WASHINGTON — A key part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation centered on what happened in Ohio almost three years ago.
But President Donald Trump told investigators he could not recall being involved in successful efforts by his campaign aides before the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland to weaken an anti-Russian plank in the party’s platform.
In the report detailing the probe into whether Russian officials attempted to damage the candidacy of Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump told investigators in written responses he “does not recall” having a role in watering down a party plank that called for providing advanced weapons to Ukraine to counter Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
The Trump forces prevailed in the pre-convention platform fight, raising suspicions that the campaign was eager to develop better relations with Russia even at the expense of Ukraine. Russian forces in 2014 occupied Crimea, a key peninsula in Ukraine, a move that led President Barack Obama to impose economic sanctions on Moscow.
In addition, Moscow supported efforts by pro-Russian forces to launch a war in eastern Ukraine. But the Trump campaign's foreign policy team sought to tone down a portion of the party's platform from 2012 calling Russia America's No. 1 threat.
The platform tussle in a meeting room of the convention facility in July 2016 took place amid an effort by backers of Ohio's John Kasich to force a brokered convention in which the governor could emerge as the GOP nominee. Trump's Ohio campaign chairman, Bob Paduchik, was literally working in a back hallway to manipulate the delegates' votes.
The original platform language, sponsored by Republican delegate Diana Denman of California, called for the United States to supply “lethal aid” to Ukraine. Instead, the language was modified to say “appropriate assistance.”
According to the report, Denman talked about the change to Trump foreign policy adviser J.D. Gordon, who backed better relations with Russia. Denman listened as Gordon conducted a phone conversation with Trump headquarters in New York.
“Denman recalled Gordon saying he was on the phone with candidate Trump, but she was skeptical whether that was true,” according to the report. “Gordon denied having told Denman that he was on the phone with Trump, although he acknowledged it was possible that he mentioned having previously spoken to the candidate about the subject matter.”
In the same period in Cleveland, Gordon gave a speech saying he hoped for better relations between the U.S. and Russia. Later he ate at the same table as Russian ambassador Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak and Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, the Mueller report noted. A couple of weeks later Kislyak invited Gordon to the ambassador's residence for breakfast, but Gordon declined because of his involvement in the campaign's ongoing effort "busily knocking down a constant stream of false media stories."
Dispatch Public Affairs Editor Darrel Rowland contributed to this story. Jack Torry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jacktorry1.