Home » How Trump’s MAGA movement helped a 29-year-old activist become a millionaire

How Trump’s MAGA movement helped a 29-year-old activist become a millionaire

Charlie Kirk’s $4.75 million Spanish-style estate is tucked away in a gated Arizona country club that charges nearly a half-million dollars for a golf membership. It boasts a guest casita, a “resort-style” pool and striking views of the Sonoran Desert.

The Make America Great Again political movement has been lucrative for Kirk, the 29-year-old CEO and co-founder of the conservative youth organization Turning Point.

The nonprofit rocketed to prominence by latching on to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and has raised roughly a quarter-billion dollars since, much of it spent cultivating conservative influencers and hosting glitzy events. The organization also enriched Kirk and his allies, according to an Associated Press review of public records, which found top Turning Point officials collected pricey salaries, enjoyed lavish perks and steered at least $15.2 million to companies that they, their friends and associates are affiliated with.

But for all that money, the group has struggled to help Republicans win general elections. That’s particularly true in Turning Point’s adopted home of Arizona, where its slate of deeply conservative candidates in the longtime Republican stronghold lost statewide races last year, among them Kari Lake’s unsuccessful bid for governor.

Now, as its leaders age out of the youth movement, they are attempting to leverage Turning Point’s connections and fundraising might to branch out. Ahead of the 2024 election, they are pitching a $108 million get-out-the vote campaign that would expand beyond Arizona to the swing states of Georgia and Wisconsin.

“Any donor who thinks an organization needs $108 million for a three-state grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign is being taken advantage of,” said Erick Erickson, a nationally syndicated conservative talk radio host and frequent Trump critic. “It sounds like a grift.”

While Turning Point isn’t the first organization to draw scrutiny over spending, it has become a unique source of frustration for some Republicans. They point to its support for far-right candidates who struggled in marquee races, as well as the hefty sum it now seeks to do work that is already being done by veteran operatives. That sets up a potential clash between competing wings of the conservative movement that could complicate the GOP’s effort to hold a House majority while reclaiming the Senate and the White House next year.

In a statement, Turning Point spokesman Andrew Kolvet said none of the group’s leaders have inappropriately benefited from their financial arrangements. If anything, he said, many were underpaid for their talents, including Kirk.

“If the so-called ‘experts’ know what it takes to build successful ballot chasing teams, why are conservatives apparently so bad at it?” Kolvet said. “Why are we getting lapped by progressives in spending and in (get-out-the-vote) operations in key states and counties?”

Turning Point was founded in suburban Chicago in 2012 by Kirk, then 18, and William Montgomery, a tea party activist, to proselytize on college campuses for low taxes and limited government. It was not an immediate success.

But Kirk’s zeal for confronting liberals in academia eventually won over an influential set of conservative financiers. It helped that the group operated solely as a nonprofit charity at the time, offering a tax write-off for contributions while cloaking donors’ identities from disclosure.

Despite early misgivings, Turning Point enthusiastically backed Trump after he clinched the GOP nomination in 2016. Kirk served as a personal aide to Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son, during the general election campaign.

Soon, Kirk was a regular presence on cable TV, where he leaned into the culture wars and heaped praise on the then-president. Trump and his son were equally effusive and often spoke at Turning Point conferences.

Contributions to the group doubled and then tripled — eventually climbing to $79.2 million in 2022, according to an analysis of publicly available tax filings. The group states that it now has a presence on nearly 4,000 high school and college campuses, operating as a conservative lifestyle brand that promotes hundreds of online influencers.

As their finances grew, Turning Point events became more ornate, taking on a nightclub atmosphere with strobe lights, pyrotechnics and thousands of young conservatives in attendance, many of whom had their expenses at least partially paid for by the group.

Compensation also soared, with Kirk’s climbing from $27,000 in 2016 to more than $407,000 by 2021, tax records show. Millions of dollars more were paid out to a cluster of companies linked to a handful of group leaders and their allies, according to tax documents and business filings.

Kirk bought three high-end properties, all worth over a million dollars, which include his new Spanish-style mansion near Phoenix, as well as a nearby apartment and a beachside condo on Florida’s gulf coast.

Kolvet said that much of Kirk’s wealth was derived from his successful podcast and radio show, as well as public speaking fees, though he declined to provide earnings figures. Still, Kirk used his platform at Turning Point to help launch those ventures, which occupy a considerable amount of his time and could conflict with the 75 hours a week that Turning Point says Kirk spent working on organization business in 2022, the most recent year tax data is available for.

Specifics about how exactly Turning Point spends its money — and who benefits — are often difficult to discern because the IRS does not require nonprofit groups to publicly disclose detailed accounts of their expenditures. Meanwhile, many of Turning Point’s biggest vendors are limited liability companies that are registered in states that do not require public disclosure of ownership.

The group also adopted an opaque organizational structure, including a series of interconnected nonprofit groups, political action committees and a for-profit Turning Point merchandise company, which does not have to publicly report its finances.

One branch, the Turning Point Endowment, held more than $55 million in reserve in 2022, while donors were courted to give more.

Kolvet said the money was part of Turning Point’s “50-100 year plan to continue reaching generation after generation of young Americans.” He added that the organization’s leaders were “good stewards of donor money.”

While building for the future, however, Turning Point has shown a willingness to spend lavishly.

In 2019, the group stated that its leaders would travel first-class or by charter plane, explaining later that it was needed in “certain circumstances” to “ensure the uninterrupted success of the organization’s mission.”

In 2021, Turning Point sponsored a wedding reception for Kirk and his wife, Erika Frantzve, at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess luxury hotel, which was also billed as a ninth anniversary celebration and fundraiser for the organization, according to an invitation obtained by the AP.

