How Diana Denman’s singular stand for Ukraine revealed the Trump campaign’s soft spot for Russia

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Texas delegates Diana Denman and Grant Moody at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

 

Good morning Austin:

I first met Diana Denman just over a year ago in South Carolina just ahead of that state’s primary.

As I wrote in First Reading at the time:

I met a very elegant  San Antonian yesterday at the Greenville County Republican Women’s luncheon.

Her name is Diana Denman, who was in South Carolina to lend a hand to the Ted Cruz campaign ahead of Saturday’s primary, just as she had in Iowa before the Feb. 1 caucuses.

Denman was a friend to Ronald Reagan. An actress as a young woman, “my first vote for Ronald Reagan was for president of the Screen Actors Guild.”

I met her climbing up to the balcony — the luncheon was full to capacity. She offered that she liked Cruz precisely because she liked Reagan.

“I served with Reagan as a presidential appointee and was vice chairman of the Texas Republican party.  I see in this brilliant young man a statesman. I see him prepared, incredibly well prepared, to lead this country. To follow in (Reagan’s) footsteps economically with his flat tax, to restore the military …. to respect this country.”

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I next met Denman the week before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, when the convention’s Rules and Credential and Platform committees met in advance of the actual convention.

Donald Trump was the nominee, not Cruz.

Denman was a Cruz delegate, and one of two Texans on the platform committee. The other was David Barton, like Denman a former vice chair of the Texas Republican Party, who played an important role with the pro-Cruz super PACs during the primary campaign.

When the time came for the various subcommittees of the Platform Committee to meet, I chose to follow Barton into the meeting of the Committee on the Constitution, on which he served, instead of following Denman into the meeting of the National Security Committee, on which she served, figuring Barton was more likely to make news.

Of such decisions, great journalism careers are lost.

But, hey, I was also mindful at the time that the only people who really cared about the party platform were the people writing it.

As I wrote back then:

Like other members of the Platform Committee, Barton readily acknowledges that few people will read or care about what he and his colleagues spent two arduous days arguing and poring over.

And that likely will include Trump, who isn’t a policy wonk and isn’t bound to follow the platform.

But even if Trump never gives it a second thought, for those who toiled in Cleveland this week, it still matters.

Well, like every other bit of conventional political wisdom in 2016, this turned out to be wrong, or at any rate, not quite right.

In fact, it turns out, the only thing that history may remember about the Republican Party Platform of 2016 is a plank that Diana Denman, quite of her own accord, sought to add to the platform supporting the defense of the Ukraine from Russian encroachment, a plank that was softened at the insistence of the Trump campaign.

Diana Denman and Grant Mood at the Republican National Convention

Diana Denman and Grant Moody at the Republican National Convention

Slight as she might be, the Abilene-born Denman is a formidable women who punches well above her weight.

Here is the language that Denman sought to include in the platform:

Today, the post-Cold War ideal of a “Europe whole and free,” is being severely tested by Russia’s ongoing military aggression in Ukraine. Launched in 2014, Moscow’s offensive constitutes the first attempt since the end of World War II to change by force the sovereign boundaries in Europe. Ukraine’s government and people have shown a remarkable resolve to resist Russian pressure, including by mobilizing a military force that, together with European sanctions, has successfully thwarted further advances by the Russian military and its surrogates.

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.

But that was before a Trump operative by the name of J.D. Gordon entered the picture at the Platform Committee’s National Security meeting last July.

I talked to Denman about all this for a couple of hours this weekend.

I asked her to reconstruct her first encounter with Gordon.

Never saw him before in my life. I had never run into him before. I had no idea who he was.

There were two men sitting over to the side and I didn’t know who they were and I didn’t know if they were staff or why they were there, but they were not sitting around our table with the delegates.

When I read my plank, when it came my turn in the subcommittee, he and the other man got up pretty rapidly and walked up over behind the three co-chairman, and one of the chairman asked to see a copy of my plank and I gave it to them, and the chairman read it and the men leaned over and pointed to certain things on it.

So, that point, I realized for some reason they felt they were involved and one of the chairman said they would like to table it for further review, or something like that. And so I let it pass and the men went over and sat down and discussion of other planks continued.

I didn’t sit there forever and so I went over to them and said, `I guess you know who I am but I don’t know who you all are and I don’t know why you’re here and if you have apparently a problem with my plank on the Ukraine I’d like to know what your problem is because I might have a problem with you all if I find out what your problem is with me.

