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How Russia became the wildcard in the 2016 US presidential election

'Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,' said Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at a press conference on Wednesday.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File
This illustration shows a projection of binary code on a man holding a laptop computer, in an office in Warsaw June 24, 2013.

There’s no independent candidate capable of competing with the Democrats and Republicans in the upcoming presidential election, but a third party may still be swaying it.

Amid mounting indications that Russian intelligence services may have been responsible for hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s servers, Democrats are speculating that Russia planned the hack to tip the scales in favor of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

In an interview with NBC, President Obama seemed to back the idea – an unusual move given the open FBI investigation into the hack and subsequent leak of some 19,000 files.

“What we do know is that the Russians hack our systems – not just government systems but private systems,” Mr. Obama told NBC. “What the motives were in terms of the leaks, all that, I can’t say directly. What I do know is that Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin.”

The president’s comments echo those made earlier this week by the Clinton campaign, which suggested that Russia had sought to help Trump with the leak. Among the files made public by WikiLeaks are emails showing that DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other DNC leaders had favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, against party rules binding the chairperson to neutrality.

"I don't think it's coincidental that these emails were released on the eve of our convention here, and I think that's disturbing," said Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook in an interview with CNN.

The Clinton campaign has also pointed to Mr. Trump’s past praise of Mr. Putin, as well as his suggestion that if elected president, he might not honor a NATO commitment to defend member nations if they came under attack. 

“Trump has been espousing in public a bunch of policies from a foreign policy standpoint that would completely play into Vladimir Putin’s hands,” said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon at a news conference on Monday, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

On ABC's This Week, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort strongly rebutted claims of ties between Putin and the campaign. "That’s absurd," he said. "There’s no basis to it."

At news conference in Doral, Fla., on Wednesday, Trump said that speculation that Russia could have leaked the files to help him were “farfetched, so ridiculous”, and accused the Clinton campaign of trying to deflect attention from damaging revelations in the files.

“Russia has no respect for our country, if it is Russia," he said, according to the Associated Press. "It could be China. It could be someone sitting in his bedroom. It's probably not Russia. Nobody knows if it's Russia." 

But Trump also issued what appeared to be an invitation for Russian hackers to find and leak the 30,000 emails missing from Hillary Clinton’s private email server. “Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, told the Associated Press that Russia would never interfere in another country's election, though he did not directly deny involvement in the DNC leak.

The two hacker groups suspected of being behind the leak have been known to cybersecurity firms for some time, The Christian Science Monitor reports, but they have only recently been tied with “high-level confidence” to Russian intelligence sources. 

In May, the Monitor noted, “Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that foreign hackers, perhaps supported by governments, were trying to hack US presidential campaigns.”

“But Mr. Clapper has previously acknowledged that Russia or China certainly aren't alone when it comes to snooping on other countries' computer networks. ‘We, too, practice cyberespionage and … we’re not bad at it,’ he told a Senate committee after last year’s OPM hack, in which digital intruders stole sensitive information of more than 22 million people.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, who has endorsed Clinton for president, did not repeat the Clinton campaign’s accusations, but told The Washington Post that the hack was “an issue of concern” and said Putin had “moved Russia into a more authoritarian state.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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