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In a freewheeling and unusual news conference, even for him, Donald Trump directly called on Russia to find the estimated 30,000 emails that Hillary Clinton deleted from a controversial private email server she used as secretary of state.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” the Republican presidential nominee said, staring directly into the bank of television cameras set up at a golf course he owns outside Miami. “I think you will probably be mightily rewarded by our press.”
It was a striking moment in an election that has consistently broken the barriers of political tradition. It came after Trump faced intense questioning from reporters over his relationship to Russia amid allegations that the country might be trying to influence the outcome of the presidential election on his behalf.
Federal investigators are looking into allegations that Russian intelligence agencies were behind the recent hacking of computer servers at the Democratic National Committee. Last week, WikiLeaks released a trove of embarrassing emails among top DNC officials suggesting they were actively biased against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge against Clinton. The leak prompted Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign as DNC chair. WikiLeaks has suggested there are more damaging emails to come.
On Wednesday, Trump called suggestions voiced by Democrats and the Clinton campaign that Russia was actively trying to sway the campaign on his behalf “a total deflection.” He pointedly denied reports that Trump Organization projects have been funded by Russian business investors. He also denied having any relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he’s previously spoken warmly of.
“I’ve never met Putin,” Trump insisted. “I don’t know who Putin is.”
The celebrity businessman repeatedly declined to say whether he believes Russia is behind the DNC hack or is trying to influence the presidential election, though at one point he suggested that Russia was “probably” not involved. He brushed off a question by a reporter asking if he would specifically call on Russia to stay out of the race.
“I am not going to tell Putin what to do,” Trump declared. “Why should I tell Putin what to do?”
He went back and forth on the idea of whether there was a foreign conspiracy afoot — suggesting there was no proof, but then hinting China might be involved. At the same time, Trump argued it was not the hack that was the news, but rather the “horrible things” that were said in the leaked DNC emails. He pointed to one email that raised questions about Sanders’ faith.
But then, Trump seized on the hack to pivot back toward criticism of Clinton’s use of a private email server, which he has repeatedly said showed bad judgment and put the nation’s security at risk. After he suggested Russia might be able to find Clinton’s deleted emails, Trump repeatedly dodged the question of whether he was really asking a foreign government to hack into the email server of his Democratic rival. As NBC’s Katy Tur pressed him on the issue, Trump snapped, “Be quiet.”
The Clinton campaign quickly seized on Trump’s comments, calling them reckless. “This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent,” Jake Sullivan, a senior policy adviser to the Clinton campaign, said in a statement. “This has gone from being a matter of curiosity, and a matter of politics, to being a national security issue.”
In a series of messages on Twitter posted after Trump’s news conference, Trump spokesman Jason Miller insisted the candidate was merely encouraging other countries to turn over any information relating to Clinton’s emails to federal authorities. “To be clear, Mr. Trump did not call on, or invite, Russia or anyone else to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails today,” Miller wrote.
Ten hours later, in an interview with Fox News, Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chief and senior advisor, offered yet another explanation: The candidate, he said, was being sarcastic.
The hourlong news conference came as Trump has maintained an active schedule this week, trying to steal attention away from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Clinton is formally set to accept her party’s presidential nomination Thursday.
Trump kicked off his news conference by contrasting his access to the press to Clinton’s, pointing out that she hasn’t had a formal news conference in more than 200 days. He pressed reporters to consider why. “There’s no way she can answer questions because the job she has done is so bad,” he declared.
But the news conference, which was put on the schedule after a planned roundtable with Hispanic leaders in Miami fell through, also demonstrated Trump’s own struggle to stay on message. Over the last 24 hours, his campaign has hammered Democrats for failing to use their convention to address the threat of the Islamic State terror group. Trump repeated that message in his news conference, but risked it getting lost in a sea of other rambling comments the GOP candidate made.
Among other things, he repeatedly referred to Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as the former governor of New Jersey, before he was corrected by a reporter. He randomly trashed former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is married to top Clinton adviser Huma Abedin. And he flicked at the sex scandal that overtook former President Bill Clinton’s final years in office — saying Clinton left a “chapter” out of his Tuesday speech about his wife at the DNC. “Boring” speech, Trump declared.
But the news conference also threatened to step on Trump’s own message as he took his campaign to the Rust Belt Wednesday, with scheduled events in Scranton, Pa., and Toledo, Ohio.