Trump makes millions from for-profit speech series

SOUTHAVEN, Miss. – On a Saturday morning at an arena outside of Memphis, Terri Owens joined the crowd that poured in to see former President Donald Trump.

They lined up according to how much they had paid.

At the other end of a white entrance tent, near a bus wrapped in a photo of Trump’s head on a muscular, shirtless body, were attendees who paid $55 for a pair of tickets as “citizens,” a general admission option. In the front, closest to the doors guarded by Secret Service agents, was a “Presidential” tier, each shelling out $3,995.

Owens, a 53-year-old nurse, bought a pair of VIP tickets for $800. She wasn’t sure where the money was going – and she didn’t care.

“I really wanted to do my part to ensure he can keep doing what he’s doing, traveling around,” Owens said. “I know he probably doesn’t need any financial help, just doing my part to support him because I believe in what he’s doing.”

As a matter of fact, The fees do not go to Trump’s Political Action Committee, his $100 million war chest. This event was not a Trump rally, which is free to attend.

Instead, it was a for-profit show, more like a rock concert. Proceeds will benefit Trump personally in a multimillion-dollar deal to speak at the events, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity for 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 there was very little scrutiny of the organizers.

A spokesperson for the tour, Republican media adviser Larry Ward, said the 2020 election inspired the new business venture. “The tour was inspired by a nation of disappointed voters and a love for President Donald J. Trump,” he said. Ward declined to speak about Trump’s financial deal.

Trump’s spokesman Taylor Budowich also declined to discuss his charges for the events. He said the former president likes to supplement his own rallies with speaking at events organized by other groups such as the American Freedom Tour, the National Rifle Association, Turning Point USA and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “There is tremendous demand for President Trump in every corner of the country, and he is driven by his love for America to continue leading the MAGA movement to 2022 and beyond by sharing his vision of America First in front of a huge crowd ‘ said Budovich.

Former presidents such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have often taken paid speaking engagements after leaving office and have been criticized for profiting from their service. But those fees have generally been paid for by corporations, not individual fans, who may not understand where the money is going. Clinton and Michelle Obama have been charging for book talks, with no doubts about the use of the proceeds.

“Paid for presidential speeches are nothing new. It’s nice 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’s also common for politicians to grant access to big donors, although the money usually goes towards a campaign — not just into a candidate’s pockets. Trump’s money-making is particularly audacious considering he’s the only modern-day ex-president contemplating running for president again.

“You have a person who is effectively running for president and accumulating financial debt,” said Jeffrey A. Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “Donald Trump has never cared whether his financial dealings appear inappropriate. Trump plays by different rules.”

In fact, many who gathered outside of Memphis made few distinctions about Trump’s prolific fundraising for the campaign. Stephen Maybank, 60, bought Citizen tickets with his wife after hearing about the event through text messages and emails, similar to campaign fundraisers. “This is just another form of donation for us,” he said.

In the arena, the former president’s performance had all the trappings of a Trump rally: he hugged an American flag, rattled off complaints about the 2020 election and the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, taunted transgender people Athletes, and hinted at a third run for the presidency.

The speaker series has drawn more than two dozen Republican luminaries, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, talk radio host Dan Bongino and right-wing influencer Candace Owens. One speaker who attended the program said he negotiated a speaker agency deal and agreed to give the speech because it was so lucrative.

Who pays more gain access to backstage events such as photos and private Q&A. Top Dollar brings a “patriot” experience with a private after-party and access to Trump — though the site doesn’t list how much that costs. The group declined to specify the rate, only that it was more than $4,000.

Tour organizer Brian J. Forte has hosted events featuring motivational speakers 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 built a “Get Motivated” events business with his sister and her husband, making $200,000 a year plus monthly bonuses, according to court records. But the couple divorced in 2011, leading to a messy property dispute, including lawsuits in federal courts in Florida and Virginia.

The parties eventually settled, but Forte’s business disputes didn’t end there. In 2014, a Texas federal judge ordered a company he worked with to stop using the “Success” trademark owned by another company. Forte was also involved in ventures that were separately accused of interfering with a production company hired to host events in Seattle and Portland and using the “Get Motivated” brand and customer database without making the required payments. Both cases were dismissed. Ward said the seller was paid and the trademark conflict resolved.

According to court filings and social media posts, Forte lived big, drove a Maserati and flew privately. But expenses caught up with him — in a 2018 bankruptcy filing, he said he was making $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 provide required reports and fees.

As of 2020, according to an affidavit, Forte was 48 years old and unemployed with no income to support his court-ordered child support. “I’m trying to get sponsorships for new events right now,” Forte wrote.

After the election, his fate changed. Forte was approached by Chris Widener, a motivational speaker who made the switch from business to politics, with video blog posts that mirrored Trump’s false claims of mass fraud. In an interview with far-right broadcaster OAN, Widener said he wanted to create an event that existed Consolation for oppressed Trump supporters.

“They’re pathetic, 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 could have some rallies across the country and get conservatives together so people could look around and say, ‘I’m not alone.'”

The tour debuted in Jacksonville, Florida in October. The stop near Memphis on June 18 was the seventh so far, with another planned for August in Milwaukee.

Trump’s speeches at the events are often shorter than his typical political rallies. Alongside 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 courses.

For example, the Fort Lauderdale event featured Bob Kittell, a professional speaker who teaches memory-improving techniques. He declined to comment. Melanie Cimino D’Angelo, a retired real estate agent who attended the event, said she and her husband paid about $100 for the financial seminar that followed, but couldn’t afford the six-month financial coaching course she enrolled in recalled that it cost thousands of dollars. “It was crazy, I don’t think they have too many people,” she said. “If we could afford to delve further into it, they gave us a lot of good information.”

Ward, the tour’s announcer, said the programs “come with a 100 percent money-back guarantee.”

At the tour stop near Memphis, Widener’s vision connected with 18-year-old Maddie Cummings, a barista who is opening the community college in the fall. Cummings said she cannot openly express her opinions at work without causing conflict and wanted to attend the event because “you spend the day with people who have the same thoughts as you do.” Her grandfather, Robert Edwards, of Hernando, Miss., 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 runs her district’s Republican women’s club, said Trump inspired her to run for 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 make it through…Trump taught me that.”

Schwartz came to Ark with Lindsey Palmer, who serves as Lee County Elections Commissioner. Palmer declined to say if she thought the 2020 election was stolen. “I think there was something going on,” she said.

Forte has embraced his new political personality. At the Memphis event, he declared, “There is no more right and left. There is right and wrong.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/07/07/trump-for-profit-speeches-american-freedom-tour/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_national Trump makes millions from for-profit speech series

James Brien

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