Tuesday

August 22nd, 2017

Insight

How pundits got key part of Trump-Russia story all wrong

Byron York

By Byron York

Published March 22, 2017

How pundits got key part of Trump-Russia story all wrong

A key talking point in the theory that Donald Trump and the Russians conspired in the 2016 election is the allegation that last summer, during the Republican convention, the Trump campaign changed the GOP platform to weaken its stance on Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

It's been cited by Democrats and anti-Trump pundits many, many times. The only problem is, it's all wrong.

The reason it's wrong is this: To allege that the platform was weakened, you have to know what it was in the first place.

What did the original draft of the platform say about Russia and Ukraine? Was it, in fact, changed? If so, how?

As it turns out, a look at the original draft of the platform -- which has never been released publicly -- shows that it always had tough language on Russian aggression in Ukraine. And not only did that language stay in the final platform -- nothing was taken out -- it was actually strengthened, not weakened, as a result of events at the convention.

The controversy is over a chapter in the original platform headlined "America Resurgent." The original draft discussed Russia and Ukraine in two parts of the chapter. The first passage warned of "a resurgent Russia occupying parts of Ukraine and threatening neighbors from the Baltic to the Caucasus."

The second passage was more expansive and began by noting a desire to maintain a friendship with "the people of Russia." But better relations are made more difficult, the draft said, by "the continuing erosion of personal liberty and fundamental rights under the current officials in the Kremlin":

"Repressive at home and reckless abroad, their policies imperil the nations which regained their self-determination upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. We will meet the return of Russian belligerence with the same resolve that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. We will not accept any territorial change in Eastern Europe imposed by force, in Ukraine or elsewhere, and will use all appropriate measures to bring to justice the practitioners of aggression and assassination."

That wasn't exactly a pro-Russia or pro-Putin statement. And it stayed in the final Republican platform.

So how did the Trump-weakened-the-GOP-platform narrative get started? It appears it was unwittingly set in motion by a single Republican delegate, a Texas woman long active in GOP politics named Diana Denman, who proposed to add a couple of paragraphs to toughen the original platform's position on Ukraine. This is the key part of her proposed amendment:

"The Ukrainian people deserve our admiration and support in their struggle, and in their efforts to strengthen the rule of law, forge a free market economy, and expand democratic governance. We therefore support maintaining (and, if warranted, increasing) sanctions against Russia until Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored. We also support providing lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine's armed forces and greater coordination with NATO on defense planning.

Simultaneously, we call for increased financial aid for Ukraine, as well as greater assistance in the economic and humanitarian spheres, including government reform and anti-corruption."

When Denman proposed her amendment, a Trump national security aide named J.D. Gordon, who was in the room, wanted to edit it.

According to Denman, Gordon got on the phone, saying he was calling "New York" to discuss the changes.

The end result was that at the behest of the Trump campaign, the platform committee took out the reference to "lethal defensive weapons." But it approved her statement of support for maintaining, and possibly increasing, sanctions against Russia, and, in the place of lethal aid, substituted a pledge to provide "appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine" and to work more closely with NATO. Here is the final language that was added to the platform as a result of Denman's amendment:

"We support maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored. We also support providing appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine and greater coordination with NATO defense planning."

"The platform ended up tougher than it started, compared from the beginning to the end," Denman told me, although she added she still believes her lethal aid provision should have been included in the final document.

Nevertheless, not long after the platform subcommittee meeting, The Washington Post published a story headlined, "Trump campaign guts GOP's anti-Russia stance on Ukraine." It charged that Trump had weakened the platform, and a new conventional wisdom began to form: The Trump team, doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin, gutted the GOP platform's position on behalf of Russia.

That is precisely the opposite of what happened.

In the end, the platform, already fairly strong on the Russia-Ukraine issue, was strengthened, not weakened, as a result of the subcommittee meeting. The Trump campaign agreed to a platform condemning Kremlin belligerence, calling for continued, and perhaps increased, sanctions against Russia, for the full restoration of Ukrainian territory, for refusing to accept "any territorial change in Eastern Europe imposed by force, in Ukraine or elsewhere," and pledging to aid Ukraine's armed forces.

The bottom line is that almost nothing in the Trump-weakened-the-GOP-platform narrative is as it seems.

Whatever the full story of Trump and Russia in the 2016 campaign turns out to be, it will only be revealed by examining what actually happened, not by repeating talking points.

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