May 13, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: New Trump venture

Illustration of a microphone wearing a big red tie
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Donald Trump has found a new way to milk his ex-presidency — and test another — hitting the lucrative motivational speaking circuit with more fervor than any other active U.S. politician in history.

Why it matters: It's a way to build support for a possible 2024 presidential bid while potentially pocketing large speaking fees as many of his iconic properties are struggling.

What's happening: At events hosted by an outfit called the American Freedom Tour, Trump is whipping up arena-sized crowds resembling his campaign rallies.

  • It's privately run — and, according to organizers, it's driving huge audience interest.
  • Trump stands to benefit on both ends. He headlines a rally-type event with a third party footing the bill, and stands to gets a hefty payout for his time.
  • AFT's founder, Chris Widener, told Axios that "most all of our speakers get paid an honorarium for the event," but he declined to name Trump's fee.
  • A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump will make his next stop on the tour in Austin on Saturday. According to the AFT website, there are a dozen different price options to attend, each with its own level of access.

  • Ticket prices start at $9, for the Satellite tier. That includes a spot in an overflow room at the venue to watch the program on a TV screen.
  • Presidential tier tickets cost $4,995. That includes early access to the event site, admission to a reception and a photo-op with Trump's son Don Jr., as well as premium seating to watch Trump speak in person.
  • No price is listed for the top Patriot tier. Interested parties are instructed to email for more information. That tier includes a roundtable and photo-op with former President Trump himself and a roundtable with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
  • Trump previously headlined AFT events in Houston and Sunrise, Florida, and is booked for one in Memphis next month. Other AFT events this year have featured MAGA stars including Don Jr., Pompeo, Candace Owens and Dinesh D'Souza.

Between the lines: Motivational speaking is a roughly $2-billion-a-year industry that reaches hundreds of thousands of Americans. But it has gotten little attention from famous pols — at least while they're still in the political fray.

The backstory: Widener runs AFT with Brian Forte. Both are veterans of the motivational speaking industry. Widener also ran as a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Washington state in 2010.

  • Forte, AFT's chief executive, also runs a seminar company called Get Motivated. That company has promoted AFT events, and its IT director is listed in disclosure information for the more than $500,000 in digital ads AFT has run promoting those events.
  • Widener said the two are separate entities. "I brought the idea for the American Freedom Tour to Brian Forte, given his decades of putting on the extraordinary Get Motivated events around the country," he told Axios in an email.

Widener said AFT is a business venture, not a political one.

  • "The American Freedom Tour is not a Republican-aligned event or a Trump-aligned operation," he said. But "both President Trump and Donald Trump Jr. are incredible speakers and we are happy to have them on our tour."
  • The tour's message, he said, is "Faith, Family, Finances and Freedom."

Forte has spent 30 years in the motivational speaking business and boasts that he's booked talks by every past president since Gerald Ford except Barack Obama.

  • He frequently speaks at Get Motivated events himself and was scheduled join Trump on the billing for one in Nashville next month. That event has since been canceled.
  • Forte's scheduled talk was themed "success" despite his own financial history. He filed for bankruptcy in 2018, records show.
  • "He did not complete the process. He has never been bankrupt," said AFT spokesperson Larry Ward, a veteran Republican media consultant. A $200,000 tax lien filed against Forte by the IRS late last year "is being resolved," Ward said.
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