Donald Trump dared a foreign government to commit espionage on the U.S. to hurt his rival on Wednesday, smashing yet another taboo in American political discourse and behavior.
“Russia, if you're listening, I hope you’ll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said, referring to deleted emails from the private account Hillary Clinton used as secretary of State. “I think you’ll probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Trump made the taunt during a lengthy and unusual news conference in Doral, Fla., in which he also suggested the Geneva Convention treaties protecting prisoners of war are outdated, told a reporter asking a question to “be quiet” and said the fact that the Democratic National Committee may have been hacked was because foreign leaders lack respect for the U.S. government.
He also called President Obama “the most ignorant president in our history,” alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin had disparaged Obama with “the n-word” and inaccurately paraphrased Obama speaking in a stereotype of African American dialect.
“His views of the world, as he says, ‘don’t jive,’” Trump said. Obama had recently used the word “jibe” in contrasting his views with Trump’s.
Trump was hoping to use the news conference to deride Democrats for failing to focus on Islamic State during their nominating convention this week and Clinton for holding no news conferences in nearly a year.
The comments urging Russia to hack Clinton immediately drew widespread attention because they lend the impression that Trump is actively encouraging another country to commit a crime against the U.S. to directly affect the presidential election. If the emails are hacked and Trump wins, it also could make him appear beholden to foreign interests.
The unprecedented comments in a campaign that has pushed multiple boundaries came after days of increased interest in Trump’s relationship with Russia, his statements that he might renege on U.S. commitments to defend NATO allies against Russian aggression and his frequently espoused admiration for Putin.
"This undoubtedly sends a message to Russia that Trump is, at best, a fan, and at worst, manipulable and a bit of a loose cannon," said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Russia will look at this, whether it's political theater or not, as [confirmation] that Trump would be better for them than Clinton, who would take a measured approach and discourage things that run counter to U.S. interests.”
Trump's comments probably did not meet the standard for criminal incitement but showed poor judgment, said Susan Hennessey, a national security and governance fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"Someone who is asking to be elected to the presidency should be more respectful of this nation's institutions," said Hennessey, a former lawyer for the National Security Agency.
State Department spokesman John Kirby refused to comment, saying that the nation’s diplomats were staying out of politics.
Allies of Trump, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, asserted that the candidate was joking. But Trump, given the chance to clarify while he was still in front of reporters, did not back down when asked whether it concerned him that another government may have Clinton’s emails.
“No, it gives me no pause,” he said, adding that what gives him pause is Clinton’s destruction of the messages.
“If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I’ve got to be honest with you, I’d love to see them,” he added.
Shortly after the news conference, Trump tweaked his position further on Twitter, suggesting that any hacked emails should be shared with law enforcement rather than him or the public: “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton's 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”
Experts suspect that Russian agents are behind the hack and release of Democratic Party officials’ emails last week that showed party leaders discussing ways to undermine Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign against Clinton. The Democratic Party is supposed to be neutral, and the revelations in the emails – including discussions about using Sanders’ faith against him – led to the abrupt resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida as party chairwoman. The emails also showed details of the high-level access given to the party’s biggest donors.
Trump has been actively promoting the issue in making the case that Clinton “rigged” the system in her favor. But the Trump campaign seemed well aware of the potential for damage in his latest comments, quickly issuing a follow-up statement from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, his running mate, that called on punishment for 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. “That said, the Democrats [are] 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 while literally accepting cash for federal appointments is outrageous.”
Campaign staffers also contended to reporters that Trump’s initial statements had been mischaracterized, that Trump was not actively soliciting cyber theft, but was instead urging Russia to give the emails to law enforcement.
Democrats, who have been on the defensive about the content of the emails, as well as Clinton’s use of a private server on which she sent sensitive information, quickly seized on Trump’s comments as evidence in their argument that he lacks the temperament and judgment to lead the country.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called it “staggeringly poor judgment even for him” and “breathtakingly irresponsible” in a statement.
“What Donald Trump did today needs to be examined not through a political lens, but this is a national security issue now,” Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said during a Democratic convention lunch in Philadelphia hosted by the Wall Street Journal.
But asked whether he was proposing a criminal investigation, Mook said he was not.
Trump often has praised Putin and has claimed to have met him, but on Wednesday he denied that they have met. He also denied that he has financial interests in the country, but declined, again, to release his tax returns, citing an audit.
Times staff writer Evan Halper in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
2:55 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction to Trump’s comments.
This article was originally published at 11:30 a.m.