PHILADELPHIA ― After months of claiming a close relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump now says he doesn’t really know him at all.
“I never met Putin. I don’t know who Putin is,” the Republican presidential nominee said Wednesday at a Florida news conference. “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.”
The new stance, though, runs counter to months of admiring statements Trump has made about the former spymaster, despite nearly universal worldwide condemnation of the Russian president for his aggressive actions in the Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.
In a Nov. 10 GOP debate, Trump said: “I got to know him very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes,’ we were stablemates, and we did very well that night.”
Three days later, he sent out a tweet changing that story – “I only said I was on @60Minutes four weeks ago with Putin — never said I was in Green Room. Separate pieces — great ratings!” But Trump has continued saying he admires Putin’s “leadership” and that he would get along great with him as president.
“When people call you ‘brilliant’ it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia,” Trump told MSNBC in December after Putin praised him. “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader. You know, unlike we have in this country.”
Trump’s fresh statement comes amid an FBI investigation into the theft and public release of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails. The messages showed DNC staffers were siding with nominee Hillary Clinton over opponent Bernie Sanders in the final stages of their primary battle. The emails were released on the eve of the Democratic convention, in an apparent attempt to hurt Clinton’s campaign.
“Experts have attributed this to the Russians,” President Barack Obama told NBC News Wednesday.
Trump, nevertheless, asserted it was impossible to know who had hacked into the DNC computer system. But then he added that he hoped the Russians or someone else had hacked into the emails Clinton stored on a private server while serving as secretary of state and would now release them.
The Clinton campaign called Trump’s statement unprecedented.
“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,” Senior Adviser Jake Sullivan said. “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.”