As U.S. investigators probe whether President Donald Trump’s campaign orchestrated a Russia-friendly change to the Republican Party platform last summer, three senior Capitol Hill aides — including Speaker Paul Ryan’s chief of staff — may have answers about how the episode unfolded.
The three staffers, who have not been accused of any wrongdoing, advised the GOP convention’s platform committee on foreign policy matters and had front-row seats when a low-profile group of delegates, acting in conjunction with Trump campaign officials, spiked a proposal urging a tougher U.S. policy against Russian aggression in Ukraine.
That change has drawn scrutiny from the House and Senate intelligence committees as they investigate whether any Trump campaign officials cooperated with Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Some witnesses say they expect it to become a topic of interest in special counsel Robert Mueller’s parallel criminal probe.
Spokespeople for the offices of two of the staffers told POLITICO they have not been in contact with Mueller or his team. But Ryan’s top aide, Jonathan Burks, would neither confirm nor deny whether he had heard from the special counsel: “I’m not going to have any comment,” he said.
Burks attended the GOP convention in a personal capacity as a volunteer for the Republican Party and the 2016 convention, not as a representative of Ryan’s office. At the time, he was a national security adviser to the speaker. Ryan promoted Burks to chief of staff in December. Ryan’s office also refused repeated requests to confirm or deny whether Burks has been in contact with Mueller.
The other two aides are Robert Wilkie, an adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) who’s been nominated by President Donald Trump to a senior Pentagon post, and Michael Stransky, a national security aide to the Senate Republican Policy Committee, run by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who co-chaired the convention’s Platform Committee. Neither has been in touch with Mueller’s team on the matter, according to their offices. Barrasso, too, told POLITICO he hadn’t been in contact with the special counsel’s investigators.
The killed language called for the U.S. to supply weapons to Ukrainian government forces fighting Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. Instead, the committee, and ultimately the full GOP convention, backed a proposal that called for “appropriate assistance” to Ukraine.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr signaled last month that the platform episode was not a top priority for his panel. Burr said the committee had interviewed “every person involved in the drafting of the campaign platform” and felt “campaign staff was attempting to implement what they believed to be guidance to be … a strong ally in Ukraine but also leave the door open for better relations with Russia.”
But House investigators appear to have a more active interest. When former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page appeared before the House Intelligence Committee earlier this month, the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, asked whether Page had communicated with campaign officials about the change to the platform. Schiff read aloud from an email in which Page congratulated campaign staff on the change.
“As for the Ukraine amendment, excellent work,” Page — who has been accused of concealing his contacts with Russians — wrote in an email to other campaign foreign policy advisers.
The three congressional aides had an up-close view of the process by which the GOP’s foreign policy platform was crafted in July 2016.
Burks, Stransky and Wilkie sat at a side table in an underground conference room at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena as a committee of convention delegates debated changes to the GOP’s position on several foreign policy issues. Trump campaign staffers, including national security aide J.D. Gordon, sat at an adjacent table and occasionally intervened when the campaign wanted to express a specific view.
Sources who were present said the Ukraine amendment was lumped in with a series of other amendments expected to provoke debate among convention delegates. Some of the more anti-interventionist Republicans on the committee were vocal on the measure, as well as on others regarding military action in Iraq and Syria. The most fervent debate, according to witnesses, came over the issue of gays serving in the military.
A source close to Burks said the three staffers’ jobs were to support the leaders of the convention’s foreign policy subcommittee “in running the committee and processing the proposals for amendments.” Burks primarily worked with the delegates running the meeting: Steve Yates of Idaho, Jim Carns of Alabama and Ron Rabin of North Carolina.
“The [staffers] didn’t make decisions on amendments up or down, but did on occasion help delegates redraft or modify their amendments in order to facilitate adoption,” the source said. “The campaign had its own staff in the room, and they would speak directly to delegates to communicate their views.”
The platform, a nonbinding policy document, is revised every four years at the Republican National Convention by a committee of 112 delegates from around the country. It’s viewed primarily as a ministerial exercise, with few real-world ramifications — more about signaling the policy views of the party’s base than dictating positions for elected officials to follow. Presidential nominees are not bound to its positions and often publicly oppose them.
But the process drew intense scrutiny last summer after reports indicated that campaign aides intervened to help water down the call for lethal aid to Ukraine’s pro-western government.
By that time, many leading Republicans in Congress had been harshly critical of the Obama administration for not providing Ukraine with weapons to fend off the Russia-backed separatists. But when California delegate Diana Denman proposed adding the language in support of such a policy, other delegates and Trump campaign staffers in the room objected.
Sources in the meeting said Denman’s initial proposal never received a vote in part because it seemed unlikely to have the support to pass. Another delegate offered amended language that “seemed to get some heads nodding,” one witness recalls. The amended proposal, which included the “appropriate assistance” language was adopted and the committee moved on.
The process has gained new significance as details emerged about Manafort’s ongoing business relationship with a Kremlin-connected Ukrainian oligarch. In addition, a disputed opposition-research report on Trump funded by Democrats and compiled by a former British intelligence agent includes a claim that Trump’s campaign agreed to weaken U.S. support for Ukrainian forces in exchange for help defeating his campaign rival, Hillary Clinton.
“In return the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue,” according to the dossier, which Trump has dismissed as a fake.
Asked last year about the change to the platform, Trump denied any involvement in the decision.
“I wasn’t involved in that,” Trump said in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos after the convention. “Honestly, I was not involved. … They softened it, I heard, but I was not involved.”
In addition to his six-year tenure as an aide to Ryan, Burks has also advised Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the 2012 Romney campaign — and has worked at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Treasury Department.
“Having held senior positions in the House, Senate, and executive branch, he understands how every lever of government works and enjoys the respect of his peers across the board,” Ryan said in a Dec. 14, 2016, statement announcing Burks’ promotion to chief of staff.
Trump nominated Wilkie in July to be undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He’s been a senior Tillis adviser since the North Carolinian took office in 2015, and he’s previously worked as assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs under Secretaries Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld.
Stransky has worked for the Senate Republican Policy Committee since 2005.
Ali Watkins contributed to this report.
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