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Former CIA Director Panetta Calls Trump's Russia Comment 'Inconceivable'

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks during the third evening session of the Democratic National Convention.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks during the third evening session of the Democratic National Convention.

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta blasted Donald Trump Wednesday night from the stage of the Democratic National Convention, calling his recent comment that Russia should "find" Hillary Clinton's emails "irresponsible" and "inconceivable."

Panetta's comments were largely disrupted by the crowd chanting "No more war," but he continued his remarks.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump urged Russian agents to "find" Clinton's emails and release them, an unprecedented move by a candidate for president encouraging such a foreign breach.

"Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," the GOP presidential nominee said at a news conference in Miami on Wednesday. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."

Trump was referring to the ongoing controversy surrounding the private server Clinton used while secretary of state.

"Today, Donald Trump once again took Russia's side," Panetta said. "He asked the Russians to interfere in American politics. Think about that for a moment. Donald Trump, who wants to be president of the United States, is asking one of our adversaries to engage in hacking or intelligence efforts against the United States to affect our election."

The crowd at the DNC bood loudly, then cheered this remark from Panetta:

"As someone who was responsible for protecting our nation from cyberattacks, it's inconceivable to me that any presidential candidate would be this irresponsible. Donald Trump cannot become our commander in chief."

Trump responded to Panetta in a statement saying "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."

Separately, the DNC in Philadelphia this week was upended by a release of hacked emails from the party committee believed to have been orchestrated by Russia. While the motive for intrusion and release of emails isn't known, many Democrats have speculated that it's a possible attempt to influence the outcome of this year's presidential election. A second round of releases came in the form of audio voicemails posted by WikiLeaks Wednesday evening.

Pressed by NBC's Katy Tur as to whether he had any "pause about asking a foreign government ... to interfere, to hack into the system of anybody in this country," Trump dismissed that idea and told Tur to "be quiet."

Clinton's campaign responded in disbelief to and with outrage at Trump's comments.

"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. That's not hyperbole, those are just the facts," Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. "This has gone from being a matter of curiosity, and a matter of politics, to being a national security issue."

The Trump campaign appeared to try to clean up Trump's comments with a statement from his running mate, Mike Pence.

"The FBI will get to the bottom of who is behind the hacking" of the DNC emails, said Pence. If it was Russia, "I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences."

The Indiana governor called it "outrageous" that Democrats were "singularly focusing on who might be behind" the breach and not the fallout from the leaked emails, which resulted in the ouster of Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz after some revealed the DNC was rooting for Clinton as its nominee and worked to handicap Bernie Sanders.

"I'm not going to tell Putin what to do"

But then Trump, taking to his usual medium of Twitter, doubled down on his earlier comments just minutes later.

Later Wednesday, Trump senior communications adviser Jason Miller maintained that the presidential candidate was simply saying anyone with Clinton's emails should turn them over to federal authorities.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose rule has become increasingly authoritarian. In the news conference at his own golf course, the GOP presidential nominee again said he hoped he could work with Putin and threw cold water on the idea that the Russians were behind the DNC hack.

"I'm not going to tell Putin what to do. Why should I tell Putin what to do?" Trump retorted. "He already did something today where he said don't blame them, essentially, for your incompetence."

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta called Trump's comments "totally outrageous" and questioned his loyalty to the United States.

"You've got now a presidential candidate who is in fact asking the Russians to engage in American politics," he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

"I just think that that's beyond the pale," Panetta, who is backing Clinton, said. "I think that kind of statement only reflects the fact that he truly is not qualified to be president of the United States."

"Zero" ties to Russia

Trump repeatedly batted away questions about whether he might have ties to Russia, saying "Zero! I will tell you right now, zero. I have nothing to do with Russia, yes?"

In fact, Trump has courted Russian investors to fund some of his projects and long sought to extend his brand to Russia and other former Soviet states, according to reporting last month from the Washington Post.

On Putin — who has called Trump "bright" and whom Trump has praised as a strong leader — Trump said they've never spoken. Trump said he wants to have "friendly" relations with Russia if he's elected but denied any connection to the Russian government or investors.

"I don't know who Putin is. He said one nice thing about me. He said I'm a genius. I said thank you very much to the newspaper and that was the end of it. I never met Putin," Trump said.

Hack Trump's taxes?

Former Obama adviser David Axelrod also weighed in on Trump's comments, suggesting on Twitter that Russian hackers should go searching for Trump's tax returns — which he has yet to release, breaking a long tradition among leading presidential candidates.

Trump reiterated that he has no plans to release his tax returns until an audit is completed — which may not be finished until after the November elections.

"It depends on the audit — not a big deal," Trump said. He noted that he has already put out some financial documents, though not the tax forms that are typically released by major presidential candidates, often during the primary season. Trump suggested that is unnecessary: "I built an unbelievable company, tremendous cash, tremendous company with some of the great assets of the world," he said.

As NPR has reported before, there is no legal obstacle to releasing tax returns while an audit is ongoing.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.