I tried to sort of break the ice that way, and I said I’d like to know who you are, and he said, `I’m J.D.Gordon, and I said, `Who do you work for? Are you a staffer? Why are you here?’

And he said, `No, I’m on the Trump campaign.’ And then the other man, and I asked who he was. And he told me (he was Matthew Miller) and he said, `Oh Mrs. Denman don’t you remember me. I called you.’ Well, he actually had called me, spontaneously before I went  to the convention and introduced himself and said, `I’m with the Trump campaign and is there anything he could be of help to me on.’

Well, you know me well enough, I don’t think I need any help.

I said, `I really thank you, it’s very gracious of you to call, and what is your background?’ He did say he had served in the Navy and been in Washington and been hired by Trump campaign. So he was sitting next to J.D.

Gordon had been on his cell phone at length. He just seemed to be consistently talking on it. So he said something to the effect that the wording, had to be cleared. And I said, `Cleared with who?’

And he said, `Cleared with New York,’ and I thought maybe he was overdoing his assignment and I didn’t quite believe him and I said, `Who are you clearing it with?’ And he said, `New York,’ and I said,`Who are you clearing it with?’

I asked him three times, `Who are you clearing it with?’ He was very specific in his answer, and I said, `Well I don’t want anything to happen with the wording in my plan,’ and I went back over and sat down and stayed awhile, and then it looked like we were about to wrap up and I raised my hand and said, `Please, we can’t disband because I don’t want this plank to not go forward.’

And there was very brief discussion and the ultimate (outcome) was that it really needed to be looked into further. Then it came up – the use of `lethal weapons’ in the statement, that was a big concern, and would I support it being removed or lessened to some extent, and I said I really hated to see that done.

I had very definitely and diligently addressed many of the problems in the Ukraine that are still there, having been in the Ukraine for elections over there, (I knew) the difficulties of emerging democracies and the bumps and ups and downs they all go through as they struggle forward from Communism.

Then the chairman sort of said, would I agree to removing the use of lethal weapons out of it and I said I really hated to see that removed because again, if a country asks for weapons and we OK it, to not send them the appropriate weapons that they are coming up against in their enemy, it seems foolish, it seems irresponsible, but I said,  if that’s the only way it will pass I would agree to seeing it removed but I hated to see it being done, and obviously they were going to remove it one way or the other.

If you read what’s in the platform, you won’t see much of the way I submitted it.

Here is the language regarding the Ukraine in the actual platform:

In the international arena, a weak Administration has invited aggression. The results of the Administration’s unilateral approach to disarmament are already clear: An emboldened China in the South China Sea, a resurgent Russia occupying parts of Ukraine and threatening”neighbors from the Baltic to the Caucasus, and aggressive Islamist terror network in the Middle East. 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.

It still reads as a very pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian statement, but, significantly, the mention of providing Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons had given way to providing appropriate assistance.

The next week, as the convention got underway, Josh Rogin reported in the Washington Post what had transpired with Denman’s plank.

The Trump campaign worked behind the scenes last week to make sure the new Republican platform won’t call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces, contradicting the view of almost all Republican foreign policy leaders in Washington.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has been dismissive of calls for supporting the Ukraine government as it fights an ongoing Russian-led intervention. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, worked as a lobbyist for the Russian-backed former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych for more than a decade.

Still, Republican delegates at last week’s national security committee platform meeting in Cleveland were surprised when the Trump campaign orchestrated a set of events to make sure that the GOP would not pledge to give Ukraine the weapons it has been asking for from the United States.

“Then it kind of died, but didn’t die,” Denman said of the story.

Voice of America found me and Radio Ukraine found me, etc. and once I did an interview with them, because I wasn’t going to back off my beliefs, ultimately, and the Reagan foreign policy – peace through strength – and this had been the first country whose borders had been encroached since the end of the Cold War, it just seemed we should be knowledgeable and respectful about the issue.

So once Voice of America and all picked it up, then it hit the networks.

That may have been what kicked off the Russia concerns. I have no idea, but I was simply waving my flag for the Reagan agenda and borders not being overrun and encroached, and it certainly has had legs to it that I had not expected.

You need tennis shoes to keep up with what is happening.

After the convention, Manafort denied on Meet the Press that the campaign had anything to do with changing the platform language on the Ukraine.

From Sally Bronston at NBC on July 31.

“It absolutely did not come from the Trump campaign,” Manafort told NBC’s “Meet the Press”.

Manafort, who has ties to ousted Ukrainian Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich, also denied having a personal role in altering the platform, saying “I had none. In fact, I didn’t even hear of it until after our convention was over.”

