President Donald Trump will attend the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, a prime networking opportunity for Beltway insiders. But this year’s event is also an opportunity for dozens of Russians. As many as 60 representatives from Russia’s religious and political elite are expected to attend, more than three times last year’s number, according to Russian officials.
One Russian official who was invited, Aleksandr Zharkov, told the Russian business newspaper RBC, “It’s a very unique situation, because despite all these difficulties we have (in relations with the US), the quota for Russians is very high this year.”
Added Zharkov, “It is a sin not to use any platform possible for negotiations between different layers of society.”
Two Russian officials said a “Russia house” – a space to hold informal meetings – would be organized at the event. However, the Russian government is not sending an official delegation.
The spike in the number of Russians attending the event compared to last year comes amid multiple ongoing investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia as well as continued fallout from Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The National Prayer Breakfast is organized by the Fellowship Foundation, a nonprofit religious organization designed to bring together leaders from the political, religious and business realm, on behalf of the US Congress.
A. Larry Ross, a spokesman at the Fellowship Foundation, told CNN, “I can confirm that this year, the Breakfast will be attended by more than 3,800 individuals representing over 130 countries and territories around the world. Approximately 55 are coming from Russia, including a group of 35 young professionals – millennial doctors, lawyers and business leaders in their 20s and 30s – invited out of a context of relationship and faith.”
Participants said they received invitations on behalf of the organization, but the foundation does not disclose publicly how its guest list is composed or vetted.
Some Russian officials who have received invitations won’t be attending the breakfast. Anatoly Aksakov, a Russian lawmaker, told CNN he had decided not to go following the US Treasury’s publication last month of a list of Russian oligarchs and officials close to the Kremlin.
Russia has issued a travel warning to its citizens, saying US law enforcement and intelligence are on a “hunt” to detain Russian citizens traveling abroad.
It’s also unclear whether one Russian official under the spotlight – Deputy Governor of the Bank of Russia Alexander Torshin – will attend. Torshin told Russian state news agency TASS he had been a fixture at the event for the past 12 years. But some members of Congress want to know about his connections to the National Rifle Association, following reports by McClatchy that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin funneled money to the NRA during the 2016 campaign.
Torshin has regularly attended NRA conferences and welcomed an NRA delegation to Moscow in December 2015. The Bank of Russia did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Torshin.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has written to Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin about the reports, saying, “The national security as well as legal implications of these reports make it imperative that Congress conduct a thorough investigation.”
Wyden also wrote to the NRA, seeking details of any financial transactions with Russian officials.
“I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections,” the Oregon Democrat wrote.
Torshin attended last year’s National Prayer Breakfast with his special assistant, Maria Butina. In a long Facebook post after the event, Butina wrote, “American liberal (in the American sense of the word “liberal”) media are attacking their president over and over again for his position on Russia. This is the time when Russia itself has to make a step towards [America] and show that we are ready to cooperate with Trump.”
Torshin himself was due to meet Trump at the Washington Hilton before last year’s breakfast, but the White House canceled the invitation at short notice, Butina told Yahoo News last year.
Many of the Russians attending the breakfast this year are senior religious figures. Konstantin Bendas, a bishop of the Russian Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, said he felt the need to go this year because the US-Russian relationship had deteriorated so much.
“It’s the right time for believers – Christian people – to unite for at least a day, bend the knee and pray for peace and unity without politics,” Bendas told CNN.
But the bishop was also skeptical of the motives of some attendees.
“I suppose the majority of members of the (Russian) delegation don’t want to pray; they want to mingle,” he said. And many might be attending to “try to solve their own problems, that is – their name possibly appearing in future sanctions lists.”
CNN’s Daniel Burke contributed to this report.