News & Politics

Here's How Washington Power Brokers Monetized Religion to Wield Influence with the White House

“If I go to the prayer breakfast, I have a good chance of maybe shaking the president’s hand or talking to him for two minutes.”

Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

Maria Butina's indictment alleging she worked as an undercover agent for Russia is helping expose the sordid underbelly of influence peddling and expansive lobbying efforts that are rife in Washington, D.C., on behalf of both foreign governments and other entities.

A new report by the New York Times Friday focused on one particular site of the influence operations conducted at the nexus of federal government authority, religion, and moneyed power brokers: the National Prayer Breakfast. Prosecutors charge that Butina sought access to the breakfast, arranged by the Christian organization The Fellowship Foundation since 1953, as part of an effort to “to promote the political interests of the Russian Federation.”

But this kind of lobbying is hardly foreign to the National Prayer Breakfast, which the president attends, as the New York Times recounts.

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"Ms. Butina’s spy-thriller-like tactics hint at the more widespread, if less sensational, international maneuvering that pervades the prayer breakfast, and the lucrative opportunities it creates for Washington’s corps of lobbyists and fixers, according to more than half a dozen people who have been involved in peddling access around the event," the report says. "Ahead of Mr. Trump’s first appearance at the breakfast last year, some of the people said, foreign politicians clamored for tickets, with some offering to pay steep fees to get into the event and the myriad gatherings on its sidelines."

Later, reporter Kenneth P. Vogel and Elizabeth Dias write: "Some describe the gathering as similar to the World Economic Forum, except that Jesus is the organizing principle."

Herman Cohen, who spoke to the Times, reportedly offered to sell an African leader access to the event and related meetings for $220,000.

Cohen defended such uses of the event. He said that invitations are very useful to foreign leaders.

“When I came into this business, it had been going on for many years,” he told the Times

He added: “If I go to the prayer breakfast, I have a good chance of maybe shaking the president’s hand or talking to him for two minutes."

A. Larry Ross, a spokesman for The Fellowship, told the Times that the group discourages using the event for personal, "financial or geopolitical gain.”

The report also notes that last year the event sparked controversy when Yulia Tymoshenko, an opposition leader in Ukraine, said she received assurances that the U.S. would not lift sanctions on Russia until it withdrew from her country after meeting with Trump and Vice Presiden Mike Pence at the breakfast. The White House later said that "no formal assurances were given.”

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Cody Fenwick is a reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter @codytfenwick.