But on August 6, Brian Naylor reported on the controversy at NPR:

Denman “was steam rolled,” said Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC, think tank, who believes the language the Trump campaign approved is weaker. And she says “it’s anyone’s guess” what Trump would do regarding Ukraine and Russia, and that perhaps he might not even back “appropriate assistance.”

Haring was referring to Trumps appearance on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos last month, when Trump said Vladimir Putin is “not going to go into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand, he’s not going to go into Ukraine.”

Of course, Russia did go into Ukraine when it invaded Crimea two years ago and backed separatist fighters in other parts of the country. Trump later said that he meant Putin would not go into Ukraine on his watch, if he were President.

Still, that comment raised eyebrows, especially combined with his campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s past work for deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally.

Another GOP delegate on the platform committee, Rachel Hoff, is a national security analyst with the American Action Forum and believe the final platform language signals that a Trump administration would refuse to send lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine.

“This puts Trump out of step certainly with Republican leadership but I would also say mainstream conservative foreign policy or national security opinion,” Hoff said.

Republicans in Congress have approved providing arms to the Ukrainian government but the White House has resisted, saying that it would only encourage more bloodshed.

It’s a rare Obama administration policy that the Trump campaign seems to agree with.

By the third week in Augst, Manafort was out at the Trump campaign, in part, according to Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin in the New York Times, because  “a wave of reports about Mr. Manafort’s own business dealings with Russia-aligned leaders in Ukraine, involving allegations of millions of dollars in cash payments and secret lobbying efforts in the United States, threw a spotlight on a glaring vulnerability for Mr. Trump: his admiration for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.”

Meanwhile, J.D. Gordon, who originally, like Manafort, denied Denman’s story, now, in recent days, has confirmed it.

From a March 3 story by Natasha Bertrand at Business Insider:

The Trump campaign’s national-security policy representative for the Republican National Convention, J.D. Gordon, told CNN on Thursday that he pushed to alter an amendment to the GOP’s draft policy on Ukraine at the Republican National Convention last year to further align it with President Donald Trump’s views.

Gordon’s remarks represent a dramatic shift from previous comments, and they come as Attorney General Jeff Sessions faces intense scrutiny over two previously undisclosed meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the US — one of which was timed to the convention.

In January, Gordon told Business Insider that he “never left” his “assigned side table” nor spoke publicly at the GOP national security subcommittee meeting, where the amendment — which originally called for “providing lethal defense weapons” to the Ukrainian army to fend off Russian-backed separatists — was read aloud, debated, and ultimately watered down to “providing appropriate assistance” to Ukraine.

According to CNN’s Jim Acosta, however, Gordon said that at the RNC he and others “advocated for the GOP platform to include language against arming Ukrainians against pro-Russian rebels” because “this was in line with Trump’s views, expressed at a March national security meeting at the unfinished Trump hotel” in Washington, DC.

“Gordon says Trump said at the meeting … that he didn’t want to go to ‘World War Three’ over Ukraine,” Acosta said.

Trump’s apparent involvement in steering the language change — Gordon reportedly told CNN that “this was the language Donald Trump himself wanted and advocated for back in March [2016]” — is also at odds with what Gordon told Business Insider in January, when he said “neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Manafort were involved in those sort of details, as they’ve made clear.”

Denman figured at the convention that Gordon was most likely working at the direction of Manafort. But Gordon now seems to be saying the buck didn’t stop there.

When Denman pressed Gordon at the Platform Committee meeting, about who “New York” was:

He got more specific but I’ve refused to have a quote on that. He got very specific because I asked him three  times,

I asked him diligently three times.

Whoever was on the other end of Gordon’s cell phone that day, Denman was stunned.

I couldn’t believe  people of that stature, of that level have the time to be hanging on the phone while we’re in a subcommittee meeting before the convention even starts.

I really verbally said that to him. I can’t believe they’d be hanging on the phone with you. You’ve been on this cell phone the whole time, people hanging on the phone when they’ve got to go run a convention and run an election, whether it was Paul or whoever the it was.

Denman said the Trump operation on the floor of the  convention was also heavy-handed – the convention floor flush with Trump campaign whips in their neon green caps, riding herd on the delegates.

I said to several people, `I feel like I’m at the Duma. I feel like I’m in Russia. It was rude. I resented  the heck out of  it and when the balloons  came down I went to the lobby and there were several people there  and I said, `I hope you don’t mind, I’m going to sit down and have a scotch and watch this on television.’

