(CNN) — Donald Trump said Thursday morning that he was only kidding when he appeared to encourage Russian intelligence agencies to find Hillary Clinton’s thousands of deleted emails.
“Of course I’m being sarcastic,” Trump said in a Fox News interview that aired the day after his comments sparked a national furor. “You have 33,000 emails deleted, and the real problem is what was said on the emails from the Democratic National Convention.”
Trump was speaking after the recent hack of the Democratic National Committee, which led to the publication of thousands of emails on WikiLeaks. The emails showed officials criticizing Bernie Sanders during his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, a time when the DNC claimed it was neutral in the race.
At a news conference Wednesday in Doral, Florida, Trump ignited his controversy with what appeared to be a challenge to Moscow.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said at a Wednesday news conference, referring to separate emails that Clinton wrote on a personal server she used for officials business and did not hand over to the State Department. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
The GOP nominee’s comments sparked an immediate uproar 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 US foe, charges echoed on social media.
A US official said Thursday there was “little doubt” Russia was behind the DNC hack, prompting some Democrats to allege that Moscow is trying to tilt the election in Trump’s favor.
In an interview on Tuesday, President Barack Obama claimed it was “possible” that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to bolster Trump’s chances.
Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort dismissed those claims as “crazy.”
Trump said in a tweet Tuesday that Democrats were simply trying to “deflect the horror and stupidity of the Wikileakes (sic) disaster.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange refused to confirm the Russian origin for the mass email leak, saying WikiLeaks tries to create ambiguity to protect all its sources. However, he did promise that “a lot more material” relevant to the US electoral campaign was on its way.
Trump’s supporters tried to give the Republican presidential nominee some cover Thursday morning.
“He was joking around,” former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Trump surrogate, said on CNN’s “New Day.” “If he tells you I’m joking, you take him at his word.”
Former House Speaker New Gingrich referred to the comments as a “joke” soon after the GOP nominee made it Tuesday morning.
But Trump’s critics called the real estate mogul’s comments as reactive, irresponsible and disloyal to the country.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denounced Trump’s remarks as “irresponsible” in a convention speech Wednesday night, saying that the presidential candidate “asked the Russians to interfere in American politics.”
Before his speech, he told CNN’s 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.”
Clinton campaign senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday that Trump’s comments were a “national security issue.”
“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,” Sullivan said in a statement. “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.”
Soon after Panetta spoke Wednesday night, the Trump campaign released a statement criticizing the former defense secretary’s stance and saying it was Clinton who had breached national security.
“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.