without making the required payments. Both of these cases were dismissed. Ward said the seller has been paid and the trademark dispute has been resolved.
Forte lived large, driving a Maserati and flying in private, according to court records and social media posts. But the expenses caught up with him — in a 2018 bankruptcy filing, he said he made $11,500 a month, but not enough to cover his expenses, plus more than $2 million in debt. The bankruptcy case was dismissed after Forte failed to make the required reports and fees.
As of 2020, Forte was 48, unemployed, with no income to cover his court-ordered child support, according to an affidavit. “I am currently trying to get sponsors for new events,” Forte wrote.
His fortunes changed after the election. Forte was approached by Chris Widener, a motivational speaker who transitioned from business to politics, with video blog posts echoing Trump’s false allegations of mass voter fraud. In an interview with far-right broadcaster OAN, Widener said he wanted to create a new event that would give comfort to oppressed Trump supporters.
“They’re deplorable, they’re racist, they’re sexist, xenophobic, transphobic – they’ve been beaten up for five years,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we held rallies across the country and brought conservatives together, so people could look around and say, ‘I’m not alone.’
The tour kicked off last October in Jacksonville, Florida. The stop near Memphis on June 18 was the seventh so far, with another scheduled in Milwaukee in August.
Trump’s speeches at events are often shorter than his signature political rallies. In addition to Trump, his son, Donald Trump Jr., and other right-wing stars such as pardoned author Dinesh D’Souza and Pinal County, Arizona Sheriff Mark Lamb, the tour featured speakers offering investment advice and promoting personal finance. Classes.
The Fort Lauderdale event, for example, featured Bob Kittell, a professional speaker who teaches memory enhancement techniques. He declined to comment. Melanie Cimino D’Angelo, a retired realtor who attended the event, said she and her husband paid around $100 for the follow-up financial seminar, but couldn’t afford the six-month financial coaching course, which she recalls costing thousands of dollars. dollars. “It was crazy, I don’t think they got too busy,” she said. “If we could afford to venture further, they gave us a lot of good information.”
Ward, the tour’s spokesperson, said the programs “come with a 100% money-back guarantee.”
At the tour stop near Memphis, Widener’s vision was tied to 18-year-old Maddie Cummings, a barista starting community college in the fall. Cummings said she was unable to openly express her opinions at work without leading to conflict and wanted to attend the event because “you spend the day with like-minded people. you”. Her grandfather, Robert Edwards, of Hernando, Mississippi, bought tickets after seeing an ad on the freeway, for between $50 and $200 each.
The event was hosted by unpaid volunteers who were able to watch the speeches for free. Ronni Schwartz, 57, of Marianna, Ark., who chairs her county’s Republican Women’s Club, said Trump inspired her to run for justice of the peace. Schwartz said she wanted to be able to tell her grandchildren, “I did everything I could to try to save us,” she said. “I pray that we save ourselves and that we can do this… That’s what Trump taught me.”
Schwartz came with Lindsey Palmer, who is commissioner of elections in Lee County, Ark. Palmer declined to say whether she believes the 2020 election was stolen. “I think there was something going on,” she said.
Forte has embraced her new political persona. At the Memphis event, he said, “There is no right and left anymore. There is true and false. »
Alice Crites contributed to this report.