As Democrats coalesced in Philadelphia around new presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump lobbed a series of new political bombshells at Democrats on Wednesday -- including saying that he hoped Russia would hack into his rival's email server and release "missing" messages to the public.
The unprecedented suggestion -- essentially inviting a foreign power to spy on an opponent in the presidential race -- came during a free-wheeling press conference at Trump's Doral resort in Miami, where he also condemned Clinton as unfit to receive classified briefings; attacked one of Clinton's top advisers as being married to "a pervert and a sleazeball;" and called the Democratic National Committee a "disgrace."
“Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” Trump said at the event.
The real estate mogul sought throughout the tense news conference to distance himself from allegations that the Russian government hacked into the DNC's internal emails to benefit his campaign, which Clinton's campaign manager suggested earlier this week.
“It is so far-fetched. It's so ridiculous. Honestly, I wish I had that power. I'd love to have that power but Russia has no respect for our country,” Trump said.
While accusing Clinton of handling classified information carelessly by using a private email server while she was secretary of state, he dismissed questions about whether it was appropriate for him to suggest that hackers target a political opponent.
“They probably have them. I'd like to have them released. It gives me no pause: if they have them, they have them," Trump added later when asked if his comments were inappropriate. "If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean to be honest with you, I'd love to see them."
The Clinton campaign responded forcefully Wednesday afternoon, calling his comments unprecedented and dangerous.
"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," said Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan in a statement. "That's not hyperbole, that's just the facts. This has gone from being a matter of curiosity, and a matter of politics, to being a national security issue."
Trump has repeatedly used the controversy over Clinton's email server to call her judgment into question. On Wednesday, he escalated that criticism and said that she should not receive intelligence briefings, which she and Trump will both receive now that they are the official nominees of their respective parties.
“How does Hillary Clinton get a national security briefing when she's been probably hacked, when so much of her information, the director of the FBI said it was essentially negligent. It was negligent,” Trump said.
“Her number one person, Huma Abedin, is married to Anthony Weiner, who's a sleazeball and a pervert. And I'm not saying that, I mean that's recorded history, right?” Trump added moments later, unprompted. “I don't like Huma going home at night and telling Anthony Weiner all of these secrets, OK?”
Abedin is one of Clinton's most trusted advisers and Weiner, her husband, is a former congressman whose uncovered private messages on social media ended his political career.
Trump said repeatedly during the press conference that he does not have financial ties to Russia but said that he could not release his tax returns because they are currently under audit. He did not say if he would release his tax returns before Election Day, only adding that he would release them when the audit is complete. Previous candidates have released returns while being audited.
As he took questions about the hacking controversy, he also distanced himself from previous positive comments he made about Russian President Vladimir Putin. "I never met Putin, I don’t know who Putin is. He said one nice thing about me, he said I’m a genius," Trump said. "I would treat Vladimir Putin firmly, but there’s nothing I can think of that I’d rather do than have Russia friendly…so we can go out and knock out ISIS together.”
"I have nothing to do with Russia!" he said later, sounding exasperated. "I said that Putin has much better leadership qualities than Obama, but who doesn't know that."
Trump added several times that it was unclear if Russian state actors had been involved, suggesting that the Chinese government could have also carried out the hacking.
The Washington Post reported last month that the DNC had been broken into twice by hackers linked to Russia. The FBI, which has been investigating the DNC hacks for months, formally announced this week that it was investigating the matter.
But Trump also said it ultimately does not matter who did the hacking, and that the press should focus on what was in the emails. On several occasions Trump interrupted reporters and accused them of bias. In one instance, he told a female reporter to “be quiet.”
“It’s not even about Russia or China or whoever it is that’s aiding the hacking. It’s about the things that were said in those emails,” Trump said, referring to leaked emails in which DNC staffers had discussed undermining Clinton primary rival Bernie Sanders on his religious faith. “Talking about Jewish, talking about race, talking about atheist, trying to pin labels on people. What was said was a disgrace.”
The leaked emails embroiled the DNC in controversy just days before the Democratic National Convention kicked off, where Hillary Clinton was officially nominated as the Democratic candidate for president on Tuesday.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, issued a far less bombastic statement while Trump was holding his press conference in which Pence criticized the hackers.
“If it is Russia and they are interfering in our elections, I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences,” Pence said in the statement. "That said, the Democrats singularly focusing on who might be behind it and not addressing the basic fact that they've been exposed as a party who not only rigs the government, but rigs elections."