Prayer Group in Russia Case Had Envoy to Eastern Europe in GOP Congressman

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Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), “The Apprentice” producer Mark Burnett, and Pres. Trump at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

By Ken Klippenstein

A secretive Christian political group alluded to in Monday’s criminal complaint against an alleged Russian agent sent a conservative Christian congressman on multiple trips to eastern European nations friendly with Russia, federal records show.

The Justice Department on Monday charged Mariia Butina, a Russian national, with infiltrating U.S. groups to covertly promote Russian interests. One group Butina is alleged to have worked with is the organization—unnamed in the supporting affidavit—behind the National Prayer Breakfast.

The 17-page affidavit includes several references to Butina’s dealings with organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual ritual for both parties in Washington. In one incident, Butina recounts thanking an unnamed organizer of the breakfast for meeting with her and another Russian official in Moscow. It also describes Butina noting that a Russian official suggested that Putin attend the National Prayer Breakfast in February of 2017 and that Putin did not say no.

In a later email, a National Prayer Breakfast organizer promised Butina that he would provide 10 seats at the 2017 event. She later emailed an organizer and thanked him for “the gift of you [sic] precious time during the National Prayer Breakfast week—and for the very private meeting that followed. A new relationship between two countries always begins better when it begins in faith.”

The National Prayer Breakfast is organized by The Fellowship Foundation, a Christian group based in Washington that is famously secretive. Its members take a vow of silence about Fellowship activities.

But federal records show the Fellowship has reported sponsoring 37 trips abroad by individual members of Congress in the last 18 years. Fourteen of those trips have been by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), co-chair of the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast. Since 2008, Aderholt took 11 out of 17 trips sponsored by the Fellowship.

A number of countries to which the Fellowship sent Aderholt are in politically volatile or contested regions between Russia and NATO nations.

Legistorm map identifying the locations of Fellowship-sponsored congressional trips since 2000.

In 2016, the Fellowship paid for Aderholt to travel to Belgrade, Serbia; Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina; Zagreb, Croatia; Kiev, Ukraine; and Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina. That trip took place just days after President Trump secured the Republican nomination, from May 26 to June 2 of 2016.

In 2017, Aderholt traveled to Romania, Bulgaria, and Austria.

In one sponsor form filled out by the Fellowship, Vice President Michael Foster writes that, “Because Congressman Aderholt was a Co-Chair for the National Prayer Breakfast held in February 2016, the organizers of the Ukrainian Prayer Breakfast asked him to be the primary speaker at theirs. He also brings a strong stand on such issues like marriage, family, and the values of Jesus. He is an experienced and active supporter of reforms in Ukraine.”

The affidavit refers to multiple Russian contacts with unnamed individuals associated with the National Prayer Breakfast. It says Russia was cultivating political contacts in the U.S. to “weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-U.S. political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stands on a range of issues from Islamic terrorism to gay rights have won him fans among America’s conservative evangelical community. The number of Russians attending the National Prayer Breakfast reportedly has increased sharply in recent years.

Aderholt’s office did not immediately respond to emailed questions from TYT regarding the affidavit, his trips, and the Fellowship. The Alabama congressman has been sharply critical of allegations that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, having called them the “birther issue of the Democratic Party.” Last week, the Justice Department alleged that Russian intelligence officials hacked Democrats’ emails and computer networks.

“If Russia is doing this, [the National Prayer Breakfast] would be a fabulous way to meet these people, the people who are propping up Trump,” Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told TYT. Weinstein, who has researched the group in the past, said that it skews heavily toward Republican evangelicals.

“Everyone who’s anyone who has the requisite fundamentalist views wants to be there, Weinstein said. “This is the Super Bowl.”

In addition to meetings alluded to in the affidavit, and the trips to eastern Europe, the Fellowship may also have significant business interests in Russia, one author who has written about the Fellowship told TYT.

Jeff Sharlet is an American investigative journalist who wrote a detailed report on the Fellowship for Harper’s Magazine and later wrote a book on it.

“One interesting thing is, they said they had a bunch of property in Moscow,” Sharlet told TYT. Sharlet said he was told this by members of the Fellowship when he was investigating them for his story in Harper’s, though he never followed up on it.

As for the FBI’s suggestion in Monday’s affidavit that Russia hoped to use the breakfast to establish back-channel communications with American politicians and candidates, Sharlet said, “The National Prayer Group was designed, created, and functions for back channeling.”

He added, “It’s a full weeklong lobbying festival.”

“What you see on C-SPAN is not where the action happens. The oil industry sponsors an event. Various defense contractors. The foreign delegations are often led by ministers of defense.”

“It would be very true to form for them to imagine themselves as brokers in this whole thing.”

Ken Klippenstein is a freelance journalist who can be reached on Twitter at @kenklippenstein or via email: [email protected]

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