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[WASHINGTON] Donald Trump gave an interview Thursday with RT, Russia's state-sponsored international news network, in which he said it was "probably unlikely" that the Kremlin was interfering with the US presidential election.
Facing criticism from Democratic rival Hillary Clinton over his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, speculated the stories of Russian interference were just that.
"I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out," Mr Trump said. "Who knows, but I think it's pretty unlikely... I hope that if they are doing something, I hope that somebody's going to be able to find out that they can end it because that would not be appropriate at all."
Mrs Clinton told reporters on Thursday that Mr Trump "will let Putin do whatever Putin wants to do, and then make excuses for him".
Her remarks came following an NBC town hall on Wednesday night where Mr Trump asserted that Mr Putin was a better leader than President Obama. "The man has very strong control over a country," Mr Trump said at the forum. "It's a very different system and I don't happen to like the system, but certainly, in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader."
Trump campaign press secretary Hope Hicks suggested in a statement that the campaign did not know the interview was going to be broadcast on RT. "Mr Trump recorded a short interview with Larry King for his podcast as a favour to Mr King," Ms Hicks said.
"What Larry King does with the interview content is up to him. We have nothing to do with it." Democrats have seized on Mr Trump campaign's connections to Russia.
Last month, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned in the face of intense criticism for his previous political consulting work with the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Mr Putin said that he was prepared to work with either Mr Trump or Mrs Clinton.
"We are ready to work with any president, but, of course-I also said this-to the extent that the future administration is ready. If someone says that they want to work with Russia, we'll welcome it," Mr Putin told Bloomberg.
"And if someone, as you said-although it may be an inaccurate translation-wants to get rid of us, that will be a completely different approach. But we will survive it, and it's not clear who has more to lose with that approach."
Russia has become a political wedge issue for Mr Trump-even amongst his own party. Earlier on Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, told reporters that Mr Putin was "an aggressor who does not share out interest".
"Putin is violating the sovereignty of neighbouring countries," Mr Ryan told reporters, when asked about Mr Trump's comments on Mr Putin at the forum. "It certainly appears that he is conducting state-sponsored cyber attacks on what appears to be our political system."