Trump Plays Down "Sarcastic" Email Remarks
After intense backlash, Donald Trump and his campaign are walking back his remarks encouraging Russia to obtain and release Hillary Clinton’s emails, insisting his words were not meant to be taken seriously.
“Of course I was being sarcastic,” Trump said in a “Fox and Friends” interview Thursday morning. He added that the focus should not be on the source of leaked DNC emails, which were thought to be hacked by Russian intelligence, but their content: “What they said on those emails was a disgrace.”
Trump’s initial comments, made at a press conference in Florida on Wednesday, seemed clear-cut -- and unprecedented. "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” the Republican nominee said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Afterward, Trump also tweeted: “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!”
A subsequent message from Trump’s allies was less clear, however.
"The FBI will get to the bottom of who is behind the hacking,” his running mate, Mike Pence, said in a statement Wednesday. “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."
The statement, reportedly drafted prior to Trump’s remarks, seemed to directly contradict the candidate. Meanwhile, other campaign surrogates sent other mixed signals.
Newt Gingrich, a prominent Trump surrogate, quickly tweeted that the nominee’s words had been a “joke.”
“Well, it wasn’t really a joke, per se,” Trump’s spokesperson Katrina Pierson said on Fox News late Wednesday. “It was more tongue-in-cheek, like we’ve been saying simply because that is the issue.”
Ultimately, the campaign settled on sarcasm as Trump’s intent.
"First of all, he didn't encourage anybody to hack," Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort told Fox News. "Secondly, what he said was the 33,000 illegally deleted emails are still missing and he was making a sarcastic point about the 33,000 emails."
But over the course of a lengthy press conference Wednesday, and in public remarks later at a rally in Scranton, Pa., Trump did not clarify his remarks. Instead, he dug in.
Asked at the news conference if the idea of a foreign adversary such as Russia releasing Clinton’s emails for political purposes gave him “pause,” Trump said it did not.
“No, it gives me no pause,” he said. “If they have them, they have them.”
In Scranton, Trump mocked Democrats for suggesting he would support foreign states hacking the DNC, telling his supporters: “I wish I had that power. Man, that would be power.”
The sum of this messaging from Trump and his allies reflects a broader challenge for his campaign: to disseminate a consistent, effective response quickly after the candidate goes off script. This type of rapid response is standard in modern presidential campaigns, but Trump’s organization is still building out from its bare-bones framework in the primary.
“Campaigns have to expect the unexpected and prepare to respond to this sort of thing,” said Lanhee Chen, a former policy adviser to Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney. What is unusual about Trump’s operation, Chen added, is, “I don’t know that surrogates are clear on what they’re supposed to be doing. Are they supposed to be walking it back? Doubling down? Trump himself doubled down and then walked it back.”
The nominee’s initial remarks raised immediate alarm among Republicans, few of whom jumped to his defense, and drew sharp criticism from Democrats holding their party convention in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton will speak Thursday night.
“Inviting a foreign power that is an aggressor at times to the United States to commit espionage for whatever reason, let alone to influence the outcome of one of our elections, is just unacceptable,” Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, said Thursday.
In his convention speech Wednesday, former CIA director and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Trump “took Russia's side” and “asked the Russians to interfere in American politics.”
“As someone who was responsible for protecting our nation from cyberattacks,” Panetta said, “it is inconceivable to me that any presidential candidate would be that irresponsible.”
Trump and his campaign had hoped the email leak would detract from the Democratic convention, highlighting favoritism in the DNC and security issues pertaining to Clinton’s emails. But his comments might have had the opposite effect.
“The danger is, it falls into the narrative that Democrats are trying to paint of Trump this week,” Chen said, “that Trump is unprepared to be commander-in-chief.”