 

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Diana Denman in South Carolina

 

Denman’s passion for the Ukraine was born of her role as an election observer for the March 1998 Ukraine Parliamentary Elections with the International Republican Institute.

 

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Some recollections of the experience from Denman.

The Zhytomyr Oblast (region) I was assigned to was several hours out of Kiev.

It was a fairly big city but there were collective farms, smaller cities, towns from there, and in between the two were collective farms where people were voting.

And they were voting the prisons for the first time. (Denman presumed the prisoners might be vulnerable to pressure in how they voted from their keepers)

Much against my (handlers’) wishes I demanded to go to the prisons.

Good heavens. I may not do it again but I did it once.

Here was this big prison. I waited and waited and waited and all the conversation back and forth

Then I get in and I go through this little old bitty narrow way, very narrow, and there are guards at each station, the roughest looking people you ever saw, and I’ve been around some pretty rough people. But they were pretty rough and there was a guard, you’d go maybe eight feet and there’d be another guard, gate and a heavy door, with a wire see through..

The guards all had gold teeth, the guards, the majority of them had not one or two but a mouthful of gold teeth, and I asked about it later and they said that’s because they had leaned so heavily with the Russians, that was kind of payoff. But when they talked or smiled, holy Christmas, here you got this whole mouth of gold teeth, it was spooky.

As I’m coming through this narrow passageway, one gate after another, one guard and lock after another, then there’s a big opening and typical of that part of the world, there’s a grayness day in and day out, the gray skies, the gray building, the gray insides, the gray floors. It really begins to get you down if you’re over there too long.

So I started out to see there was daylight, and the sun started to break through and then I heard, `Dun dun dun dun dun dun.’  Oh spit. Now what? They had the prison band come out and play for me. The guards with their gold teeth walked me across by the band and the touch of sunlight and across to another area where they were voting the prisoners.

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Then I Insisted we be taken out to the collective farms.

I said I was from the United States here to monitor the elections and I tried to look as a master of the surroundings.

As I turned to go into this long open room, there were people in  here voting and this old woman, old before her years and she looked and she started speaking in Ukrainian, not Russian, and these two old men were running the election in their old, uncleaned-forever black suits, and she started to come toward me and said in Ukrainian, `Are you an American? Are you an American?’ And the men grabbed her and tried to jerk her back and I screamed, `Turn her loose, take your hands off of her.”

And the people with me talked to them and they turned loose of her and she came over and grabbed my arms and held me with her  hand and kept saying, “You’re and American, you’re an American. We have never seen an American before. Go home and tell your people, we are free, we are free. We are finally, finally free. Go home and tell your people we are free.’

These old men came and jerked her off of me and I screamed at them again and reached out and grabbed her hand and brought her back to me. Her little hands so gnarled and she said, “I have fought the Russian all these years. This is my country. This is my village. I have fought them all these years, but this is my land. I’ve been in Siberia time after time for speaking out. They send me, they starve me, they beat me. They punish me, but I have lived to come back to my land.’

It just broke my heart – `Go home and tell your people that we’re free.’ So my first Denman thought was I am going to pick her up and take her out of here with me and see if I could pull it off. Then what am I going to do with her when I got back to Kiev? Well I’ll bring her back to America.

I grew up and didn’t bring her with me but I almost did, I surely almost did. I’ll bet you those old men were so angry with her, I’m sure she had no firewood for winter, or firewood to cook. They punish.

Denman has been an election monitor on other occasions – in Russia and in Latin American.

Her national security – and political –  credentials are well in order.

From her CV:

Texas Delegate / Platform Sub Committee National Security and Military, Cleveland, OH (2016)

Visitor, Landstuhl Military Hospital, Landstuhl, Germany (2016)

Visitor, Wiesbaden Military Base, Wiesbaden, Germany (2016)

Official Guest, 11th Annual European Resource Bank (Economic) – Aix-En-Provence (2014)

Official Delegation, Normandy – Normandy, France (2014)

Member, Texas U.S. Service Academy Nominations Board (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016)

Official Guest, 10th Annual European Resource Bank (Economic) – Vienna, Austria (2013)

Official Guest, 19th Economic Forum – Krynica, Poland (2009)

Member, DACOWITS (Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services), Department       of Defense (2006-2009)

Member, WHINSEC Board of Visitors (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), Department of Defense (2005-2009)

Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service (2009)

Official Guest, Center of Hemispheric Defense Studies.  The Sub-Regional Conference on Central America. Cartagena, Columbia (2009) 

