Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), Tim Walberg, John Moolenaar, and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). (Images: Win McNamee/Getty Images; walberg.house.gov; C-SPAN screengrab via moolenaar.house.gov; Alex Wong/Getty Images.)
By Jonathan Larsen with additional reporting by Ken Klippenstein
At least four Republican members of Congress have traveled to eastern Europe and bolstered proponents there of policies that may help achieve Russia’s goal that those nations not join the European Union. The trips were paid for by an American group that allegedly helped Russian agents meet and influence American politicians, and by an affiliated Ukrainian group of Christian politicians, according to federal travel disclosure forms.
In an affidavit this week, the FBI said that Russia “seeks to create wedges” to achieve political goals, including to “counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions.” Membership in the E.U. requires nations to recognize relatively liberal rights for LGBTQ people and same-sex couples.
Russian officials reportedly have sought to foster anti-gay sentiment in potential E.U. members, to impede the E.U.’s growth. Buzzfeed reported in 2013, for instance, that a Duma committee chair said if Ukraine allied with the E.U., “pride parades will be held instead of Victory Day parades” in Kiev. Russian-leaning lawmakers in Ukraine have sponsored anti-gay legislation there.
The FBI this week arrested Maria Butina, a Russian national, and said she and a Russian official “took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish . . . ‘back channel’ lines of communication.”
The affidavit said, “These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.” It identifies both an unnamed gun rights group—widely reported to be the National Rifle Association—and unnamed persons connected to or involved with organizing the National Prayer Breakfast.
The breakfast is an annual ritual in Washington, attracting the political elite of both parties. It is known to be a function of a secretive Christian group called The Fellowship Foundation. The Fellowship’s public 2016 tax form says the group “helps provide logistics assistance for the National Prayer Breakfast.” The group lists its expenses for the breakfast at $1.4 million and its related revenue at almost $1.5 million.
According to the FBI, Butina and the Russian official attended the 2016 breakfast. Butina later communicated with a breakfast organizer who allegedly “said he would provide ten seats at the 2017 event,” which she also attended.
In a private message on October 5, 2016, Butina allegedly wrote to the Russian official, “I will be connecting the people from the prayer breakfast to [an unnamed group].” Later that month, Butina suggested a list of potential guests for the 2017 breakfast “would be better from the Kremlin or RPC [Russian Orthodox Church].”
After the 2017 breakfast, Butina emailed an unnamed organizer, thanking 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 FBI’s charging documents did not name breakfast organizers and associates who allegedly aided Butina.
TYT reported on Tuesday that the Fellowship has sponsored travel abroad by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) more than any other member of Congress. Aderholt co-chaired the 2016 breakfast. But the Fellowship wasn’t the only group sending members of Congress to eastern Europe.
Between 2015 and last month, a Ukrainian group that has modeled itself on and worked with the Fellowship paid for three congressional trips to attend Ukraine’s own national prayer breakfast:
- Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.): June 30 to July 3, 2015
- Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.): May 30 to June 1, 2017
- Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas): May 29 to June 2, 2018
In 2016, when the Ukrainian group did not report sponsoring any congressional trips there, the Fellowship paid for Aderholt to attend that year’s Ukrainian national prayer breakfast.
In all of the travel disclosure forms, the sponsors declare that no third party contributed funding to the trips and that no lobbyists or foreign agents accompanied the congressional travelers on any part of their itinerary.
Nothing about their committee assignments suggests a reason for the four members of Congress to meet with religious leaders in eastern Europe. Aderholt and Moolenaar sit on the Appropriations Committee. Walberg belongs to the committees on Energy and Commerce and on Education and the Workforce. Gohmert sits on the Natural Resources and Judiciary committees.
The four Republicans do not see eye to eye on everything with either President Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin. Aderholt, for instance, has been a supporter of NATO.
But there is one issue on which the four are relatively united. They oppose the kinds of pro-gay policies the E.U. requires for its member states. And all four have met with proponents of anti-gay policies, or participated in events at least implicitly counter to gay rights, in Ukraine and other European nations that Russia would like to see remain out of the E.U.
In 2016, for instance, Aderholt participated in an event with Serbian People’s Party President Nenad Popovic. In May of this year, Popovic reportedly demanded that a children’s book depicting same-sex parents be “stopped urgently.” Aderholt last week introduced an amendment that would permit religious discrimination against same-sex couples seeking to adopt.
The Ukrainian-sponsored trips have been filed under two different group names, but the name of their leader has remained consistent. In the first travel-disclosure form, from 2015, Ukrainian Member of Parliament Pavel Unguryan wrote a relatively unremarkable description of Walberg and the reasons for his visit.
Unguryan said he was interested in “making bridges with U.S. politicians who started the tradition of Prayer Breakfast movement.” The closest he came to alluding to gay rights was when he said, “We understand the importance of putting spiritual and moral values in the foundation of our country.”
In 2017, Moolenaar provided a similarly anodyne account of his trip to Ukraine. He said he was “Interested in deepening cooperation.”
