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Trump’s paid-speeches organizer is struggling financially

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/29/2022 Josh Dawsey, Isaac Arnsdorf
Former President Donald Trump dances after speaking during the American Freedom Tour at the Austin Convention Center on May 14, 2022 in Austin, Texas. © Brandon Bell/Getty Images Former President Donald Trump dances after speaking during the American Freedom Tour at the Austin Convention Center on May 14, 2022 in Austin, Texas.

A company that organized a lucrative series of post-White House paid speeches for former president Donald Trump is now struggling to pay vendors, investors and employees, angering Trump allies who supported the effort.

The American Freedom Tour, which struck a multimillion-dollar deal with Trump after he left office, has lost two top executives and canceled events in a number of locations as it has failed to pay its bills, according to people familiar with the activities and documents obtained by The Washington Post. Its founder and owner, who has a history of bankruptcy filings, recently sought bankruptcy protection again.

The group has promised events in a number of locales but canceled them before they began and appears to be banking on a large event at Mar-a-Lago in December to turn its financial position around.

With speakers, affiliates and investors all clamoring for their money, one of the people involved who did get paid was Trump, people close to the former president say. Some Trump advisers have warned against doing future events, though Trump has expressed interest.

It’s not clear what that means for the tour’s advertised upcoming black-tie gala at Mar-a-Lago, with tickets starting at $10,000 a couple to spend time with Trump. The event includes a poolside reception and a formal ballroom dinner. Dinner and a photo with Trump costs $40,000, and a private library meeting with Trump is so pricey that it’s only listed as: “INQUIRE BELOW.” The company declined to say how much Trump is being paid for the event.

The company’s CEO, Brian J. Forte, declined to be interviewed for this article. A Trump spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

“The tour did have some unexpected scheduling issues over the summer that slowed things down, but we are working through it,” said Larry Ward, a spokesman for the company. “We are positioning the tour for greater strength and success going forward.”

The American Freedom Tour started last October, staging glitzy events around the country that resemble Trump rallies but sell tickets ranging from $55 to more than $4,000. In addition to Trump, the shows featured right-wing celebrities such as Candace Owens and Kimberly Guilfoyle, as well as motivational speakers offering personal finance courses.

Essentially, it was a place where Trump supporters could buy a chance to see him and other conservative luminaries — or pay more for special access — with the money not going to a political campaign, but a for-profit company and Trump himself. It was founded by Forte, a motivational-speaker promoter with a long trail of bankruptcy filings and business disputes across the country.

The tour has had a slate of problems, including angry investors, speakers and vendors who have not been paid, according to people familiar with the situation, who like some others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal details.

Trump joined the group with little vetting, advisers say, and some of his team was not aware of Forte’s business history when told by The Post.

Some unpaid investors are preparing possible legal action, demanding full payment plus interest, according to a demand letter obtained by The Post. If the company doesn’t pay, the group wants Forte to step aside and give them control of the company, according to the letter. Otherwise, they said they will sue.

“Vendors, speakers and other unpaid participants are lining up to collect,” a lawyer working for the investors said in an email to the group. “The intention is still to put a board of governance in place.”

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Forte’s spokesman said he didn’t receive a demand letter. “The tour has a solid relationship with its investors,” Ward said.

Ward said the tour was attempting to pay both investors and speakers. “Unforeseen scheduling issues for the programs caused a delay and we asked a limited number of investors if their payment could be delayed until November,” Ward said.

Several speakers other than Trump have not been paid, including prominent Trump allies, a person with direct knowledge of the tour’s finances said.

“We are working very hard to make them whole, and we are confident they will be made whole very soon,” Ward said.

In July the company missed payroll, according to a note to staff from Forte. “We are experiencing some growing pains and all will be OK,” he said in the internal message reviewed by The Post. The spokesman said the company is currently paying its employees.

Forte recently sought personal bankruptcy protection for a fifth time this summer, according to court filings, saying that he owned 100 percent of the American Freedom Tour, earned $19,900 a month, but owed more than $3 million. In a response seeking to dismiss the case, the Justice Department accused Forte of abusing the bankruptcy system to try to thwart foreclosure proceedings and criticized him for traveling to Puerto Rico rather than “making this fifth bankruptcy case a priority.” The government later withdrew its motion at a hearing.

“The bankruptcy filings were over a dispute with a mortgage company,” Ward said, adding: “Mr. Forte visits Puerto Rico frequently but is a legal resident of Florida.”

