The Trump campaign went out of its way to dramatically alter the Republican Party’s official position on Ukraine—against the wishes of GOP hawks and despite senior Trump aide Paul Manafort’s insistence that they weren’t involved.
The move, first reported by The Washington Post, alienated Republicans who have made up the party’s foreign policy base for decades, and indicates that the Trump campaign has a particular interest in Ukraine, where Manafort had previously worked for a pro-Putin leader.
Manafort said on NBC’s Meet the Press this past weekend that the change in language on Ukraine “absolutely did not come from the Trump campaign.”
But this account is contradicted by four sources in the room, both for and against the language.
Eric Brakey, a Maine delegate who identifies as a non-interventionist, said he supported the change, which was pushed in part by the Trump campaign.
“Some staff from the Trump campaign came in and… came back with some language that softened the platform,” Brakey told The Daily Beast. “They didn’t intervene in the platform in most cases. But in that case they had some wisdom to say that maybe we don’t want to be calling… for very, very clear aggressive acts of war against Russia.”
“They substantively changed it,” added Washington, D.C., delegate Rachel Hoff, who was present during the meeting. “It absolutely was my understanding that it was Trump staff.”
According to two Republican delegates, the Trump campaign’s efforts were led in part by J.D. Gordon, a Trump campaign official and a former spokesman at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, records for the meeting seem to have disappeared. A co-chair for the national security platform subcommittee told The Daily Beast that the minutes for the meeting have been discarded. The Republican National Committee had no comment when asked whether this was standard procedure for all the subcommittees.
During the meeting, pro-Cruz delegate Diana Denman proposed language that called for “providing lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine.
Her amendment was put on hold so that Republican staff could work with Denman on the language. What followed was a back and forth between Denman and the Trump campaign, according to Denman.
“They were over sitting in chairs at the side of the room,” Denman said of two men who said they working for the Trump campaign, one of whom was Gordon. “When I read my amendment, they got up and walked over and talked to the co-chairmen and they read it. That’s when I was told that it was going to be tabled.”
Denman says the two men took a copy of her amendment back to their chairs, then made calls on their cellphones. Later, she said the two members of Trump’s team claimed to have called the campaign’s New York headquarters, and that her amendment needed to be changed.
When the language came back up, after consultation with Trump’s staff—and in direct contradiction to Manafort’s insistence to the contrary—the section called merely for “appropriate assistance” to Ukraine.
That change in wording was particularly controversial, given Manafort’s ties to the country. Manafort has previously worked for pro-Putin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced out of the country due to popular demonstrations. Putin subsequently annexed Crimea and encouraged an ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
It was also an unusual move for a Trump aide to be hovering over the committee’s deliberations on Ukraine. That’s something that did not occur in other subcommittees, or on very many other issues. Boyd Matheson, a Utah delegate on the Constitution Subcommittee, said that the Trump campaign was “nowhere to be seen” during their deliberations. David Johnson, an Ohio delegate who worked on the Subcommittee on Jobs and the Economy, said that “nobody from the Trump campaign suggested that we do or not do anything.”
“I’m reasonably sure that the campaign staff were in the room and that they gave an opinion” on the Ukraine language, said Steve Yates, the chairman of the Idaho Republican Party. “I just can’t say for sure what that opinion was.”
Yates, who served as a co-chair for the national security subcommittee, said that the language was softened as part of a broader initiative to keep the platform broad.
Republican National Committee staffers and Trump campaign aides “urged as we dealt with issues… that as we look at a platform document, it should be more of a list of principles and general guidance, less on operational specifics.”
Even those in the room cannot recall who made the actual change to the Ukraine language, amid a rush of parliamentary procedure and amendments and amendments to the amendments. The minutes to the subcommittee, recorded by a secretary, would shed some light on which delegate proposed the language.
But Yates, a co-chair to the subcommittee, said that the minutes were discarded after the convention, and no record exists—“convention minutes only exist during the convention,” he said. “What you keep is your summary of conclusions”—essentially, the platform itself.
Asked whether minutes exist for the meeting, Republican National Committee spokesperson Lindsay Walters responded, “At this time they do not.” She said that they “aren’t available yet” but could not say when they would be available—if ever.
The final GOP platform did include some pro-NATO language, and some warnings to Russia.
“If Trump’s people really wanted to ‘soften’ language on Russia, they did a lousy job,” said Len Munsil, a delegate from Arizona. “Language on Russia is so strong that one of the members of the platform who opposed it said we were promoting a response to Russia that constituted “an act of war” and would ‘lead to World War III.’”
The platform includes praising NATO’s “continued effectiveness” as “vital.” It supports the placement of NATO troops in Poland. And while the GOP platform affirms “our determination to maintain a friendship” with the people of Russia, it also says that the GOP “will not accept any territorial change in Eastern Europe imposed by force.”
The Ukraine change, combined with the Trump campaign’s involvement and questions about Manafort’s connections to Russia, have riled Republican hawks who have favored maintaining a stauncher, anti-Putin stance.
“To me it’s troubling because any other year this wouldn’t have been a controversial proposal. I’m not incensed about the campaign intervening in the platform process. But the priorities this reveals [given a hands-off strategy on other issues] is what is most troubling to me,” Hoff said.
—with additional reporting by Andrew Desiderio.