How the National Prayer Breakfast plays into the indictment of an alleged Russian spy

By Tara Isabella Burton

Last week, under the guidance of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the Department of Justice indicted 12 suspected Russian intelligence officers, accusing them of interfering in the 2016 presidential election. This week, arrests continued. Maria Butina, a Russian graduate student at American University and gun rights activist, was accused of “acting as an agent for a foreign government.”

Yet according to the Department of Justice affidavit, one of the most striking elements of Butina’s case was the venue she allegedly chose to exert influence: the National Prayer Breakfast, a longstanding Washington tradition. The event has been attended by every president since Eisenhower and has about 4,000 attendees — influential policymakers and foreign dignitaries alike — annually.

At the 2016 and 2017 events, Butina allegedly met with unnamed American officials and “very influential” Russians, and seems to have successfully attempted to broker meetings between figures in these groups.

It’s striking when you consider that something more insidious than prayer is understood to be taking place at the breakfast, according to Jeffrey Sharlet, an associate professor of literary journalism at Dartmouth College.

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