Franklin Graham, America’s most prominent evangelical leader, says Vice President Mike Pence signed off on his trip to Russia earlier this month. While there, Graham met with sanctioned Kremlin officials — even as U.S. investigations ramped up into Moscow’s election interference efforts. One official Russian governmental social media account touted the meeting as a way to “[intensify] contacts between the State Duma and the U.S. Congress.”
In an interview with RIA Novosti, a major Russian state-run outlet, Graham said he called Pence directly to tell him of the trip. “He was very happy to hear the news,” Graham said. “And he admitted that he fully supported my decision.”
A spokesperson for Graham told ThinkProgress that he is currently traveling and unavailable for an interview. Pence’s office did not respond to ThinkProgress’s requests for comment.
According to interviews in Russian media and photos on his own social media accounts, Graham, currently the chair of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, traveled to Moscow earlier this month to meet with a number of prominent Russian figures. Most notably, Graham had a sit-down meeting with Russian Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who is close to President Vladimir Putin and who has been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2014 for his role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Per a captioned photo re-posted from the Duma Instagram account to Graham’s own Instagram account, the meeting with Volodin focused “on the current state of U.S.-Russia relations,” including “the possibility of intensifying contacts between the State Duma and the U.S. Congress.”
Graham added in a separate post that it was an “honor” to meet Volodin, whom Graham described as “a very gracious man.” That meeting was also promoted on the official Instagram account of the Russian Duma.
Graham also posed in front of a map of Russia and next to a portrait of Putin.
While in Russia, Graham also met with a number of Russian religious figures. One of those figures included Patriarch Kirill, allegedly a former KGB agent.
On Twitter, Graham described the meetings with Russian officials as a “blessing.”
I’ve been in Moscow this week & had the privilege of meeting w/Patriarch Kirill of Moscow & All Russia. It was also a blessing to meet w/evangelical leaders & other officials while there. Pray for them & for more opportunities to share the truth, hope, & life found only in Jesus. pic.twitter.com/ftXhav3glu
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) March 7, 2019
Graham directly addressed the tensions between the Kremlin and Washington in his first post from Russia, writing, “#Collusion? I’m in Russia right now — Moscow to be exact — and I’m meeting with the Russian churches on how we can share with more young people about faith in Jesus Christ! That’s not ‘collusion,’ but it is collaboration for the sake of souls. #GoodNews”
Graham, the son of arch-evangelical Billy Graham, is arguably America’s most prominent evangelical figure, and often defends President Donald Trump against concerns that the thrice-married president isn’t sufficiently Christian.
Partners in Moscow
Though American evangelicals have been building ties with Russia for years — Graham even met with Putin himself, in 2015 — no one of Graham’s stature in the evangelical community has ever crossed American sanctions to meet face-to-face with a Russian official sanctioned by the U.S. The White House has personally identified Volodin as one of the key figures responsible for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the first forced annexation in Europe since World War II — a fact that seemed to matter little to Graham.
Far-right Christian groups have other ties to sanctioned Russians: Later this month the U.S.-based World Congress of Families (WCF) — a Christian fundamentalist group that has previously been linked to sanctioned Russian oligarchs like Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev — will be hosting its annual conference in Italy. Just last year, the WCF hosted sanctioned Russian official Elena Mizulina as one of its featured speakers at its 2018 conference. The WCF’s Russian representative is also Alexey Komov, who works directly for Malofeev.
Graham himself has a track record of praising the Kremlin, such as when he lauded Putin for “protecting Russian young people” via Moscow’s virulently anti-LGBTQ policies. He has previously called for the U.S. to “ally” with Russia in the “fight against Islamic terrorism,” and, in 2015, traveled to Russia to complain about former President Barack Obama “promot[ing] atheism.”
During that 2015 trip, Graham met directly with Putin. It was around the same time that Russia began launching its social media interference operations, that Russian agent Maria Butina began infiltrating the highest ranks of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and shortly before Russian hackers stole Democratic emails that were then funneled to Wikileaks for public dissemination.
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) April 4, 2017
As Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar noted in All the Kremlin’s Men, his 2016 book examining Putin’s inner circle, Volodin — described as the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal” — has also played a seminal role in attempting to unwind Washington’s Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian accountant Sergei Magnitsky. Those sanctions, according to Zygar, left Volodin “livid.” Volodin helped craft the Russian response, which included specifically banning U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children.
The participants in the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting — including Donald Trump, Jr., as well as Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort — used Russian adoptions and the Magnitsky Act as pretext for that face-to-face meeting.
But Magnitsky-related sanctions aren’t the only pieces of American legislation in which Volodin has taken a special interest. In 2014, America targeted Volodin with sanctions for his role in Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Per the Treasury Department, “Putin’s decision to move into Crimea is believed to have been based on consultations with his closest advisors, including Volodin.”
Volodin, bending Putin’s ear, has also played an outsized role in crafting the Kremlin’s hard-right turn following Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. From pushing to target civil society groups as “foreign agents” to defending the rollback of protections for victims of domestic violence, Volodin has grown his influence over Russian domestic policy as much as he’s cultivated a hardline, anti-democratic view. Russian anticorruption activists like Alexey Navalny have accused Volodin of massive graft along the way.
None of this information about Volodin — including even American sanctions — seemed to give Graham pause. As Graham wrote on Instagram, “Remember to keep [Volodin] in your prayers.”
This article has been updated with a comment from Graham’s spokesperson.