Another member of Congress is not expected to attend this year’s National Prayer Breakfast and is calling for “transparency” about the event. The annual Washington power ritual is set for next Thursday, Feb. 7.
Asked about TYT’s recent reporting on the Fellowship, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who has attended the Prayer Breakfast in the past, said he is not planning to attend. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), another past supporter of the breakfast, is “likely” to pass, his chief of staff previously told TYT.
Both members are concerned about the possibility of Russian use of the breakfast. The FBI says Russian operative Maria Butina and her alleged handler targeted the National Prayer Breakfast to connect with influential politicians, and were aided by an unnamed breakfast organizer.
Former CIA head of Russia operations worldwide Steve Hall previously told TYT the Prayer Breakfast presents an appealing target because religious groups enjoy relatively lax scrutiny from U.S. law enforcement. He also said Russia's anti-gay politics make it easier to find common cause with American religious conservatives.
Khanna told TYT he wants to “make sure there are not any special interests or foreign influences on the event.” Lieu’s chief of staff, Marc Cevasco, previously told TYT, “If there’s Russian influence on the Prayer Breakfast, we want to know about it.”
The breakfast is sponsored by a decades-old Christian group called the Fellowship Foundation, in conjunction with congressional prayer caucuses. The Fellowship keeps a low profile to maintain confidentiality for the people in power to whom it ministers. It has, however, found itself in the spotlight of past political scandals. The Fellowship figured into two Republican sex scandals, and in a criminal case involving money funneled by an alleged terrorist group via the Fellowship to a Republican politician turned lobbyist. Pres. Obama drew criticism for attending the breakfast despite Fellowship ties to anti-gay forces in Uganda.
More recently, TYT reporting has shed light on Fellowship involvement in matters related to Russian interests generally and the Mueller probe specifically:
- Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) — who met with lobbyists secretly representing Paul Manafort’s Ukrainian clients — also met directly with those clients on a Ukraine trip sponsored by the Fellowship
- The Fellowship has also sponsored travel by members of Congress including meetings with leaders of anti-gay movements in countries where Russia hopes anti-gay sentiment will stymie membership in the European Union
- A Christian charity with direct ties to the Fellowship (one leader of both groups gave Butina ten tickets to the Prayer Breakfast) spent undisclosed amounts to help Russians attend, but has not said where the money came from.
The National Prayer Breakfast has a long history of bipartisanship. Its co-chairs come from each party — this year’s are Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and James Lankford (R-OK). Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended.
However, longtime leader Doug Coe reportedly began to hand off leadership responsibilities several years ago and passed away in 2017. The Fellowship board president until some time in 2016 was William Dabbs Cavin, CFO at a poultry company controlled by a former Fellowship board member, Ron Cameron, who is now one of the nation’s top GOP donors.
Military Religious Freedom Foundation Pres. Mikey Weinstein has called for Democrats to pull out of the event. Responding to TYT’s reports about funds used to pay for Russian attendance, Weinstein said, “For any Democrat that supports this, either that Democrat is completely and utterly clueless or they're actively involved in this and they're wolves in sheeps’ clothing.”
TYT has contacted other sitting Democrats whose names appeared on 2016 breakfast letterhead obtained by TYT, including Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, III (D-LA), Coons (D-DE), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Lieu, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA). Lieu’s office was the only one to respond.
Khanna said, “I’m not attending this year, and I will be following the reporting carefully and want to make sure that there are not special interests capturing an event that’s supposed to be about camaraderie and reflection and sharing spirituality and transcending politics. That’s the purpose of the event and it would be unfortunate if special interests had infiltrated into that. I make no judgment but I will be looking at the reporting.”
The Prayer Breakfast has long welcomed guests of diverse faith backgrounds.
Khanna, who is Hindu, said, “In principle, the idea of a National Prayer Breakfast which is for spiritual reflection and welcoming people of all faiths is a good thing to pause from the political battles in Washington. We want to encourage that kind of camaraderie, dialogue, and engagement with the higher questions of life. It’s sad that special interests or foreign influence may possibly have captured such an event and my hope is the organizers will deal with it with transparency to make sure the National Prayer Breakfast is fulfilling its purpose and not to have these questions and doubt.”
Larry Ross, a spokesman for the Fellowship, said on Jan. 11 that the group would respond to TYT’s questions within a week, but has not replied to subsequent emails.
Ridiculing media reports about Russian attempts to use the breakfast to influence U.S. politicians, the Fellowship leader who reportedly gave Butina ten tickets said last year, “There’s big-time collusion. It’s the Russians and Jesus.”
Jonathan Larsen is TYT's managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.
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