But this time, Unguryan’s account of the trip differed sharply from the one he provided in 2015 and from Moolenaar’s. For one thing, in an April 2017 email to Moolenaar’s staff, Unguryan refers to having met Moolenaar at the Washington prayer breakfast.
In a letter sent simultaneously, also disclosed in the 2017 filing, Unguryan refers to Ukraine’s “many problems” and says, “we intend to set aside differences and unite . . . all of Ukraine around the reconciliation and forgiveness, taught by Jesus of Nazareth.”
Unguryan explains his reason for inviting Moolenaar by saying, “Congressman John Moolenaar is known for his conservative stance on issues such as marriage, family, and Christian values.”
Last month, the language changed again. This time, the American visitor joined Unguryan in citing religion to justify the trip. Specifically, Gohmert’s form cites international efforts to protect “freedom of speech and religion.”
Unguryan, in turn, calls Gohmert “a strong advocate of freedoms of religion and speech [and] conservative values.” Unguryan’s filing indicates plans to have Gohmert attend a “Massive Pro-Family Rally” in downtown Kiev. Gohmert’s final itinerary does not include the rally, but says he met with a Ukrainian religious group connected to it.
Besides Aderholt, the only other member of Congress for whom the Fellowship has sponsored travel in the last four years is Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.). While every other Fellowship trip in that period was to eastern Europe, Hultgren’s trip was to Norway.
Norway would seem to be an exception to the pattern. The northern European nation is not a full member of the European Union, but it has among the most liberal gay-rights policies in the world. In addition, Hultgren is co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. (Lantos was a Democratic member of Congress who supported gay rights.)
In its filing for the trip, the Fellowship cited Hultgren’s commission work as addressing global and European areas of concern, among them, “religious liberties.”
However, the religious liberties Hultgren fights for include the freedom to deny gay rights. In 2015, for instance, Hultgren criticized the Supreme Court for legalizing same-sex marriage and introduced a bill to protect religious-based discrimination against gay people wishing to marry or adopt.
While in Norway, Hultgren stayed at a hotel called Langesund Bad, owned by former Norwegian Member of Parliament Lars Rise. Rise and another Norwegian politician in attendance, Dagfinn Høybråten, are veteran leaders of the Christian Democratic Party, which opposes same-sex marriage and adoption.
In “The Bear and the Elephant,” a 2015 article cited by the affidavit, Butina writes, “the American Republican Party derives much of its support from social conservatives, businessmen, and those that support an aggressive approach to the war against Islamic terrorism. These are values espoused by United Russia, the current ruling political party in Moscow.”
Nations where gay-rights issues have become intertwined with debate over E.U. membership include Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia. Ukrainian opponents of E.U. membership reportedly deployed slogans calling homosexuality “a threat to national security.” Protesters chanted, “Go to Europe through the ass.”
Since 2015, the Fellowship has only sponsored Republican members of Congress on foreign trips. The only countries to which the Fellowship sent them are eastern European nations and Norway, where the events were also attended by Baltic delegates.
In its 2015 filing, the Fellowship says the long history of the National Prayer Breakfast has sparked interest in similar prayer groups abroad. As a result, it said, “Many countries have weekly groups in their Parliament where they pray, fellowship, and consider the life and teachings of Jesus. That is what has happened in the SE European countries, more specifically Romania, Albania, and Montenegro.”
The 2016 Norway form says, “That is what has happened in the Scandinavian/Baltic nations.”
In 2017 the list grows to include Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Michael Foster, an official at the Fellowship Foundation, writes in his explanation for Aderholt’s 2016 trip, “These groups are modeled after the House Prayer Breakfast Group . . . All of this is connected with the National Prayer Breakfast.”
Foster also writes, “The Fellowship Foundation collaborates with the Ukrainian Prayer Group to have their own Prayer Breakfast. . . . It is thought important for those attending the event in Kiev to see an active and supportive leader who follows the principals [sic] of Jesus.” Other GOP attendees that year included former Gov. David Beasley (R- S.C.), and former Rep. Bob McEwen (R-Ohio).
The Fellowship’s work, however, has gone beyond just collaboration with Ukrainians. The group’s filings over the past four years report “assisting” hosts of the SE European Gatherings in Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia.
In 2015, the Ukrainian group indicates that it “sponsored the trip with personal funds.” In 2017 it again cites “personal funds.” In 2018, however, to pay for Gohmert’s visit, the group says it “funded the trip by the donations,” but does not identify the money’s source or sources.
The Fellowship is famously secretive about its funding. Tax records listing top donors are not required to be released to the public.
Emails to the Fellowship and the members of Congress involved in these trips were not immediately returned. This article will be updated in the event of a response to questions about the trips and the participants. A text message sent to the phone number listed in several of the Ukrainian group’s filings yielded only one response. The entire exchange appears below.
Inquiries sent to email addresses provided by Unguryan and another Ukrainian official in their filings were not returned by publication time.
Managing Editor Jonathan Larsen can be reached on Twitter at @jtlarsen. Ken Klippenstein is a freelance journalist who can be reached on Twitter at @kenklippenstein or via email: [email protected].
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