WASHINGTON ― Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin is “not my best friend,” when he was asked whether he disapproves of Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. election.
Trump, who once encouraged Russian hacking of Hillary Clinton’s emails, changed his tune at the final presidential debate on Wednesday, saying he condemns interference in the election by Russia “or anybody else.”
But Trump also repeated a claim he’s made throughout the election season — that he doesn’t know Putin.
“I don’t know Putin, I never met Putin,” he said.
That contradicts what the Republican nominee repeatedly said before he ran for president.
Here are four of Trump’s previous statements, cited by PolitiFact:
• When Thomas Roberts of MSNBC asked Trump, “Do you have a relationship with Vladimir Putin? A conversational relationship or anything that you feel you have sway or influence over his government?” Trump responded, “I do have a relationship, and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today. He’s probably very interested in what you and I am saying today, and I’m sure he’s going to be seeing it in some form.” ― interview, November, 2013
• “You know, I was in Moscow a couple of months ago. I own the Miss Universe Pageant and they treated me so great. Putin even sent me a present, a beautiful present.” ― address at the CPAC conference, March 2014
• “Russia does not respect our country any longer. They see we’ve been greatly weakened, both militarily and otherwise, and he certainly does not respect President Obama. So what I would do—as an example, I own Miss Universe, I was in Russia, I was in Moscow recently and I spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer, and we had a tremendous success. The show was live from Moscow, and we had tremendous success there and it was amazing, but to do well, you have to get the other side to respect you, and he does not respect our president, which is very sad.” ― address at the National Press Club, May 2014
• “As far as the Ukraine is concerned … if Putin wants to go in ― and I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes. We were stablemates, and we did very well that night.” ― portion of an answer at the Fox Business News debate, Nov. 2015. (The notion that the two men appeared together on 60 Minutes has been debunked. As Time magazine put it succinctly, “In fact, they weren’t even on the same continent.”)
When Clinton was asked about a speech in which she’d espoused a “dream” for “a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders,” she quickly pivoted to the source of that conversation, which was revealed by WikiLeaks.
“What’s really important about WikiLeaks is that the Russian government has engaged in espionage against Americans,” Clinton said. “Will Donald Trump admit and condemn that the Russians are doing this?”
Later in the debate, Clinton said Putin would rather have a “puppet” in the White House, appearing to refer to Trump. “You’re the puppet,” Trump shot back.
WikiLeaks has taken on a surprisingly influential role in the 2016 election. The platform’s founder and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, will not reveal his sources, and it’s unknown whether they may be associated with Russia. But the Obama administration has blamed Russia for hacking into the Democratic National Committee, which saw thousands of embarrassing internal emails released on the whistleblowing platform.
While Assange claims not to have an affinity for either presidential candidate — he has compared them to having a choice between “cholera or gonorrhea” ― his leaks overwhelmingly focus on Clinton. WikiLeaks began publishing hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta earlier this month. Podesta contends Russian intelligence officials hacked into his email to move the election in favor of Trump.
The Podesta emails have created headaches for the Clinton campaign, but no truly damning revelations. Excerpts from Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street appended to one email revealed a candidate at ease with an elite crowd who was not above flattering potential donors, but who also did not offer any political favors. In another email thread, Clinton resisted calls from advisers to cancel a paid 2015 speech by her husband to Morgan Stanley, before eventually taking her team’s political advice. They show the Clinton camp struggling over whether to support tougher financial regulations and agonizing about what position to take on President Barack Obama’s free trade agenda. (She would ultimately oppose both.)
WikiLeaks has dogged Clinton’s campaign to the point of openly fueling conspiracy theories. In September, the outlet tweeted ― and subsequently deleted ― a poll asking users to speculate whether Clinton’s stumble was due to “Parkinsons” or “allergies & personality.”
Trump supporters have started rooting for WikiLeaks as a kind of secret weapon that might save their fumbling candidate. Trump political adviser Roger Stone has called Assange “my hero.” Fox News hosts, not traditionally fans of WikiLeaks, have praised its disclosures about Clinton.
Not all Republicans are comfortable with the cozy relationship that’s developing between WikiLeaks and ultra-conservatives. “I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said this week. “Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us.”
Nick Baumann contributed reporting.
This story has been updated with additional information about the hacked Clinton emails.