Prominent Democratic denizens of America’s superheated political atmosphere breathed a sigh of relief Friday as investigators in Florida arrested a man they allege mailed crudely fashioned pipe bombs to at least 13 of President Donald Trump’s most visible critics and rhetorical targets.
Cesar Sayoc, 56, was arrested at an auto-parts store in the Miami suburb of Plantation shortly before police seized a van from the parking lot. The vehicle — where the suspect had reportedly been living — was decked out in Republican stickers, American flags and celebratory images of the U.S. president.
The attempted bombings, which targeted an array of high-profile Democrats ranging from former President Barack Obama and ex-secretary of state Hillary Clinton to former CIA director John Brennan and actor Robert De Niro, marked a new low point in a fiery political season that has put Trump’s bare-knuckle style on trial.
And despite suggestions earlier in the week that he would tone it down, the president was in his usual form Friday during a “Make America Great Again” rally in Charlotte, N.C., whipping the crowd into a frenzy and trying to turn the tables on the media, accusing them of blaming him for the attempted bombing attacks.
“The media’s constant, unfair coverage, deep hostility and negative attacks only serve to drive people apart and to undermine healthy debate. We have seen an effort by the media in recent hours to use the sinister actions of one individual to score political points against me and the Republican party,” Trump said.
“Our supporters are some of the most honest, wonderful, principled, hardworking, patriotic people on the face of God’s earth. They pay their taxes, follow our laws, care for their neighbours, go to church and contribute to charity, and they are loyal to our country — all they want is a government that is loyal to them in return.”
When the now-familiar chant of “lock her up” — a reference to Clinton — rose up out of the crowd, Trump smiled and said, “They’re going to be reporting about you tonight.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray refused Friday to discuss a political motive for the attempted attacks, but in celebrating what he characterized as a massive co-operative effort among U.S. law enforcement agencies, he did make clear that Sayoc’s arrest marked a step in the right direction.
“The partnerships that exist in the law enforcement profession in this country are extraordinary, and they’re better than they’ve ever been,” said Wray, whose agency has itself been a frequent target of the president’s ire.
“It’s exactly what the doctor ordered for this country at this time.”
News of the arrest followed an eyebrow-raising presidential tweet in which Trump blamed “this ‘Bomb’ stuff” for usurping political media coverage and stifling early-voting turnout for pivotal U.S. midterm elections.
That appeared to be a nod to conspiracy theories suggesting the bombs were part of a hoax, something Wray made clear wasn’t the case: “These were not hoax devices.”
The devices — Wray called them IEDs, or improvised explosive devices — were packed with ”energetic material” and could have caused harm if triggered by “heat, shock or friction,” he added.
Sayoc, an amateur body builder who 16 years earlier was on probation for a bomb threat charge, has social media accounts that vilify Democrats and praise the president. Misspellings from his online posts matched mistakes found on the packages, according to an 11-page criminal complaint.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions had a pointed warning for anyone who might be feeling stirred to violent action by the powerful feelings on both sides of the political spectrum.
“Let this be a lesson to anyone, regardless of their political beliefs, that we will bring the full force of law against anyone who attempts to use threats, intimidation and outright violence to further an agenda,” Sessions said.
“We will find you, and we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
During a post-arrest event in the East Room of the White House, Trump was on his best behaviour, reading a prepared statement that hailed the efforts of investigators, described the crimes as “terrorizing acts” and called again for the country to come together.
It was a stark, whipsaw departure from what the president said earlier in the day on Twitter, where he lamented the ongoing 24-hour coverage of the bombing investigation and what he characterized as its impact on Republican momentum in early voting for the U.S. midterms.
“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows — news not talking politics,” Trump tweeted.
“Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!”
That tweet appeared shortly after investigators discovered two new suspicious packages in the U.S. postal system — one at a Florida mail facility addressed to New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and another addressed to CNN, this one for James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence.
The package addressed to Clapper was discovered at a sorting facility in midtown Manhattan, just blocks from where a similar device forced the evacuation Wednesday of CNN’s New York newsroom and the Time Warner Center.
Later in the day, two more packages reportedly surfaced — one addressed to California Democrat Kamala Harris, the other to billionaire liberal political activist Tom Steyer. Other packages may still be in the system, officials said as they warned members of the public to be watchful.
All of them contained crudely fashioned explosive devices, bearing similar hallmarks and targeting outspoken Democrats, liberals and critics of the president. None of the devices detonated, and all were intercepted before reaching their intended targets.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press