The charge that Donald Trump has effectively allied his campaign with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin would sound like a crackpot conspiracy theory if it didn’t come from Trump’s own mouth.
On Wednesday, Trump publicly called on Russian intelligence agents to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and release the results, a direct appeal to a foreign power to commit espionage that came as Trump faced increased scrutiny over his ties to Putin.
"Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump said at a press conference in Florida. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens."
In addition to its implications for national security today, the incident raised disturbing questions about how Trump would govern as president. If a leader is willing to turn to ask foreign spy agencies to target a political opponent, what would he ask of from his own spy agencies?
Russia has been widely blamed by experts for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails. The release of some of those by WikiLeaks prompted DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign this week just one day before her party's national convention began. FBI Director James Comey has said it's unclear if Clinton's private email server, which Trump referred to in his remarks, has been hacked.
Trump has set fire to a long list of political norms during his presidential run, but until now it was hard to envision a nominee openly asking an authoritarian government to sabotage the other party by stealing the emails of a onetime secretary of state.
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, contradicted Trump before the press conference even ended in a statement that promised “consequences” for Russia if they engaged in hacking, but it was unclear whether he was trying to clean up Trump's remarks or run from the fallout.
Afterwards, campaign spokesman Jason Miller told NBC News that Trump wasn’t “calling on anyone to intervene or anything of the sort,” drawing a distinction between asking Russia to hack Clinton's emails and merely calling on them to release the results if they already had. Supporter Newt Gingrich tweeted that Trump had made a “joke.”
None of these statements bore much relationship to Trump’s actual comments, which were extensive and clear.
When NBC News’ Katy Tur asked Trump whether he had qualms about encouraging the release of stolen intelligence, he told her to “be quiet.”
“If Russia or China or any other country has those e-mails, I mean, to be honest with you, I'd love to see them,” he said.
Later, Trump tweeted that “Russia or any other country or person” should hand the FBI any emails Clinton deleted from her server.
And, in case Trump’s pleas to Russia were not obvious enough, he told a reporter he would not warn Putin against influencing the American election.
“I'm not going to tell Putin what to do — why should I tell Putin what to do?” Trump said.
Trump, who once called on Robert Pattinson to break up with Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, is not exactly known for holding back his thoughts on what others should do.
But it’s not a coincidence that he made an exception for Putin. Trump, more than any major politician in either party, has indicated a desire to shift U.S. policy toward Russian interests while consistently praising Putin as a strong and effective leader.
At his press conference on Wednesday, Trump told a reporter that he would consider recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine — something only a handful of countries currently do — and that he may end American sanctions enacted in response. Last week, the RNC changed its platform to weaken language criticizing Russia’s Ukraine intervention and Trump’s top aide Paul Manafort previously lobbied for a pro-Putin Ukrainian leader.
Trump also stood by his repeated threats to abandon NATO allies threatened by Russian aggression if they don’t agree to pay more for American defense.
“I don't think Putin has any respect whatsoever for Clinton,” Trump said. “I think he does respect me. And I hope I get along great with him. "
Trump oddly claimed that he “never met Putin” – he previously said at a Republican debate he “got to know [Putin] very well” in a green room meeting – and gently chastised him over a report the Russian leader used the “n-word.” But he also said Putin has “much better leadership qualities” than President Obama.
In addition, to Trump’s apparent affection for Putin and Putin’s agenda, the candidate has dodged questions in recent days about his own financial ties to Russia. He said he has “nothing to do” with Russia and his campaign has says he has no investments in Russia, but he has yet to rebut reports — including a 2008 article quoting his own son — that his own business is dependent on Russian investments and loans. He also has stood by his refusal to release his tax returns or other documents that might shed light on the matter.
The best thing Trump has going for him right now is that the ongoing story of a major party nominee who has unclear financial ties to Russia, significant alignment with Russian policy, and effectively encourages Russian cyberattacks, sounds so absurd that voters may find it hard to believe.
Indeed, Clinton campaign sounded concerned about this dynamic in their response.
"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,” Clinton spokesman Jake Sullivan said 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."
On the other side of the aisle, Speaker Paul Ryan’s spokesman Brendan Buck released a statement calling Putin a “devious thug” who should “stay out of this election.”
But the question isn’t whether Republican leaders oppose Russian spying — until today, it was assumed every politician in America did — it’s whether they stand by a nominee who contradicts everything they’ve said about national security for decades. Their answers this week could follow them long after the election ends.