In the latest of a series of implausibly appalling statements, Republican presidential nightmare Donald Trump encouraged the Russian government to hack into the servers of US government officials in order to provide him political ammunition against his Democratic rival.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Trump said: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."
The comment caused dismay even among reporters who have grown used to Trump's outrageous off-the-cuff comments, typically designed to make him the focus of that day's news cycle.
Trump was referring to the recent scandal over the release of confidential emails from key staffers at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which resulted in the resignation of its chair, and was trying to tie it into the controversy over Hillary Clinton's private email server that she used while secretary of state.
The DNC, and seemingly the US government's intelligence services, believe the hack was carried out by groups sponsored by the Russian government, with the stolen data then provided to controversial document archive website WikiLeaks.
Received wisdom is that the leak is a calculated effort by the Russian government to undermine Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – who has taken a firm line with Russia internationally – and so increase the chances of Donald Trump assuming the presidency. The saga has put a spotlight on Trump's praise of Russian president Vladimir Putin and a comment he made about Putin in which he said: "I hope he likes me."
Encouraging a foreign government to act against the interests of the US government was seen as a further sign of how Donald Trump puts personal ambition ahead of national interest, however.
It also comes after dismay last week at comments he made suggesting that he would not stick to Article 5 of the NATO treaty that requires the United States (and all other signatories) to come to the aid of a NATO nation if it is attacked.
Asked specifically about the risk of Russia invading a NATO country in a similar way to which it annexed part of Ukraine in 2014, Trump said he would come to their aid only if they had "fulfilled their obligations to us" – meaning paid their financial dues to NATO.
Faced with outrage over his encouragement of the Russian government to hack into US government official servers, Trump fell back into a well-worn path of behavior: he "doubled-down" on his statement by tweeting a slightly modified version of what he said, and then had his spokesman deny that he meant what he actually said.
As if it matters, here are both statements from Trump and his senior comms advisor Jason Miller:
Trump: 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!
Miller: To be clear, Mr. Trump did not call on, or invite, Russia or anyone else to hack Hillary Clinton's e-mails today.
In a normal election cycle, this comment, as well as literally dozens of similar statements made by Trump in the past few months, would see an effective end to his bid for the presidency.
But in 2016, Donald Trump has beaten all the odds by managing to dominate the news cycles and have the media focus almost exclusively on his comments, creating an extraordinary level of awareness and celebrity over his candidacy that has turned into active support.
The sadder truth is that with the Democratic National Convention taking place this week, Trump has not been as much a feature of the news, with much of the coverage focused on speeches given by the wife of President Obama, Michele, and husband of Hillary Clinton and former president himself, Bill Clinton.
In order to wrest back the headlines and remain in the spotlight, Trump has provided yet one more outrageous statement, guessing – possibly correctly – that his supporters put entertainment above serious questions over suitability when considering who to support for the presidency. ®