Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walked back remarks he made on Wednesday that encouraged Russia to uncover and make public hacked emails that might damage Hillary Clinton.
"Of course I'm being sarcastic," Trump said Thursday on Fox News' "Fox and Friends," a day after his remarks at a news conference ignited fierce debate over hacking and his urging of a global adversary to meddle in American politics. "You have 33,000 emails deleted; and the real problem was what was said on those emails from the Democratic National Committee."
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Trump's stunning comments on Wednesday raised the specter of whether he was condoning foreign government hacking of U.S. computers and the public release of information stolen from political adversaries — actions that are at least publicly frowned upon across the globe.
"I will tell you this. Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump said in a news conference in Florida.
He was referring to emails on Clinton's private email server that she deleted because she said they were private before she turned other messages over to the State Department. The FBI declined to prosecute Clinton over her email practices but its director said she had been "extremely careless" handling classified materials.
Trump's insistence that his invitation to Russia wasn't serious was backed up by his campaign chairman. "He was making a sarcastic point," Paul Manafort said Wednesday on Fox News' "The Kelly File."
Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said in a statement Wednesday there should be "serious consequences" if Russia is found to be interfering in the U.S. electoral process. But on Thursday, he echoed Trump's explanation.
“He went on using in a statement laced with sarcasm to point out that there are 33,000 missing emails according to the FBI that Hillary Clinton deleted or did not make available in the course of that investigation,” Pence said in a a radio interview with Laura Ingraham on Thursday morning.
Trump also told "Fox & Friends" that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is "doing a better job" than President Obama.
“I said he’s a better leader than Obama because Obama’s not a leader,” Trump said. "He’s certainly doing a better job than Obama is, that’s all.”
Trump said when he's president, the U.S. will have better relations with Russia.
“Now look, you have to understand, Putin – if we could get along with Russia, I think that would be a good thing, not a bad thing. We don’t get along with Russia. We practically don’t get along with too many.”
Trump blamed Obama for tensions with Russia, pointing out Russian aircraft flying by U.S. military ships.
“You know why they do that?” he asked. "They have no respect for our leader. They have zero respect for our leader. That’s why they do that.
“I don’t think they’d be doing that,” Trump added. "I don’t think they’d be doing that for one minute.”
The Clinton campaign called Trump's statement on the emails the "first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against a political opponent."
At a press conference in Florida, after Trump's initial remarks, he was asked whether he had any pause about asking a foreign government to hack into computers in the United States. Trump did not directly respond except to say, "That's up to the president. Let the president talk to them."
He later added: "If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean, to be honest with you, I'd love to see them."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, was among those who distanced himself from his party's presidential nominee's remarks.
"Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug," said his spokesman Brenan Buck. "Putin should stay out of this election."
Retired U.S. Air Force general Michael Hayden, director of the NSA and CIA under president George W. Bush, also criticized Trump's comments.
"If he is talking about the State Department e-mails on her server, he is inviting a foreign intelligence service to steal sensitive American government information," Hayden said in an interview with Bloomberg View. "If he is talking about the allegedly private e-mails that she destroyed, he is inviting a foreign intelligence service to violate the privacy of an individual protected by the Fourth Amendment to the American Constitution."
"Perhaps he doesn't know what he's talking about. Just a theory," Hayden said.
President Barack Obama identified Russia as almost certainly responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee. WikiLeaks published on its website last week more than 19,000 internal emails stolen from the DNC earlier this year. The emails showed DNC staffers actively supporting Clinton when they were publicly promising to remain neutral during the primary elections between Clinton and rival candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The head of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, resigned over the disclosures, which disrupted this week's convention.
Trump cast doubt on whether Russia was behind that hack. He said blaming Russia was deflecting attention from the embarrassing material in the emails.
"Russia has no respect for our country, if it is Russia," Trump said. "It could be China. It could be someone sitting in his bedroom. It's probably not Russia. Nobody knows if it's Russia."
Obama told NBC News on Tuesday that outside experts have blamed Russia for the leak. Obama also appeared to embrace the notion that Putin might have been responsible because of what he described as Trump's affinity for Putin. Trump said he has no relationship to Putin.
In Moscow on Wednesday, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia would never interfere in another country's election.
"What the motives were in terms of the leaks, all that, I can't say directly," Obama said. "What I do know is that Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin."
Obama said he was basing his assessment on Trump's own comments and the fact that Trump has "gotten pretty favorable coverage back in Russia." He added that the U.S. knows that "Russians hack our systems — not just government systems, but private systems."