SOUTHAVEN, Miss. — On a Saturday morning at an arena outside Memphis, Terri Owens joined the crowd streaming in to see former president Donald Trump.
Owens, a 53-year-old nurse, bought a pair of VIP tickets for $800. She wasn’t clear on where the money was going — nor did she care.
“I really wanted to do my part in contributing to where he can keep doing what he’s doing, traveling around,” Owens said. “I know he probably doesn’t need financial help by any means, but just to do my part in supporting him because I believe in what he’s doing.”
In fact, the fees aren’t going to Trump’s political action committee, his $100 million war chest. 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 benefit Trump personally as part of a multimillion-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 little vetting was done on the organizers.
A spokesman for the tour, Republican media consultant 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 discuss Trump’s financial deal.
Trump’s spokesman, Taylor Budowich, also declined to discuss his fees from the events. He said the former president enjoys supplementing his own rallies with speeches at events organized by other groups, such as the American Freedom Tour, National Rifle Association, Turning Point USA and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “There is a 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 into 2022 and beyond by sharing his America First vision in front of massive crowds,” Budowich said.
Former presidents including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have often taken paid speaking gigs after leaving office and have been criticized for cashing in on their service. But those fees were generally paid by businesses, not individual fans who may not understand where the money is going. Clinton and Michelle Obama have charged for book talks, with no ambiguity about the use of the proceeds.
“Paid 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 Trump is doing this under the guise of a political rally. There might be a little deception there.”
It is also common for politicians to offer access to big spenders, though the money usually goes to a campaign — not just a candidate’s pockets. Trump’s moneymaking is especially brazen considering that he is the only modern ex-president to contemplate running for president again.
“You have a person who is effectively running for president who is accumulating financial IOUs,” said Jeffrey A. Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “Donald Trump has never cared if his financial dealings appear improper. Trump plays by different rules.”
Indeed, many gathered outside Memphis drew few distinctions from Trump’s prolific campaign fundraising. Stephen Maybank, 60, bought “citizen” tickets with his wife after hearing about the event through texts and emails similar to fundraising appeals from the campaign. “This is just another form of donation 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, rattled off grievances about 2020 election and the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, mocked transgender athletes, and hinted at a third run for the presidency.
The speaker series has attracted more than two dozen Republican luminaries, such as former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, talk radio host Dan Bongino and right-wing influencer Candace Owens. One speaker who has participated in the program said they negotiated a deal through a speakers bureau and agreed to do the speech because it was so lucrative.
Those who pay more are granted access to backstage events, such as photos and private Q&As. Top dollar garners a “patriot” experience with a private after-party and access to Trump — though the site doesn’t list how much this costs. The group declined to specify the rate, only that it was more than $4,000.
The tour’s organizer, Brian J. Forte, has 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 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 ownership dispute, including lawsuits in federal court in Florida and Virginia.
The parties eventually settled, but Forte’s business disputes did not end there. In 2014, a federal judge in Texas ordered a company he was working with to stop using the “Success” trademark that another firm owned. Forte was also involved in ventures that were separately accused of stiffing a production company hired to put on events in Seattle and Portland and of using the “Get Motivated” trademark and customer database without making required payments. Both those cases were dismissed. Ward said the vendor was paid and the trademark conflict was resolved.
Forte lived large, driving a Maserati and flying private, according to court records and social media posts. But the expenses caught up with him — in a 2018 bankruptcy filing, he reported 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 make required reports and fees.
By 2020, Forte was 48 and 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 was veering from business into politics, with video blog posts echoing Trump’s false claims of mass fraud. In an interview with the far-right broadcaster OAN, Widener said he wanted to create an event that would give solace to downtrodden 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 did some rallies around the country, and got conservatives together, so that folks could look around and say, ‘I’m not alone.’”
The tour debuted in October in Jacksonville, Fla. The stop near Memphis on June 18 was the seventh so far, with another planned in Milwaukee in August.
Trump’s speeches at the 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, Ariz., sheriff Mark Lamb, the tour has featured speakers offering investment advice and promoting personal finance courses.
The Fort Lauderdale event, for instance, featured Bob Kittell, a professional speaker who teaches memory-improvement 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 follow-up financial seminar but couldn’t afford the six-month financial coaching course, which she recalled costing thousands of dollars. “It was crazy, I don’t think they got too many people,” she said. “If we could afford to venture into it further, they gave us a lot of good information.”
Ward, the tour’s spokesman, 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 starting community college in the fall. Cummings said she wasn’t able to openly voice her opinions at work without leading to conflict and wanted to attend the event because “you’re spending the day with people who have the same thoughts as you.” Her grandfather, Robert Edwards, of Hernando, Miss., bought tickets after seeing an ad on the highway, for between $50 and $200 each.
The event was staffed by unpaid volunteers who got to watch the speeches free. Ronni Schwartz, 57, from 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 possible to try to save us,” she said. “I pray that we save us and that we can do this. … That’s what Trump has taught me.”
Schwartz came with Lindsey Palmer, who serves as election commissioner in Lee County, Ark. 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 persona. At the Memphis event, he declared, “There is no right and left anymore. There is right and wrong.”
Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.