Former president Donald Trump speaks at an American Freedom Tour event outside Memphis in June. © Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters Former president Donald Trump speaks at an American Freedom Tour event outside Memphis in June.

The financial pressures at the American Freedom Tour led to business practices that some employees found objectionable. In July, the company canceled a planned event in Milwaukee but continued selling tickets online, according to two people familiar with the matter. At times, the company has continued to sell tickets online for events that organizers knew were unlikely to happen, according to two people familiar with the matter.

When another show was canceled in North Carolina, the company initially said it would honor tickets for a future event before agreeing to issue refunds. “We give the option of refunds or rain checks for postponed or canceled events,” Ward said.

The tour’s website currently lists no upcoming events. A planned show in Birmingham, Ala., was also canceled earlier this year.

To promote the events, the company offered a 25 percent commission for ads and social media posts resulting in sales, according to its website. But a Republican Party county chapter in Texas that helped sign up attendees for an event there went unpaid for at least two months, messages show.

“We are awaiting payment and now four months overdue,” Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant who leads the local Republican Party in Austin, wrote in an email on Sept. 7. “I will get loud and litigious if not paid by end of week.”

“As you know from reaching out a few weeks ago looking for your payment, I resigned from the American freedom tour on August 3rd,” Chris Widener, the company’s former president and emcee who quit in August, responded. “You are definitely owed the money and should be paid promptly.”

Widener confirmed his resignation in an email but declined to comment on the exchange with Mackowiak, who said he was paid last Friday afternoon “once The Washington Post sought comment.”

Mackowiak said he vetted the company before entering into an agreement with it and heard from others that while it often was slow to make payments, it eventually did. He said he demanded a written contract, “which took more than a month even though it was a simple document,” according to Mackowiak.

“I hope anyone that is owed money uses every legal channel available,” Mackowiak said. A spokesman for the company said they were sorry Mackowiak’s payment was late.

The company also recently lost its chief financial officer, Dale Ainge. In an interview, Ainge said he left the company in June due to a health issue and wished the company well. He said the company had defaulted on two of its loans before he left, and some vendors were complaining they had not been paid.

“They had to cancel a couple events, which caused some financial issues,” he said. “They were behind on things. They were behind on payments. So for me to say, what kind of financial position they’re in? They were a little bit behind in a couple of the notes. There were a couple accounts payable that were past 60 days.”

Ainge said he was paid by the company and that he believed it would turn its fortunes around when he left in June. Ainge said he was approached by Forte to plan events around Trump and conservative speakers, similar to events he held for a company called Get Motivated.

He said some of the events had made money, but others had not and some were canceled even after expensive marketing. “It’s a start-up,” he said. “There are always challenges.”

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When the tour was starting, investors were promised to earn 20 percent on their money in six months, according to loan documentation obtained by The Post. But internal emails show that when the money came due, the company failed to pay.

“We needed a little more time,” Forte assured investors in March. “The investment is intact. Please bear with us a couple of weeks.”

By August, Forte still hadn’t provided the money, the emails show. In one email, Forte explained that he was trying to raise more money domestically and overseas and confirm future event dates with Trump. He offered to pay $5,000 in a week while the company closed other deals to be able to pay in full by November.

One person familiar with Forte’s actions said he was constantly trying to hold off speakers, investors and others who were seeking money — “putting the biggest fire out and holding on.”

“You have been an INCREDIBLE supporter of President Trump and the events we are doing,” Forte told an investor in an email. “We would love if you could attend the Gala” at Mar-a-Lago in December. “We would like to honor you there if you are able to make it,” he wrote.

Ainge said Trump was the highest paid speaker but declined to say how much, citing a confidentiality agreement. “It’s in line with the speaking fee of past presidents,” he said.

He said that Trump was the group’s biggest seller, and many supporters wanted to meet him backstage and were willing to pay “thousands and thousands of dollars to do it.” Trump, he said, was freewheeling and congenial to the guests.

Ward, the spokesman for the tour, said Trump had expressed no reservations about participating going forward.

“President Trump has been fantastic to work with,” Ward said. “He has opened Mar-a-Lago to the American Freedom Tour for a gala December 1st. I’m sure he wouldn’t do that if he had reservations about the tour. President Trump loves speaking on the American Freedom Tour. He wants to do more programs.”

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