WASHINGTON — All week long, supporters of President Donald Trump played defense as each day brought new reports of more pipe bombs sent to prominent critics of the president. Some suggested the mailings could be a “false flag” operation aimed at ginning up Democratic enthusiasm. Trump himself complained “this ‘Bomb’ stuff” was distracting from the upcoming midterm elections.
Then came Friday’s arrest of a Trump supporter in Florida as the prime suspect.
Republicans from Trump on down scrambled to draw a firm line between the alleged actions of 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc and the president.
“There’s no blame. There’s no anything,” Trump insisted, batting away any suggestion that his harsh rhetoric, sometimes casually endorsing violence, played any role.
As for the message sent by his own words, Trump was unapologetic: “I think I’ve toned it down. I could really tone it up.”
Conservatives joined the defensive chorus, pointing, as Trump did, to the 2017 shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and others by a supporter of Democrat Bernie Sanders. No politician should be blamed for the violent tendencies of a supporter, they argued.
Matthew Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, tweeted that the “FBI tried to ‘stop’ Trump. Obama pushed Russian collusion. CNN never stops attacking him. Maxine & co want him in jail. But he is at fault?!”
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, admonished Trump for some of his harsh rhetoric and said “this is a time for the president to focus 100 percent on lifting the nation up and 0 percent on the political ramifications.”
But Fleischer also said he expected “the Democrats and the press to fall back into their pattern of rushing to blame President Trump. And that’s not right.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina created an awkward moment Friday when he said he hopes Democratic opposition to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh “blows up in their face.” Graham made the comment while appearing with Nevada Sen. Dean Heller near Las Vegas.
The Las Vegas Sun reported that Graham later clarified that he had meant he hoped the opposition would blow up politically for Democrats. Graham also called the mailing of bombs “political terrorism generated by a man who thinks he’s helping Trump, who’s hurting America.”
As he has done in other times of crisis, Trump on Friday delivered carefully worded remarks that denounced the hateful actions, declaring that “these terrorizing acts are despicable and have no place in our country.”
“I’ve instructed authorities to spare no resource or expense in finding those responsible and bringing them to swift and certain justice,” Trump said. “We must never allow political violence to take root in America, cannot let it happen. And I am committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it and to stop it now. Stop it now.”
But those remarks came a short time after he tweeted a complaint that the media’s focus on bombs was distracting from the 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 in the hours before Sayoc was taken into custody. “Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!”
At a campaign rally Friday night in North Carolina, Trump resumed the attack, accusing the media of using the pipe bomb incident to “score political points” against him and the GOP. The pro-Trump crowd broke into boos when and there were loud chants of “CNN sucks.”
Trump’s tweet was an effort to refocus attention on the midterms that could alter the path of his presidency. His quote marks around “Bomb” were striking, suggesting the president might doubt the authenticity of the scare. That theory had gained steam in some quarters on the right.
A number of Trump’s allies, including his eldest son, Donald Jr., and conservative commentator Lou Dobbs, have used social media to promote the idea that the bombs may be a Democrat-run hoax. Rush Limbaugh, influential right-wing radio host, and some GOP congressional candidates did the same. And the president’s favorite television show, Fox & Friends, ran a segment Friday morning in the hours before his tweet that raised the possibility that the bombs were a ploy to help Democrats.
After Sayoc was revealed to be a Trump supporter, a number of conservatives were quick to absolve the president of blame for contributing to the hyper-partisan atmosphere.
And even during the scare, Trump did not abandon his politics of grievance.
He issued a 3 a.m. tweet Friday in which he complained that CNN and others were blaming him for the panic, saying they were “ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, ‘it’s just not Presidential!’” One of the explosives packages was sent to CNN, forcing an evacuation of their Manhattan studios.
At the White House, just moments after saluting Sayoc’s arrest, Trump told cheering members of the 2018 Young Black Leadership Summit that “Come to think of it, who gets attacked more than me? I can do the greatest thing for our country and on the networks … it will show bad. No matter what.”
Some in the crowd began to yell “Fake News,” a staple at any Trump rally, while one person shouted “CNN sucks!” After Trump mentioned globalism, there was a jeer about George Soros, the liberal donor who was the target of one of the pipe bombs.
Trump also complained that coverage of the manhunt distracted from his announcement Thursday about an effort to lower prescription drug prices. Trump said the announcement “was competing with this story” about the pipe bombs.
He added that with apprehension of the suspect, “maybe that can start to disappear rapidly because we don’t like those stories.”