(TNS) -- As delegates were arriving in Philadelphia last weekend, the Democratic National Convention descended into chaos before it began, amid the WikiLeaks release of 20,000 hacked internal party emails, fueling Bernie Sanders supporters’ opposition to Hillary Clinton and causing the party’s chairwoman to resign.
But by Wednesday night, the email hack had become a rallying cry for many Democrats in Philadelphia, with prime-time speakers like Leon Panetta, former defense secretary and CIA director, slamming Donald Trump’s apparent fondness for Russia, which U.S. spy agencies and cybersecurity firms suspect was behind the hack.
The turning point came at a Wednesday afternoon news conference by Trump, in which he encouraged Russian hackers to go after emails Clinton kept on a private server when she was secretary of state, saying, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Trump walked back the comment Thursday, calling it sarcasm.
But it set off a torrent of condemnation from defense experts and politicians on both sides of the aisle and has given hope to Democrats that Clinton can use national security, an issue usually claimed by Republicans, to her advantage.
“Donald Trump today once again took Russia’s side. He asked the Russians to interfere in American politics,” Panetta said in his speech. “It is inconceivable to me that any presidential candidate could be that irresponsible.”
Retired Navy Rear Adm. John Hutson, who left the Republican Party during the George W. Bush administration, said at the Democratic convention that it was “embarrassing” that Trump leads a major U.S. political party.
“He personally invited Russia to hack us. That’s not law and order. That’s criminal intent,” Hutson said.
Trump’s Wednesday comment was “tantamount to treason,” said William Inboden, a University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs associate professor who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
“He is inviting and encouraging an adversary of the U.S. to engage in cyberattacks and espionage on us,” Inboden told the American-Statesman. Inboden, who called himself a conservative Republican, said he won’t vote for Trump or Clinton.
He added he isn’t a lawyer and doesn’t know the threshold for prosecuting someone for treason but that he “used very strong language deliberately because I believe we need to draw attention to this.”
He wasn’t alone. Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, a liberal legal scholar who has been an adviser for President Barack Obama, also suggested Trump’s comments could be treasonous.
“Trump’s ‘jokes’ inviting an adversary to wage cyberwar against the U.S. appear to violate the Logan Act and might even constitute treason,” Tribe said on Twitter. The Logan Act is a 1799 law banning Americans from negotiating with foreign powers if they aren’t authorized by the U.S. government.
Trump on Thursday said that his remarks weren’t meant as an invitation for Russia to spy on U.S. leaders and that the leaked emails, in which Democratic National Committee officials were critical of Sanders, were “disgraceful.”
“Of course I’m being sarcastic, and they don’t even know, frankly, if it’s Russia,” Trump said in an interview on Fox News.
News of the cyberattack first broke in June, when Democratic National Committee officials said hackers acting on behalf of Russia’s government had infiltrated their network and stolen documents, including opposition research on Trump.
The release of the hacked emails by WikiLeaks is the first known attempt by a foreign actor to sway a U.S. election through a cyberattack.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said he timed the release before the convention to hamper Clinton’s election efforts and has promised to release additional documents throughout the campaign. Assange has criticized Clinton for pushing to have him indicted after his release of thousands of hacked U.S. diplomatic cables when she was secretary of state.
Assange has so far declined to say where the documents came from, but the hacker or hackers known as Guccifer 2.0 have taken credit.
Guccifer 2.0 claims to be Romanian, but experts who have analyzed documents released by Guccifer 2.0 said they contain metadata indicating they were created by a Russian language user.
Questions about Trump’s relationship to the Kremlin didn’t begin with the WikiLeaks episode. Several Trump advisers have ties to the Russian government and Trump has done real estate projects with investors connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“His comments weren’t a slip of the tongue but they’re of a piece with his obsequiousness” to Putin and Russia, Inboden said. “He’s made repeated statements of praise and gushing admiration of Putin. This guy seems entirely too friendly and sympathetic to the Kremlin.”
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has worked for a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president unseated in 2014. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a Trump adviser who was floated as a potential running mate, is an analyst for the U.S. arm of the Kremlin-funded cable news channel Russia Today. Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser, has worked as a consultant for Gazprom, state-owned Russian energy giant.
Recently, Trump said he wouldn’t defend NATO members that were invaded by Russia if they didn’t contribute their share of military spending to the alliance, a major break from Republican orthodoxy.
The Trump campaign has sought to turn attention away from speculation about Russia’s involvement in the cyberattack and back toward the Clinton email server scandal, even though that issue has no connection to the Democratic National Committee hack.
“Only reason we’re talking about this is b/c HC deleted e-mails on home server & it’s hurting her campaign. D’s trying to change subject,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller posted on Twitter. “Keep in mind: Crooked Hillary still hasn’t said what was on those emails. She said they were about yoga.”
FBI Director James Comey last month declined to recommend Clinton be prosecuted for the email server arrangement, but he harshly criticized her handling of sensitive communications while she was secretary of state.
Comey might again play a role in the 2016 presidential election. The FBI has said it is investigating the Democratic National Committee cyberattack.
Additional material from Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Aaron Gould Sheinin.
©2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.