Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump encouraged Russia to meddle in American politics Wednesday, with a stunning recommendation to uncover and make public hacked emails that might damage his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Shortly after Trump's remarks, his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, took a different tact and warned of "serious consequences" if Russia interfered in the election.
The developments came as Democrats met on the third day of their presidential convention in Philadelphia, where Clinton will claim the party's nomination Thursday night.
Trump's extraordinary comments 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. 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.
The Clinton campaign called Trump's statement 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 Doral, 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."
Later, Pence said in a statement there should be "serious consequences" if Russia is found to be interfering in the U.S. electoral process.
The exchange occurred after 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 traditionally avoids commenting on active FBI investigations, but he told NBC News on Tuesday that outside experts have blamed Russia for the leak. Obama also appeared to embrace the notion that President Vladimir 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."
Mike McFaul, who served under Obama as the U.S. ambassador to Russia, told NBC News he was surprised by Trump's comments.
"I just find it deeply troubling, that any American, let alone running for president of the United States, would encourage Russian espionage. That's just unprecedented to me," McFaul said.
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."
Trump campaign's senior communications adviser, Jason Miller, told NBC News after the press conference that the candidate wasn't "calling on anyone to intervene or anything of the sort."
"I think it's also important here to not let Hillary off the hook for why we're even having this talk," Miller also said.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, meanwhile, said his organization would not disclose who provided it with the stolen material. WikiLeaks said on Twitter that it timed its publication of the emails — days before the Democratic convention was starting — "when our verification, research and formatting process was complete and on a day likely to generate interest." On Tuesday, Assange said on CNN that "a lot more" material was coming but provided no details.
Trump's scattershot press conference Wednesday also included a pledge to raise the federal minimum wage to at least $10, a promise to soon release a list of countries from which immigrants would need to be subject of "extreme vetting," and a mistaken reference to Tim Kaine, Clinton's new running mate, as being from New Jersey, not Virginia.
Trump also reacted to former President Bill Clinton's convention speech from a night earlier.
“He left out the most interesting chapter,” Trump said. “I won’t get into that.”
In addressing the development that prosecutors have dropped all remaining charges against three Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, Trump said that Baltimore City State Attorney Marilyn Mosby should "prosecute herself."
And Trump said that John Hinckley Jr., President Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin, "should not have been freed." Trump, who first referred to Hinckley as David, corrected himself after a reporter noted the error.