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At Prayer Breakfast, Guests Seek Access to a Different Higher Power

WASHINGTON — With a lineup of prayer meetings, humanitarian forums and religious panels, the National Prayer Breakfast has long brought together people from all over the world for an agenda built around the teachings of Jesus.

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At Prayer Breakfast, Guests Seek Access to a Different Higher Power
Kenneth P. Vogel
Elizabeth Dias, New York Times

WASHINGTON — With a lineup of prayer meetings, humanitarian forums and religious panels, the National Prayer Breakfast has long brought together people from all over the world for an agenda built around the teachings of Jesus.

But there on the guest list in recent years was Maria Butina, looking to meet high-level U.S. officials and advance the interests of the Russian state, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukranian opposition leader, seeking a few minutes with President Donald Trump to burnish her credentials as a presidential prospect back home.

Their presence at the breakfast illuminates the way the annual event has become an international influence-peddling bazaar, where foreign dignitaries, religious leaders, diplomats and lobbyists jockey for access to the highest reaches of U.S. power.

The subculture around the breakfast was thrust into the spotlight last week with the indictment of Butina, who was charged with conspiring to act as a Russian agent. Her goals, prosecutors said, included gaining access to the breakfast “to establish a back channel of communication” between influential Russians and Americans “to promote the political interests of the Russian Federation.”

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.

Before 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. One lobbyist, Herman J. Cohen, offered what he billed as an exclusive invitation to last year’s breakfast, and three days of meetings around it, to an African leader for $220,000.

“Several contacts will be made with American authorities for official meetings with you as President of Chad and President in office of the African Union,” Cohen promised in a proposal, calling the breakfast “a special occasion to get to know and converse directly with the President of the U.S.”The letter, written in French, was sent to President Idriss Déby of Chad in December of 2016, and later obtained by The New York Times.

Cohen, a former assistant secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, said that Déby did not take up the offer. But he said that lobbyists have long brokered access to the breakfast, and opportunities surrounding it, for their foreign clients, often as part of a larger package of services.

“When I came into this business, it had been going on for many years,” Cohen said.

“It’s an opportunity,” Cohen said of the event. “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.”

“In a way, it bypasses protocols,” he added, “but in a way, it is taking advantage of people being present in the same venue.” Such invitations to foreign leaders, he said, are “very useful to them back home.”

James C. Slattery, a former congressman whose firm was paid more than $1.8 million since 2011 to provide lobbying help for Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian leader, and her political causes, encouraged her to attend the breakfast. He accompanied her to last year’s event, where she secured a photograph and brief conversation with Trump, which her allies used to promote her nascent presidential candidacy back home — to the apparent surprise of the White House, and to the chagrin of the sitting Ukrainian president.

Held every year at the Washington Hilton, the prayer breakfast festivities span several days during the first week of February, with the U.S. president appearing at a ceremonial breakfast Thursday. The days are packed with programming, after which guests head to private suites with names like the Africa room and the Middle East room, or to fancier hotels in nearby Georgetown, where they mingle late into the night — praying, sharing business cards and sometimes draining expensive bottles of cognac. A favorite activity is an annual midnight tour of the Capitol, hosted by a former congressman.

Some describe the gathering as similar to the World Economic Forum, except that Jesus is the organizing principle. The eclectic guest list has included the Dalai Lama, the Rev. Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, singer Bono and former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, as well as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

Lobbyists say the event has become even more of a coveted invitation in the Trump era, as foreign politicians scrambled to forge connections with a president who swept into office with few ties to the international community or Washington’s hierarchy of established foreign access brokers.

With its relative lack of diplomatic protocols and press coverage, the prayer breakfast setting is ideal for foreign figures who might not otherwise be able to easily get face time with top U.S. officials, because of unsavory reputations or a lack of an official government perch, according to lobbyists who help arrange such trips. They also contend that it is easier to secure visas when the breakfast is listed as a destination.

At last year’s breakfast, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, posted a photo on Instagram of himself seated next to Andrei Makarov, a member of the Russian Parliament who had pushed for tax breaks for Russians who faced sanctions. A spokesperson for Grassley said that the senator poses for many photos with people he meets at a range of events.

Even the quickest of meetings, particularly if they are captured in photographs, can help politicians with their domestic political audiences by allowing them to suggest that they either have support from U.S. leaders, or have extracted concessions from them — making trips to the breakfast well worth any travel costs or consulting fees to arrange meetings.

The revelations in Butina’s indictment have put organizers of the breakfast, which attracts some 3,800 people from more than 130 countries, on the defensive.

“Because our focus is on relationships, reconciliation and unity, even those who may attend with ulterior motives are often moved in a positive and transformative manner,” said A. Larry Ross, spokesman for The Fellowship, the faith-based nonprofit that facilitates the organization of the breakfast each year. “While we try not to question attendees’ motives, we certainly discourage anyone from using the National Prayer Breakfast for personal, financial or geopolitical gain.”

The congressional co-chairmen of the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., praised the gathering as one of the most important annual events in Washington.

“It is unfortunate that some have attended the Breakfast in the past for the wrong reasons,” they said in a statement to The Times. “Nevertheless, we’re as committed as ever to ensuring that the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast is a success and follows the tradition of being nonpartisan and unifying.”

Lankford serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Butina reportedly testified in an eight-hour hearing in April.

Butina first attended the breakfast in 2016, before Trump was elected.

She told Yahoo News last year that a meeting had been scheduled between Trump and Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank and an ally of President Vladimir Putin, before the event last year, but that the White House had canceled at the last moment. She also is accused in the indictment of trying to arrange a private meeting at last year’s breakfast between Trump and Putin. It is not the first time that the breakfast has generated controversy in the Trump era.

After Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian opposition leader, scored unscheduled meetings with both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at last year’s breakfast, she caused a diplomatic stir by telling Washington foreign policy officials that Trump promised her he would not lift sanctions on Russia until it withdraws from Ukraine.

The claims forced the White House to clarify that “no formal assurances were given.” But the meeting was nevertheless a coup for Tymoshenko, said Anders Åslund, an economist who served as an adviser to Tymoshenko and who remains in contact with her.

“Yulia always comes here for the prayer breakfast, and it offers the possibility of getting to people she would not otherwise be able to get to,” he said.

Slattery, the lobbyist who advised Tymoshenko to attend, said he has “assiduously avoided doing any lobbying around the prayer breakfast. This was just a bizarre happenstance where she happened to be there and I thought she could benefit from it.”

Leaders and insiders of the Fellowship say they hope that shared spirituality around Jesus can help to build bridges of understanding across divides, be they religious, cultural or political, and cite that mission as a reason controversial guests have been invited in the past. The Fellowship, for instance, helped facilitate a meeting between President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kagame of Rwanda at the breakfast in 2001, before their peace accord the next year.

“We are not naive that people use the prayer breakfast for their own purpose,” said Tony P. Hall, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio, who has been close to the Fellowship for more than 20 years. “We have our own purposes, too.”

“You can’t just invite wonderful, exciting, great people,” said Hall. “Jesus, when he went to dinner, he went to dinner with everybody.”

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