Differing from his party's standard-bearer once again, Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence said Sunday that mounting evidence suggests hackers backed by Russia are responsible for recent email leaks pertaining to the US presidential election.
His comments affirmed the Obama administration's claim that Russia has been trying to meddle in the American political process – even as GOP nominee Donald Trump continued to cast doubts on the allegation and Russian President Vladimir Putin denied it.
"I think there's no question that the evidence continues to point in that direction," Mr. Pence said during a "Fox News Sunday" interview. "There should be severe consequences to Russia or any sovereign nation that is compromising the privacy or the security of the United States of America."
The disagreement, which came after the running mates publicly contradicted each other concerning US policy on Russia's military activity in Syria, could be seen as among the many hairline fractures rippling across the Republican party.
Even if the leaks do not sink Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House, Mr. Putin could be motivated by revenge, a desire for an "asymmetric information advantage," or a weaker American presidency, as The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier reported last week.
"In Moscow’s mind turmoil in Washington may be to Russia’s advantage," he wrote.
Intelligence officials have said Russia is behind recent hacks of Democratic Party emails, including ongoing releases via WikiLeaks of documents from the email account of John Podesta, campaign chairman of Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic nominee. Last week, during the second of three presidential debates, Clinton said the Russians were seeking to help her opponent.
"We have never in the history of our country been in a situation where an adversary, a foreign power, is working so hard to influence the outcome of the election. And believe me, they’re not doing it to get me elected. They’re doing it to try to influence the election for Donald Trump," Clinton said, according to a transcript published by The New York Times.
Mr. Trump took a less conclusive view, arguing that Clinton doesn't know who hacked the Democratic party's emails.
"Maybe there is no hacking," he said. "But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia [is] because they think they're trying to tarnish me with Russia."
Trump's comments were similar during the first presidential debate, when he argued that nobody knows if Russia was responsible for the hack, including Clinton.
"She's saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don't – maybe it was," Trump said, according to a transcript published by The Washington Post. "I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?"
Trump continued to assert Sunday that members of the media are the ones meddling in this year's election, tweeting the claim four separate times – rhetoric fellow Republicans have denounced.
Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
Putin himself again denied the meddling allegation Sunday, speaking in India after the summits of Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa, the so-called BRICS nations.
"I want to calm down everybody, including our American friends and partners," Putin said, as NBC reported. "We have no intention of influencing the election campaign in the US."
Steven Pifer, a senior fellow in foreign policy at The Brookings Institution commented in tweets Sunday that Putin "tends to deny a lot of things that turn out to be true" and that defending Trump may be hurting Pence's shot at the White House during the next presidential election.
Russia is an issue in the election because of a "well-oiled system of distracting the voters from domestic problems," Putin said, adding that he hopes to restore ties following the Nov. 8 election.
"If our partners in the United States intend to work with us, we will," Putin said, as Bloomberg reported. "I hope that when the debate is over, this difficult period in the United State’s internal political life is over, there’ll be a chance to restore relations between Russia and the US."
Relations between the two countries have grown strained since a Syrian cease-fire collapsed last month, as the Monitor reported.
In a piece published Friday by The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa suggests that Russia does not need a Trump presidency to successfully interfere in American politics.
“At this point, any Russian efforts to meddle in the election are likely not about trying to throw the election to Donald Trump, whose candidacy most serious Russian officials now believe is doomed," Mr. Yaffa wrote. "The goal, instead, is to confuse and discredit the American election process, in an attempt to weaken the country’s institutions and the likely future Clinton Presidency.”
Material from Reuters was included in this report.