A brief history of the complicated web of contradictions, deceits and controversies surrounding the GOP’s political astro-turfing wunderkind.
I’m not going to say that you are living under a rock if you aren’t familiar with Charlie Kirk, but in certain circles he has been hard to miss. If you are college aged or work in an academic setting, I am sure you have heard of him and his organizations, which include Turning Point USA. Kirk hails from Illinois and is 27 years old. In 2017 he made Forbes 30 under 30 list in Law & Policy. He is often referred to as a political activist, but I would argue that he better fits the role of a politically focused social media influencer. Although Kirk is not college educated, he has a lot of opinions on higher education. Kirk’s mentor, the late Bill Montgomery, encouraged Kirk to pursue public speaking and postpone college. An entrepreneur by trade, Montgomery assisted Kirk in founding Turning Point USA in 2012, and registered it as a 501(c)3 charity. In an interview, “Kirk acknowledged…that it is something of an irony that he heads an organization devoted to waging political warfare on campuses when he never actually attended college himself.”
The history and structure of the Turning Point organization
The original organization, Turning Point USA (TPUSA) is crafted to resemble a Grassroots movement but, in reality, TPUSA has implemented Astroturf style lobbying tactics. TPUSA is functionally inseparable from spin off organizations, Turning Point Action (a 501(c)4) and the Turning Point USA Endowment. Between the menage a trois of these organizations, Kirk attempts to skirt the rules and regulations of the IRS. In multiple articles written by major journalists, his communications team has attempted to avoid accountability by muddying the waters of which entity was responsible for which actions. This gaslighting technique seems to have been rather effective for Kirk’s organizations, judging by all the corrections to stories on major news outlets. To avoid falling for this strategy, I will refer to the throuple as Turning Point for the remainder of this post, unless I am referring to a specific arm of the entity.
Turning Point USA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and, according to Kirk its purpose is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.” Charitable nonprofits that are designated 501(c)3 are prohibited from direct involvement in political activity, especially the endorsement of a specific candidate. Before the establishment of Turning Point Action (a 501(c)4), TPUSA was called out repeatedly for involvement in political campaigns and in support of a specific candidate. Kirk’s lawyer, Sally Wagenmaker, has repeatedly denied any shady practices and stated in 2017 that: “Turning Point USA works diligently to comply entirely with all relevant laws and regulations governing not-for-profit organizations. Turning Point USA focuses on fiscal conservatism, free market economics, and related student education and advocacy, all completely within applicable Section 501(c)(3) legal constraints.”
Like the ACLU, Turning Point Action is able to participate in limited political action, as long as 50% or less of it’s financial resources are spent on political causes and political causes are not the primary activity of the group. Donations to 501(c)4 organizations are not tax deductible for the individual or corporate donor. Prior to 2018, 501(c)4 organizations were required to disclose donors names or organizations. There may be movement of money and resources between Turning Point USA and Turning Point Action. The lines between the Turning Point organizations on social media are blurry, at best. But when asked about these interactions a spokesperson responded that “TPUSA firewalls itself from the pro-Trump activities of Turning Point Action…Similar to every other organization that has a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4), like the ACLU [and the] Heritage Foundation: separate governing documents, finances, staffing, filings, and mission statements.”
I am still unsure of how the Turning Point Endowment fits into this triad, but it has successfully gathered a large chunk of money and perhaps can act as shelter in the possibility of future litigation against the main organizations.
In April of 2020, Charlie Kirk was reported to refrain from filing for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which he estimated his organization would be eligible for 1.2 million in forgivable loans. However it appears that they applied for the funds and then rejected them. Propublica reported that the late Montgomery, a former Tea Party activist, was“one of three Turning Point insiders who have won lucrative deals from the group to handle its printing, payroll processing and fundraising.” Turning Point has expanded exponentially to over 2000 campuses in the USA; bringing in over 28 million in revenue in 2019. Kirk was compensated nearly 300K in 2019 for his role in TPUSA.
A Merry-Go-Round of Associates and a Parcel of Tactics
Charlie Kirk is well connected to the inner circle of the past presidential administration. He has referred to Donald Trump Jr. as a “personal friend” and Trump is a fixture at Turning Point’s events. Ginni Thomas, the wife of SCOTUS Judge Clarence Thomas, was recruited to be on Turning Point’s advisory council. Sebastian Gorka, former deputy assistant and strategist for former president Trump, was a fellow at the Falkirk Center, the Liberty University located think tank that Kirk and Jerry Falwell Jr. collaborated on. Jenna Ellis, former president Trump’s lawyer who represented him during his unsuccessful campaign to reverse the election results, is a current fellow at the Falkirk Center.
Being well connected has likely shielded Kirk and Turning Point from the consequences that most organizations and figure heads would have faced had they had the number of problematic organizational practices and spokespersons that Turning Point and Kirk have been associated with. Milo Yiannopoulos, who is famous for saying and doing dumb shit, said stupid stuff at the University of Colorado in Boulder when he was invited by TPUSA and the CU College Republicans to speak on campus. Then there was an event that went sideways at Kent State, where Turning Point partnered with Young America’s Foundation and it included conservative protestors wearing diapers to protest the campuses “safe spaces”. Like other campus events that had unfortunate consequences, rather than take responsibility for his mistakes, Kirk pointed fingers at the student leaders or other campus organizations that had teamed up with Turning Point. In at least two instances this led to students that were heading Turning Point on their campuses to angrily and publicly resigned from the initiative.
