WASHINGTON/MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted on Wednesday his country was not involved in an effort to influence the U.S. presidential election even as WikiLeaks released another trove of internal documents from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Last week, the U.S. government formally accused Russia of launching a hacking campaign to “interfere with the U.S. election process.”
Clinton’s campaign, which has charged the Kremlin is trying to help Republican Donald Trump win the White House on Nov. 8, took its allegations a step further on Tuesday when John Podesta, chairman of the Democratic nominee’s campaign, accused the Trump campaign of colluding with Russia.
At events in Florida, Trump said he had nothing to do with Putin or Russia.
"I promise you, I don't have any business deals with Russia," Trump said at a rally in Lakeland.
In Moscow, Putin said nothing in the hacking scandal is in Russia’s interests and accused all sides in the U.S. presidential campaign of misusing rhetoric about Russia for their own purposes.
“They started this hysteria, saying this (hacking) is in Russia’s interests, but this has nothing to do with Russia’s interests,” Putin told a business forum.
Putin said his government would work with whoever won the U.S. election, "if, of course, the new U.S. leader wishes to work with our country."
WikiLeaks, the organisation started by Julian Assange that publishes leaked information on the internet, this week released thousands of emails from Podesta’s email account and has not said how it obtained them. Last week, it posted excerpts from Clinton’s private speeches to banking and financial firms.
The Clinton campaign has not confirmed the authenticity of the messages.
The leaks, coming as the election campaign reaches the final stretch, have the potential to embarrass the Clinton camp. In recent days, however, Trump's own campaign has been in deeper trouble over the emergence of a 2005 video in which Trump bragged about groping women. Many Republican elected officials have turned their back on him and Clinton's lead in national opinion polls has increased.
Trump escalated his attacks on U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday, deepening a fracture in the Republican Party.
Clinton, a former secretary of state, has repeatedly accused Trump of having overly friendly ties with Putin and Russia.
She has noted that Trump’s foreign policies have tended to align with Russian’s interests, whether it has been questioning NATO’s role in defending Eastern Europe, failing to recognise Russia’s intrusion into Ukraine, and supporting Russia’s actions in Syria.
Trump, a New York businessman who has never previously run for office, has shifted his policies on a wide range of issues, from taxes to the minimum wage to immigration during his White House campaign but his statements on Russia have been consistent. His friendly stance toward Moscow departs from the views of many prominent Republicans.
During a presidential debate on Sunday, Trump publicly disagreed with his own vice presidential choice, Mike Pence, who had called for a more hawkish approach toward Russia.
"I DON'T KNOW PUTIN"
At that debate, Trump questioned whether Russia was behind the hacks, as the U.S. government has asserted. And on Wednesday, during a rally in Ocala, Florida, Trump echoed those remarks.
“Have you ever noticed, anything that goes wrong they blame Russia?" Trump told the crowd. "They always blame Russia and then they says Donald Trump is friends . . . I don’t know Putin, folks. What the hell do I have to do with Putin?”
Trump has said that as president he would seek warmer relations with Russia and that it would be in the United States' best interests to seek Russia's help to defeat Islamic State.
“Trump is the most pro-Russian presidential candidate ever,” said Max Boot, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. “Putin no doubt sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reorient U.S. foreign policy in his direction by electing Trump.”
A Russian ultra-nationalist ally of Putin who is known for his fiery rhetoric said Trump was the only person able to de-escalate dangerous tensions between Moscow and Washington, and predicted nuclear war if Clinton were elected.
"Relations between Russia and the United States can't get any worse. The only way they can get worse is if a war starts," Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a flamboyant veteran lawmaker, told Reuters.
Clinton campaign chairman Podesta said on Tuesday the FBI was investigating a “criminal hack” of his emails, and he tied the Trump campaign to the leaks by suggesting that a former Trump adviser, Roger Stone, had advance warning of the hacks.
The Trump campaign has not responded to the allegation about Stone, but Trump has denied any coordination with the Russian government to embarrass Clinton.
He has, however, made clear he supports WikiLeaks’ efforts. “I love WikiLeaks,” he said at a rally in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.
The United States has an ongoing criminal investigation into Assange’s publishing of classified material. Clinton has been a fierce critic of Assange, who remains at the Ecuadorean embassy in London where he sought refuge in 2012 to avoid possible extradition to Sweden.
Last week, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Department of Homeland Security said the government was confident the hacks of Democratic political groups and campaign officials originated from high levels of the Russian government.
The White House on Tuesday promised a “proportional” response to Russia over the hacks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told CNN the United States has offered no proof of his government’s involvement, and suggested Moscow was unconcerned about possible reprisals.
“If they decided to do something, let them do it,” Lavrov said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Amanda Becker, Ginger Gibson, Mark Hosenball, Luciana Lopez and Alexander Winning; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)