Official Guest, Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies.  The Sub-Regional Conference on Central America. Panama City, Panama (2008)

Member, DACOWITS / Republic of Korea – US Army Garrison Yongsan, Seoul – US Kunsan Air Force Base – US Army Garrison, Camp Humphreys, Camp Bonifas (United Nations Command Demilitarized Zone) (June 2008)

International Observer, Nicaraguan Presidential Elections (2006)

Member, American Foreign Policy Council / Congressman Curt Weldon Delegation to Tbilisi, Georgia – Minsk, Belarus – Moscow, Russia (2002)

Observer, The Jamestown Foundation Delegation to the Russian Presidential Elections (2000)

Observer, International Republican Institution to Ukraine’s Verkhovua Rada Elections (1998)

Observer, The Jamestown Foundation Delegation to the Russian Presidential Elections (1996)

Official Guest, Inaugural of President Armando Calderon Sol, El Salvador (1993)

Observer, Alianza Republica Naciionalista (ARENA) Party Conference, El Salvador (1993)

Accuracy in Media Conference, El Salvador (1990)

11th World Media Conference, Advancement of Global Communications and Cooperation Moscow, USSR (1990)

8th World Media Conference, Leaders Delegation to Eastern Europe and the USSR (1989)

Member, United Stated Presidential Delegation to Grenada, West Indies (1988)

Member, National Museum Services Board – Presidential Appointment (1986-1991)

Observer, US Delegation to Presidential Elections in Honduras, Central America (1985)

Member, Women for Peace through Real Defense, Geneva Summit, Geneva, Switzerland (1985)

Delegate -at- Large, Republican National Convention (1984)

Chairman, Texas Delegation to Southern Leadership Conference (1984/1986)

Guest, Conservative Party Conference, Brighton, England (1984)

Vice – Chairman, Republican Party of Texas (1983-1988)

Co-Chairman, US Peace Corps Advisory Council – Presidential Appointment (1982-1983)

So  having triggered some of the suspicions by her actions, does Denman have a clear sense of what if any connection the Trump campaign had to the Russians?

No, it’s not clear what’s going on. And I’m really distressed.

I want Trump to have a chance and a good chance. I want him to have a chance of being a good president.

But we have to get his appointees who are all twisted up in this every day. I have never in all these years, it just looks like you get up in the morning and you think you might just have a clear day and then another bomb drops, and it’s gone on long enough.

I like what he says. I support what he says. I just want him to have some running time to just go ahead and get it done and see if he can turn America around.

Hes’ got to get his people in place to get anything working. He’s really been held back too long on this. I don’t have any idea whether the Russian thing is credible or not. It certainly has gone on too long. We have to get on about running America.

 I really think as far as Trump personally, that there’s nothing here. It’s just beating a dead horse to death again. I don’t know. I really don’t know. But my gut feeling is that he himself is not involved in this. Staff is a different problem,  former staff.

Denman said she also thinks that there was nothing untoward in Attorney General Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador.

As she told another reporter who called her last week:

You’re going down the wrong tack. You’re off on the wrong road  when you’ re trying to pull Sessions into this situation. I know him well enough, been around him enough.

Denman strongly supports Trump’s proposed military buildup.

If we were thrown into a military situation now I would just grit my teeth. We don’t have enough parts for airplanes – we’re really sized down incredibly in the military situation. People have said to me, `Where are we going to get the money to do this for the military?’ I said. “I don’t know but they better build this country back up again and then the Chinese wont come after us. But we’re awfully weak.’

We’re not only weak military, with supplies, but we’re also weak morally. I don’t see the patriotism.

Still, Denman said she thought there was  enough latent patriotism to elect Trump president.

I believed he would win, that the America I grew up in, there must be enough of the American emotion and fervor that I grew up with that just doesn’t want socialism and more and more government.

Denman had planned to go Trump’s inauguration. She had good tickets and was all set to go.

So why didn’t she?

All these cohorts of mine have been wanting to break my neck for years, and I broke my own neck back in December.

What?

I had just gotten to Washington to spend Christmas with long time friends. 

She was at the University Club near the White House, having just taken to dinner a young North Korean refugee, who had just graduated from Hillsdale College.

She stood up and fell.

  I guess I hit the table and I broke my neck.

She is still in a neck cast, which she hopes will be off in a couple of weeks.

She was, she was told, lucky not to be paralyzed.

What a frightening close call.

“Maybe it’s the Russians,” I said, joking, sort of.

“Well, it’s kind of the way they do things,” said Denman, laughing.

 

 

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