Adding to a long list of indiscretions, guest speaker Dinesh D’Souza was reported to give false historical information and ignore the existence of the Civil Rights Movement in a speech that he gave at a Turning Point event. A noticeable pattern of attracting white supremacists and courting racist ideologies has resulted in employees and volunteers reporting racial bullying.
One of the most notable campaigns that Turning Point launched was their Professor Watchlist where they collected university faculty that were reported to be “radical liberals” or were perceived to be against conservative students. This list is not fact checked and standards for reporting are nebulous. Although Kirk is on the recent bandwagon of resisting cancel culture, he created a form of cancel culture by his own initiative.
Turning Point also hatched a plan to target the student governments of top schools and was funding the campaigns of student leaders. When called out they called the funds “ leadership scholarships”. In 2019, Turning Point Action merged with the group “Students for Trump”, and in doing so inherited a cadre of problems and messes to clean up from previous bad actors. The original co-founder, “John Lambert, was arrested on wire fraud charges in April 2019. The other co-founder, current co-chair Ryan Fournier, hired white nationalist James Allsup, a key member of the group formerly known as Identity Evropa, as director of Students for Trump’s campus ambassador program.” This wasn’t the last time that Identity Evropa would cross territory with Turning Point. A hostile takeover of Turning point threatened Kirk’s control of the organizations, headed by white nationalist, Unite the Right attendee and leader of the Groypers, Nicholas Fuentes. Fuentes was hired to speak at Iowa State University. “During his speech, (Fuentes) blamed people of color, immigrants, and “globalists” for America’s problems, according to the Des Moines Register.”
Although seemingly haphazard, many of the problems that Turning Point has faced were self induced. It was reported by a former employee that Mrs. Thomas utilized TPUSA’s employees to campaign for Ted Cruz. It is still unclear who gave a substantial list of student names collected by Turning Point to the Ted Cruz campaign. Employees were also farmed out to help Cruz’s Super PAC. Kirk agreed to send the Cruz campaign “as many kids as possible.” Kirk has failed to keep his personal social media accounts separate from the official TPUSA accounts and regularly blurs the line between his personal opinion and the views of the nonprofit. “It is legally risky for the head of a charity to make electoral statements from a Twitter account used for official business,” said Fischer.”
During the pandemic, Kirk poked fun at mask wearing on social media by posting a gif that had the TPUSA logo on it. Not long after Kirk posted this, his mentor died of Covid-19. Following Montgomery’s death, Kirk eulogized Bill and stealthily deleted his mask mocking post. Montgomery attended the Students for Trump rally which was held in late June 2020 at Dream Center Church in Phoenix, AZ. The church originally claimed that their new HVAC system would eliminate Covid-19 from the air and it was reported that many in attendance were not wearing masks or social distancing.
Big Name Donors
Next, let’s look at who is feeding financial resources into Kirk’s disinformation machine. TPUSA took in over $8.2 million in 2017 and its biggest known funders then were GOP mega donor Richard Uihlein of the Ed Uihlein Foundation and the founder of Uline; Bernie Marcus’ Foundation (Marcus is Home Depot’s co-founder); Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, WI; former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner; Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.); and WI born GOP super donor, Foster Friess of the Lynn and Foster Friess Family Foundation. TPUSA is also funded by “various Koch brothers-affiliated groups, such as the Foundation for Economic Education, DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.” Geo Group, a private prison corporation, also donates financially to Turning Point and has received rave reviews in exchange. Other funders “are in the fossil fuel space,” according to Kirk.” For a full list scroll down to the bottom of the article or click here.
Kirk Spreads Trump’s Big Lie
Former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” of a stolen election was spread by Charlie Kirk and his minions. The “Big Lie” allowed Turning Point’s trifecta of organizations to raise millions of additional dollars. Events were coordinated by Turning Point to support the fervor of the moment and maximize fundraising opportunities. A date of January 6, 2021 was chosen for a large rally that would feature all the organizations that supported “Trump’s Big Lie”. Ali Alexander’s “Stop the Steal” was another prominent organization present. Buses and hotels were reserved by Turning Point and offers of free transportation and lodging were posted on social media.
A “humble brag” social media post of Kirk’s claimed that 80 buses were going to be brought into DC for the day. After the dust settled on the insurrection, Kirk changed that number to 7 buses, essentially throwing the buses under the bus. A Turning Point spokesperson denied involvement with the group that Ginni Thomas recruited to the rally. Kirk claimed that his group did not participate in the storming of the Capitol grounds and buildings or in the deadly riot that ensued. However, a student leader of Turning Point, Kristina Malimon and her mother, of OR, were arrested for entering Capitol grounds after a curfew had been enforced. Another insurrectionist claims that he rode on the buses with the Turning Point group.
Malimon was pictured on social media at the rally immediately prior to the Capitol riot. In true Kirk fashion, her connections to TPUSA were deleted on social media and Kirk did not claim her as a member, even though she was well known GOP backing influencer who was reported to be a spokesperson for TPUSA. In October 2020, Malimon tried to promote “The Big Lie” of a stolen election in GA with a strange sounding story. Below she is pictured with Donald Trump Jr. at the Student Action Summit in late December 2020. She has also been pictured with Roger Stone.
Following the riots at the Capitol and the campaign to try to distance himself, Kirk seems to be laying relatively low and regrouping. The Falkirk Center is being protested by a small number of Liberty University students and faculty. Now that Jerry Falwell Jr. has stepped down, Liberty University’s future involvement in TPUSA might be on the line. I would like to follow up this piece with another closer look at what role Liberty University might have played in the Capitol Riots and the role that Christian Nationalism played in all this.
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