US presidential candidate Donald Trump has been accused of urging foreign powers to engage in espionage against his rival in the race to the White House, Hillary Clinton.
Trump's comments came after it was alleged that the Kremlin was invoved in the leaking of Democratic Party emails.
The Republican presidential nominee attacked Clinton - leader of the party - over her own email
scandal, which has badgered her presidential campiagn.
"Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump said before reporters at one of his golf resorts. "I think you'll be rewarded mightily by our press."
When pressed about whether he was urging the US' long-time rivals
to spy on the Democratic Party, Trump added: "It gives me no pause. If Russia or China or any of those country gets those emails, I've got to be honest with you, I'd love to see them."
The real-estate tycoon-turned politician's comments follow the publication of around 20,000 emails belonging to the Democratic National Convention [DNC] last week by Wikileaks.
The emails revealed details of a plot to smear Clinton's former rival Bernie Sanders
, resulting in the resignation of DNC chair Wasserman Schultz.
||The email leak revealed a plot to smear Clinton's
former rival Bernie Sanders [Getty]
Democrats were quick to condemn Trump for his words while also addressing US intelligence experts' suspicions that Russia was behind the leak.
"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. That's not hyperbole, those are just the facts," said Clinton’s senior policy advisor, Jake Sullivan.
"This has gone from being a matter of curiosity, and a matter of politics, to being a national security issue," he added.
The CIA's former director Leon Panetta weighed in on the matter in an interview with CNN, where he called into question Trump's loyalty to the US.
"You've got now a presidential candidate who is, in fact, asking the Russians to engage in American politics. I just think that that's beyond the pale. I think that kind of statement only reflects the fact that he truly is not qualified to be president of the United States," he said.
Senior Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, also spoke to to distance themselves from Trump's comments.
"Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug," said Ryan's spokesman Brenan Buck. "Putin should stay out of this election".
Following the leak, Clinton's spokesman indicated on the weekend the possibility that Trump was involved in the release of the documents.
This was denied by the Republican nominee, who has come under increasing scrutiny for his apparent admiration of Moscow.
At the same news conference in Florida, Trump shied away from condemning Russia's annexation of Crimea after a reporter asked him where he would recognise the Eastern European territory "as Russian territory".
"We'll be looking at that. Yeah, we'll be looking," the Republican nominee repled.
By avoiding condemnation of Putin, Trump strayed from Republican orthodoxy and thus fanned speculation that the Kremlin was behind the hack targeting his rival.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has dismissed accusations that it is trying to interfere in the US presidential election as "horror stories".
"Moscow is at pains to avoid any words that could be interpreted as direct or indirect interference in the election process," Reuters quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.