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The Trump campaign’s national-security policy representative for the Republican National Convention said Friday that he gave campaign colleagues the chance to “intervene” when an amendment to the GOP’s draft policy on Ukraine was introduced in Cleveland last July.
The original amendment, which proposed that the GOP commit to sending “lethal weapons” to the Ukrainian army to fend off Russian aggression, was ultimately altered to say “provide appropriate assistance” before it was included in the party’s official platform.
The altered amendment has come back into the spotlight amid reports that the campaign’s chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, offered to exchange briefings about the campaign for debt repayment and/or cancellation from his contacts in Ukraine and Russia. Manafort had been a top adviser to Ukraine’s pro-Russia Party of Regions from 2004 to 2014.
GOP delegate Diana Denman, the author of the original amendment, told Business Insider earlier this year that national-security policy representative J.D. Gordon and another Trump campaign representative “jumped up and tore over to get behind the three co-chairmen” of the GOP’s national-security subcommittee when the amendment was read out loud.
Gordon has disputed Denman’s version of events, even as Denman has stood by her initial comments. Gordon told Business Insider earlier this year that he “never left” his “assigned side table” nor spoke publicly at the GOP national security subcommittee meeting. (Campaign representatives are allowed to sit in on subcommittee meetings, but they are not permitted to publicly debate the merits of an amendment.)
On Friday, Gordon told Business Insider that he asked the co-chair “to consider tabling” the amendment “until the end,” so that he would have time to alert his campaign colleagues about it.
“It was my decision to consult with the co-chair and inform him of Trump’s position on Ukraine weapons,” Gordon said.
He said he then called Rick Dearborn and John Mashburn, two top policy advisers at the time, to alert them to the amendment. He said they were “aware” of the process but not “involved” and did not speak to the co-chair or make any decisions about the amendment.
“I also consulted with colleagues on the phone to give them a heads up and chance to intervene, if they wanted to. I’ve never said otherwise,” Gordon said.
“They appreciated the heads up and asked me to keep them posted,” Gordon said in another message. “So aware yes, involved no. Not in my judgment at least.”
Neither Dearborn nor Mashburn – now the White House’s deputy chief of staff and deputy Cabinet secretary, respectively – responded to request for comment.
Dearborn came under scrutiny last month when CNN reported that he had forwarded an email to top campaign officials about a request from an individual seeking to connect top Trump officials with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Gordon, for his part, stressed that he “never said” he “didn’t intervene in the process.”
“After all, that was my assigned job, as necessary, and at my own discretion,” he said. “It’s why I was there in the first place.”
‘It was controversial if you hold Donald Trump’s express views on Russia’
The tweak to the amendment was scrutinized earlier this year when BuzzFeed published an explosive – but unverified – dossier alleging Trump campaign ties to Moscow.
The collection of information, presented by top intelligence officials to President Barack Obama and then President-elect Trump in January, included a claim that the campaign agreed to soften US support for Ukraine in exchange for the Kremlin releasing damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
The altered Ukraine policy amendment ultimately was included in the GOP platform. WikiLeaks released the hacked DNC documents weeks later, in a document dump that coincided with the kickoff the Democratic National Convention.
Manafort and Trump have denied having anything to do with softening the language.
“I wasn’t involved in that,” Trump said in an interview with ABC after the convention. “Honestly, I was not involved…they softened it, I heard, but I was not involved.”
But the timeline of Russia-related episodes that coincided with Manafort’s accession to the campaign, including the change to the Ukraine amendment, is being reexamined in light of The Washington Post’s report earlier this week that Manafort had been in touch with his longtime employee Konstantin Kilimnik as late as July 2016. Kilimnik is a Russian-Ukrainian operative with suspected ties to Russian intelligence.
In one email sent days before the RNC’s platform debate kicked off, Manafort asked Kilimnik to relay an offer of private briefings about the campaign to a Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin.
Gordon said Friday that he never spoke to Trump nor Manafort about the amendment. He wrote in a previous email that he felt compelled to intervene because Denman had tried “to significantly elevate the Ukraine-Russia issue beyond the already strong position of RNC and Trump campaign.”
A member of the committee present at the meeting, who requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations, told Business Insider earlier this year that “the language of Diana’s original amendment didn’t seem strong.”
“It was controversial if you hold Donald Trump’s express views on Russia, but it wasn’t controversial with regard to GOP orthodoxy on the issue,” the committee member said.
The original amendment seemed consistent with language used by a group of Republican senators as early as 2014, when many in the GOP were actively pressuring the Obama administration to send “anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and small arms” to the Ukrainian army to fend off Russian aggression. A bipartisan coalition in Congress ramped up that pressure in June 2015, and again 18 months later.
Gordon, for his part, pointed to a column he wrote in 2015 “in which I included a line saying we should arm” Ukraine. He also argued Friday that the altered amendment “strengthened GOP position in favor of Ukraine” in other provisions, such as a call for more robust sanctions.
“Yet in 2016 I was representing the Trump Campaign, not the Gordon Campaign,” he said of the removal of the lethal-weapons language.