Kolvet said the event was separate from the couple’s small wedding ceremony, describing it as an “elegant and gracious way for Erika and Charlie to mark a landmark in the life of TPUSA (the 9th anniversary) while also inviting a much larger group of friends and family to celebrate a landmark in their own lives.”

Other expenditures defy easy explanation.

A $999,000 payment was made to a limited liability company in Nevada for a “research project on educational outputs,” according to 2020 tax documents. The company, called Clocktower LLC, was dissolved in 2022 and the only corporate officer listed in its business filings is the president of a firm that advises on tax avoidance strategies.

Nicholas R. Miller, who is listed as the “manager” of Clocktower LLC, did not respond to a request for comment.

“Any insinuation that anyone” at Turning Point “benefited from this is defamatory,” Kolvet said.

In 2020, Turning Point paid Donald Trump Jr. $333,000 through his company Pursuit Ventures. Kolvet said the money was used to purchase copies of a book he wrote that was offered as a gift during a fundraising drive.

Another individual in the former president’s orbit, Trump’s former bodyman John McEntee, also collected $107,500 for consulting work between 2021 and 2022, records show.

In one case, the money was used for purposes that belie the anodyne descriptions included in tax documents.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Jake Hoffman, one of the group’s primary outside consultants, recruited teenagers to spread false information online about voter fraud and the coronavirus pandemic. That led Twitter and Facebook to suspend numerous accounts, as previously reported by the Washington Post.

Hoffman was paid $2.4 million during that period through his former company Rally Forge, according to tax documents that listed the purpose of the expenditures as “digital education,” “media” and “ad placement.” Now an Arizona state senator who also served as a fake elector for Trump, Hoffman has been paid at least $6.6 million by Turning Point since 2017, campaign finance disclosures and tax records show.

Hoffman did not respond to a request for comment made through his state Senate office.

Other high-ranking employees also received a growing share of the organization’s wealth, according to business filings and tax documents.

Montgomery, Turning Point’s co-founder, collected over $700,000 in compensation as well as payments to his companies, an arrangement ProPublica previously reported. He died in 2020.

Stacy Sheridan, Turning Point’s senior advancement director, is listed as a corporate officer for three limited liability companies that have received at least $2.7 million since 2018. She earned $180,000 in compensation during Turning Point’s 2018 fiscal year. Subsequent salary figures have not been disclosed. Sheridan did not respond to a request for comment.

Joshua Thifault, Turning Point’s senior director of major gifts, earned $443,000 between 2021 and 2022. A company he controls received an additional $129,000 for fundraising work during that time. Thifault did not respond to a message seeking comment at a number listed to him.

Benny Johnson, Turning Point’s former chief creative officer, collected at least $486,000 in compensation from the organization. Arsenal Media Group, a firm Johnson said he co-founded and helped operate, received $613,000 in payments between 2020 and 2021, according to tax records and an archived copy of his personal website.

In a statement, Alex Lorusso, a spokesman for Johnson, said he was “never an owner or executive of Arsenal Media” and “any work Benny did with Arsenal was as an independent contractor.”

Legal experts say the payments could potentially pose a problem under federal tax regulations.

Though enforcement is rare, payments made to companies controlled by those with “substantial influence” over a nonprofit’s operations could violate IRS rules related to “self-dealing” if the payments are deemed to be excessive.

As Kirk’s star has risen, Tyler Bowyer, Turning Point’s chief operating officer, has assumed a greater role in the organization. Like Kirk, his improving financial circumstances coincided with Turning Point’s fundraising success.

Now in his late 30s, Bowyer endured several financially rocky years, losing two condos to foreclosure in 2011 amid a divorce. His wages were garnished after a home ownership association sued him for thousands of dollars in unpaid fees, according to property and court records.

He now operates Turning Point’s political arm, earning compensation of $255,000 in the group’s 2022 fiscal year. In 2021, he purchased a $1.95 million “urban farm” in Mesa, Arizona, after placing a $650,000 down payment, according to property records. And he has a 2020 Tige ski boat, which sells on the used market for as much as $200,000, that is held under his wife’s name, loan collateral documents show.

Kolvet said Bowyer’s home is not as fancy as it appears, requiring a “badly needed” renovation that he can’t currently afford. He shares the Tige ski boat with his wife’s family, which costs him only $350 a month, Kolvet said.

Bowyer, who is an Arizona representative to the Republican National Committee and also served as a fake elector for Trump, is now helping lead a commercial endeavor that could prove lucrative.

Business filings show Bowyer recently became chairman of the board for Superfeed Technologies, a mobile app maker that developed the platform Turning Point will use to manage get-out-the-vote campaigns, like the $108 million effort they are now raising money for. Kirk’s mother-in-law also sits on the board.

Kolvet said that Turning Point’s leaders, as well as Kirk’s mother-in-law, have not “earned a dime” from the company, viewing their work as “a form of charity for the conservative movement.”

Turning Point’s machinations have sounded alarms from their more established rivals, who view the organization as inexperienced when it comes to running a successful general election ground operation.

Last year, Turning Point operated a get-out-vote campaign in Arizona and a handful of other states. But operatives saw little indication that the group was leading the robust operation it claimed. The digital platform they used for canvassers to gather voter data at the time was barely used, according to internal documents obtained by the AP.

Others, including Jon Seaton, a former aide to Arizona Sen. John McCain, said the amount of money sought by Turning Point was objectionable.

“$108 million? I can’t even fathom it,” said Seaton, who specializes in get-out-the vote efforts. “There’s not even enough doors” to knock on.

Our democracy is only as secure as those who run our elections. Power the Polls recruits everyday Americans who believe in honest democracy to be a poll worker.


October 2023