— -- Donald Trump said he was being "sarcastic" when he said he hopes Russia will find Hillary Clintons deleted emails from her years as secretary of state.
"Of course I was being sarcastic," the Republican presidential nominee said on Fox News' "Fox & Friends" this morning. "And frankly, they don't even know if it's Russia, if it's China, if it's someone else. Who knows who it is?"
The brash real estate mogul made headlines yet again when he appeared to suggest that the Russian hackers who allegedly leaked internal Democratic National Committee emails should also find the thousands of private emails that Clinton erased during her time in the State Department.
"By the way, if they hacked, they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do," Trump told reporters Wednesday morning during a press conference at his golf club in Doral, Florida. "They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted."
He then looked directly into the news cameras and said, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."
Many observers offered a swift rebuke, claiming that Trump essentially invited a foreign country to hack U.S. systems and meddle in the election. Trump said those claims aren't true and the Democratic Party is using his comments to distract from the email scandal.
"What [the DNC] said in those emails is a disgrace, and they're just trying to deflect from that," he said on "Fox & Friends."
Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, came under investigation for her use of a personal email server while serving as secretary of state. After turning over to the FBI all correspondence about government business during her tenure at the department, Clinton revealed at a press conference last year that she had deleted about half her emails that pertained to personal matters, like her daughter's wedding. Attorney General Loretta Lynch ultimately decided not to pursue criminal charges against Clinton.
Clinton's senior policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, released a statement in response to Trump's comments on Wednesday.
"This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent," Sullivan said. "That's not hyperbole. Those are just the facts. This has gone from being a matter of curiosity and a matter of politics to being a national security issue."
A handful of major cybersecurity firms have concluded that Russian hackers were the likely culprits in releasing the DNC emails, which appeared to show party officials strategizing how to politically impede Bernie Sanders' campaign and aid Clinton's during the primaries. WikiLeaks published the emails last week.
Michael Buratowski, a cyber analyst at one of the firms that investigated the hack, told ABC News on Monday that Russians were to blame, "beyond a reasonable doubt." According to him, the hackers were using Russian internet addresses and typing on keyboards configured in Cyrillic.
The Kremlin said on Tuesday that accusations that Moscow was responsible for the hack were "absurd."
ABC News' Ryan Struyk, Candace Smith, John Santucci, Ines DeLaCuetara and Liz Kreutz contributed to this report.