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Coons Concerned About Perception of Partisanship at National Prayer Breakfast

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) prays over Pres. Trump with Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), left, at the Feb. 7 National Prayer Breakfast.


(Image: Screengrab from

National Prayer Breakfast Co-Chair Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) is “concerned about the perception that it is a partisan event,” he told TYT after the event last week.

Coons’ comments came as the number of sitting Senate Democrats officially participating in the event fell to just three: Coons, his state colleague Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), and presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

The National Prayer Breakfast has been under scrutiny since the FBI revealed it was targeted by Russian operatives seeking to influence U.S. politicians. Coons spoke with a TYT reporter briefly as he left the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.

TYT obtained a welcome message from the breakfast naming 26 members of Congress on its letterhead. Aside from Coons and fellow Co-Chair Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), 24 other members of Congress welcomed attendees to the breakfast.

Unlike past years, this year’s letterhead reflected a disparity in the number from each party. Each party had seven members from the House of Representatives. But Republicans had considerably more sitting senators:

  • Republicans: Lamar Alexander, John Boozman, Mike Enzi, James Inhofe, Johnny Isakson, Roger Wicker.
  • Democrats: Tom Carper, Amy Klobuchar.

The letterhead also includes Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats. It also includes one Democrat who lost her seat last year: Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Including them both puts the ratio at six Republicans to four Democrats.

Letterhead for 2019 National Prayer Breakfast shows more Republican members of Congress than Democrats welcoming attendees.

(Image: Photo by Michael McAuliff.)

It’s not clear whether the disparity arose due to organizers asking fewer Democrats to participate, or because fewer Democrats agreed to.

In 2016, the most recent year for which TYT obtained breakfast letterhead, seven Republican senators were listed, along with six Democrats and King.

One of those 2016 senators, Bill Nelson of Florida, joins Heitkamp on the list of National Prayer Breakfast Democrats successfully targeted for ouster by a longtime backer and leader of the Fellowship, billionaire Ron Cameron.

Cameron gave $1,000,000 last year to the Senate Leadership Fund, which spent more than half a million on negative ads last year to help defeat Heitkamp.

As TYT previously reported, Cameron gave millions to a political action committee that poured almost a million dollars into negative ads against Nelson last year. Cameron and his wife gave another $200,000 to a PAC formed to support the Rick Scott campaign during the recount battle.

Heitkamp is just one of many Democrats Cameron has targeted. Two notable exceptions are Coons and Carper. Coons has been active with the Fellowship for years, co-chairing the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast.

Carper was not on the 2016 letterhead but was this year. In addition, both Coons and Carper represent Delaware, the operational headquarters of Cameron’s poultry company, Mountaire. Coons and Carper also both sit on the Senate Chicken Caucus.

Coons and Carper did not respond to emailed questions about Cameron. None of the Democrats participating in this year’s breakfast responded to TYT’s requests for comment.

One House member, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), whose name appeared on the letterhead in 2016 and 2019, did not attend this year, Communications Director Jordan Goldes told TYT in an email. Goldes did not comment on her involvement with the event and its organizers.

Democrats known to have attended this year but not listed on the letterhead or official program include Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who led a prayer. Neither Pelosi nor Rosen responded to requests for comment.

Prior to the breakfast, at least two Democrats expressed concerns about last year’s revelations involving Russia. Responding to TYT’s report that a charity connected to the breakfast made expenditures to help Maria Butina bring Russian guests, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) called for “transparency.” A spokesperson for Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) said, “If there’s Russian influence on the National Prayer Breakfast, we want to know about it.”

Lieu is one Democrat who has lent his name to the national event in the past, but was not on this year’s letterhead. Another is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), like Klobuchar a recently announced presidential candidate.

Asked whether he is concerned about the Butina revelations, Coons said, “Of course. I think it raised questions about the process by which folks seek to participate, buy tickets, become involved.”

He said, however, “I do think the vetting this years was done differently, but I, as the co-chair, am really responsible for the program, not for who ends up [attending].”

Coons did not specify how the vetting works, or how it changed. The Fellowship Foundation last month provided TYT with two new policies enacted in the past few months.

Among the new rules for organizers:

  • They may not “Offer or sell political influence which includes tickets to the National Prayer Breakfast including access to political, business, community or religious leaders,” and,
  • “Any interactions for purpose of personal political or financial gain, with entities or persons that are prohibited, sanctionable, or registrable by applicable sections of the Internal Revenue Code, the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and any other such laws or regulations governing political activity, foreign agents, or other public engagement.”

Fellowship spokesperson Larry Ross, who shared the policies with TYT, said they reflect a commitment to transparency. He did not respond to a request for comment about Coons’ remarks or Democratic participation.

Democrats have been wary of the politics behind the breakfast before. Pres. Obama drew criticism for participating in the breakfast shortly after reports of Fellowship involvement with anti-LGBT legislation in Uganda.

TYT reported last year that the Fellowship sponsored congressional trips that included meetings with leaders of European anti-LGBTQ movements. At last week’s breakfast, Pres. Trump included anti-LGBT rhetoric, praising Vice President Mike Pence wife’s work at a school with explicit anti-LGBT policies, among other things.

Coons told TYT, “I did work closely with Senator Lankford to try and craft a program today that was not partisan and political… Speaker Pelosi was present, and there were a number of Democratic senators and House members.”

Coons added, “Look, I was an attendee when President Obama was president, and there were folks who didn’t like his agenda. When President Trump is president, there’s folks in my party who disagree with his agenda. The president does cast a long shadow and the challenge is to make sure that everyone who participates here is really here in a spirit of prayer rather than pursuing any partisan or political thing.”

Michael McAuliff is a reporter whose work has appeared in outlets including Huffington Post and the New York Daily News. You can find him on Twitter @MMcAuliff.

Jonathan Larsen is TYT's managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.

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