Throughout the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, questions have swirled around an odd change the campaign pushed for in the Republican platform at the party’s 2016 convention in Cleveland. As the Washington Post originally reported shortly after the convention, Trump campaign representatives pushed to water down language in the platform about “providing lethal defensive weapons” to the government of Ukraine for its fight against pro-Russian separatists. Given then–campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s financial ties to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, that raised some eyebrows. Was the platform move part of a quid pro quo, or a demonstration of good faith to Trump’s allies in Moscow?
On this particular question, the just-released Mueller report is mostly good news for Trump. Investigators found no evidence that the president ordered or was even aware of the change to the platform language. But it does highlight the degree to which Trumpworld officials with questionable motives were engaged in freelance policymaking during this period.
The report mostly confirms what has been reported by the Post and later the Daily Beast about the incident. At a meeting of the national security platform subcommittee shortly before the convention, on July 11, 2016, Diana Denman, a Ted Cruz–supporting delegate, submitted an amendment to the platform denouncing Russian military aggression in Ukraine and calling for the provision of lethal weapons, a step the Obama administration was then opposing.
J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman who was then a national security adviser to the Trump campaign and attended the meeting as a non-voting observer, flagged the amendment, saying he did not believe it corresponded with Trump’s views on Russia and Ukraine.
Denman says Gordon told her during the meeting that he was on the phone with Trump himself, but she was skeptical of this claim, and Gordon denies ever making it. Trump told the Mueller team he did not speak with Gordon about the matter, though phone records show Gordon called Jeff Sessions’ office that day.
Gordon does say he talked to senior Trump advisers Rick Dearborn and John Mashburn, and here’s where things get odd: Gordon says the two backed him up, but Mashburn remembers telling Gordon that Trump hadn’t taken a stand on the issue and that the campaign shouldn’t interfere. With this one notable exception, Trump campaign observers mostly held back and didn’t offer any substantive input during the platform-drafting process.
In the end, the language in the amendment was softened to “appropriate assistance,” which led Mashburn to believe, as the Mueller report puts it, that “Gordon had violated Mashburn’s directive not to intervene.” Then-campaign co-chair Sam Clovis also told investigators that he was surprised by the change and did not believe it accorded with Trump’s views. (In fairness, Trump’s stated views on Ukraine, at that time, were a little vague and hard to parse.)
So was Gordon just acting on his own? This wasn’t his only activity during the convention that the report discusses. Gordon also spoke briefly with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a conference held the week of the convention in Cleveland. (You may recall this was also the conference where Kislyak spoke to Sessions.) Gordon and the ambassador, along with several other diplomats, also sat together at dinner that night and spoke about improving U.S.-Russia relations. (Gordon remembers the conversation lasting just three to five minutes. Quick dinner!) It should be noted this happened after Gordon advocated the platform change.
The Washington Post has also reported that in the months prior to the election—when Gordon had left the campaign but anticipated being offered a job on Trump’s transition team—he socialized with the Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina, who has since been charged by the U.S. with working as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin. According to documents and testimony from the Senate Intelligence Committee, the two exchanged a number of emails, including invitations from Gordon to Butina to attend his birthday party and a Styx concert.
The party platform was always an odd place for the Trump team to pick a fight on this or any issue. Its language is not binding, and it’s not as if Trump has ever been reluctant to buck GOP orthodoxy. In the end, the Trump administration did end up selling lethal anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, though reportedly over the president’s personal reluctance.
Mueller’s investigation into this odd incident finds no evidence that Trump was acting on Russia’s behalf, though perhaps some people working for him thought they should be.