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Story highlights

Donald Trump used a press conference to call for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton

He referenced 33,000 emails missing from a private server Clinton used while secretary of state

(CNN) —  

Donald Trump appeared to call on Russian intelligence agencies Wednesday to find 30,000 of Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails, adding a stunning twist to the uproar over Moscow’s alleged intervention in the presidential election.

“They probably have her 33,000 e-mails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 e-mails that she lost and deleted because you’d see some beauties there. So let’s see,” Trump said at a news conference in Florida.

He was referring to emails on the personal server that Clinton used to conduct official business as secretary of state but that she deemed private and did not hand over to the State Department.

The GOP nominee’s comments sparked an immediate furor at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, as well as claims by Clinton’s campaign that Trump was endangering national security and even conspiring with a U.S. foe. Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta denounced Trump’s “irresponsible” comments from the convention floor, saying that the presidential candidate “asked the Russians to interfere in American politics.”

Cold War-style drama

The new developments over emails and alleged Russian espionage thickened the plot of the Cold War-style drama that has been gathering around the Democratic convention in Philadelphia all week after leaked messages between top party officials appeared on WikiLeaks and seemed to show that they had tilted the primary campaign against Clinton’s opponent Bernie Sanders.

U.S. officials have said there’s “little doubt” that Moscow is behind the hack of emails from DNC servers.

In his comments, the billionaire businessman implied that he would be open to Moscow staging a new hack against the United States to find the emails, or that he wanted to use intelligence produced from earlier spying to benefit his political campaign.

“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 during a news conference in Florida.

“They probably have them. I’d like to have them released,” he continued. “Now, 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.”

Trump’s comments marked an extraordinary moment in a presidential campaign that has already overturned political convention. Clinton’s campaign reacted swiftly, seeking to use Trump’s comments to play into their larger narrative that the Republican nominee lacks the knowledge and temperament to commander in chief.

“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 Hillary for America senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan. “That’s not hyperbole, those are just the facts. This has gone from being a matter of curiosity, and a matter of politics, to being a national security issue.”

Speaking to CNN ahead of his Democratic convention speech on Wednesday, Panetta suggested the remarks raised questions about Trump’s loyalty to the United States.

“No presidential candidate who’s running to be president of the United States ought to be asking a foreign country, particularly Russia, to engage in hacking or intelligence efforts to try to determine what the Democratic candidate may or may not be doing,” Panetta, a Clinton ally, said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour.

“This just is beyond my own understanding of the responsibilities that candidates have to be loyal to their country and to their country alone, not to reach out to somebody like Putin and Russia, and try to engage them in an effort to try to, in effect, conduct a conspiracy against another party,” he said.

Panetta changed his convention speech in the afternoon to insert “a direct attack on Trump for his rhetoric suggesting that Russia meddle in the election,” according to a source familiar with the subject.

In his speech, he blasted Trump for taking “Russia’s side.”

“He asked the Russians to interfere in American politics,” Panetta charged, called Trump as commander in chief inconceivable. “Think about that for a moment. Donald Trump wants to be president of the United States (and) Donald trump is asking one of our adversaries to engage in hacking or intelligence efforts against the United States to affect our election.”

Soon after Panetta spoke, the Trump campaign released a statement criticizing the former defense secretary’s stance.

“It is alarming that Leon Panetta would, through his silence, excuse Hillary Clinton’s enablement of foreign espionage with her illegal email scheme and her corrupt decision to then destroy those emails and dissemble her ‘private’ server to hide her crimes from the public and authorities,” Trump senior policy advisor Stephen Miller said. He also argued that it was Clinton who was endangering national security with her policies in the Middle East and North Africa.

The FBI recommended not to bring criminal charges against Clinton earlier this month.

Cleaving up the controversy

Earlier Wednesday, Trump’s campaign pushed back against claims that he was inviting Russia to hack Clinton’s emails.

Trump rapid response director Steven Cheung said the candidate had “absolutely not” done any such thing. “What he intended was hand them over, yes. But inviting” goes too far, he said. “I think that’s a completely ridiculous thing to say that he’s inviting a country to hack a presidential candidates’ emails.”

On Twitter, Trump himself wrote, “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!”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump supporter, also tried to clean up the controversy.

“Since Hillary promised us she only deleted 33,000 personal emails how can it be a national security issue if someone releases them?” he asked on Twitter.

He added: “the media seems more upset by Trump’s joke about Russian hacking than by the fact that Hillary’s personal server was vulnerable to Russia.”

Tantamount to treason?

CNN legal analyst Steve Vladeck said that there was “no real argument that Mr. Trump’s comments were tantamount to ‘treason,’” despite an outpouring on social media calling his comments disloyal.

“Federal law limits that offense to an individual who ‘levies war against the United States or adheres to its enemies.’ ” Vladeck said. “However complicated the United States’ relationship with Russia may be at the moment, there is nothing to the argument that the two countries are at war, or that Russia is an ‘enemy’ within the meaning of the proviso.”

But he added that Trump could have transgressed a different federal law that makes it a crime for an individual to induce others to commit felonies involving physical force against American property, “which almost certainly includes cyberhacking.”

Trump’s explosive comments on the emails Wednesday, during a news conference apparently called to try to commandeer media coverage focused the Democratic convention, were not confined to the two email sagas.

He denied reports in some media outlets that his business was under undue influence from Russia and that Putin hoped he would win the election. He also claimed that Putin had once used the ‘N’ word in a show of disrespect against Obama.

“I was shocked. Number one, he doesn’t like him. Number two, he doesn’t respect him,” Trump said.

There are no published reports to back up Trump’s allegation about Putin’s use of the racially derogatory term, however.

He called Russia’s potential involvement in the hack another sign of Russia’s “disrespect for our country.”

Trump argued that U.S.-Russia relations would be better under his presidency than if Clinton took charge of the Oval Office, saying he would treat Putin “firmly” but would seek to bolster ties between the U.S. and Russia.

But he said that did not mean he was in the Kremlin’s pocket.

“I never met Putin, I don’t know who Putin is. He said one nice thing about me,” Trump said.

The GOP nominee also sowed some uncertainty about another aspect of U.S. policy towards Russia concerning its annexing of part the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

He was asked whether as president he would recognize Crimea as Russian territory and whether he would contemplate lifting sanctions imposed to punish Moscow’s move into the enclave by the U.S. and its allies.

“We’ll be looking at that. Yeah, we’ll be looking,” Trump said.

CNN’s Dana Bash and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.