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Police allow someone through the perimeter outside the Time Warner Center in the Manhattan borough of New York City after a suspicious package was found inside the CNN Headquarters in New York. Photo by Kevin Coombs/Reuters

12 suspicious packages and the growing concern over political rhetoric

UPDATE: On Friday, federal investigators charged Cesar Altieri Sayoc, 56, of Aventura, Florida, in sending 13 suspicious packages to mostly Democratic public figures.

A string of suspicious packages containing “potentially destructive devices” targeting nine public figures across the country this week has raised broader concerns about the kind of political rhetoric that has been amplified in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.

The attempted attacks, which come less than two weeks before Election Day, were addressed to Democratic leaders and people who have been critical of President Donald Trump.

Trump has condemned the packages as “despicable acts,” but in a tweet Thursday, he blamed the media for a “very big part of the Anger we see today in our society.”

Here’s a look at where things stand.

Who was targeted?

All the targets of the suspicious packages: (Top L-R) actor Robert De Niro, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Democratic Party donor George Soros and former President Barack Obama, (Bottom L-R) former Attorney General Eric Holder, congresswoman Maxine Waters, former Vice President Joe Biden and former CIA Director John Brennan are pictured in a combination photograph from Reuters file photos.

All the targets of the suspicious packages: (Top L-R) actor Robert De Niro, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Democratic Party donor George Soros and former President Barack Obama, (Bottom L-R) former Attorney General Eric Holder, congresswoman Maxine Waters, former Vice President Joe Biden and former CIA Director John Brennan are pictured in a combination photograph from Reuters file photos.

As of Thursday afternoon, federal investigators have confirmed at least 10 suspicious packages. They were addressed to:

  • George Soros: On Monday, Secret Service agents found a package in the mailbox of the liberal philanthropist’s home in Bedford, New York.
  • Hillary Clinton: Late Tuesday, one package addressed to the former secretary of state was intercepted in Westchester County, New York.
  • Barack Obama: On Wednesday morning, one package addressed to the former president was intercepted in Washington, D.C.
  • John Brennan: Later Wednesday, a package addressed to the former CIA director was received at CNN’s New York offices.
  • Eric Holder: On Wednesday, a package addressed to the former attorney general was rerouted to a Florida office belonging to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. That’s because all of the packages listed the Democratic congresswoman as the return addressee.
  • Maxine Waters: By Thursday morning, FBI officials confirmed that there were two separate packages addressed to the California Democrat. One was intercepted in D.C., the other in California.
  • Robert de Niro: On Thursday, a package addressed to the actor was intercepted in Manhattan.
  • Joe Biden: Two packages addressed to the former vice president were intercepted Thursday in Delaware.
  • Cory Booker: A package addressed to the New Jersey senator was intercepted Friday in Florida.
  • James Clapper: A package addressed to the former national intelligence director in the care of CNN was intercepted at a postal facility in Manhattan.

In a Wednesday briefing on the suspicious package recovered from CNN’s mailroom, authorities said there may be additional explosive devices that have not yet been discovered.

Officials also said that any information related to the case could be reported to their the hotline 1-800-CALL-FBI or submitted through a tip form online.

How are the packages connected?

As more packages surfaced, FBI officials confirmed certain similarities among the items.

FBI officials released a photo of one of the suspicious packages. Addresses in the photo have been removed to protect privacy, FBI said.

FBI officials released a photo of one of the suspicious packages. Addresses in the photo have been removed to protect privacy, FBI said.

Officials said the packages were all wrapped with bubble wrap inside and mailed in manila envelopes. Each had “computer-printed address labels and six Forever stamps,” the FBI said in a statement.

There was also a notable return addressee on all the packages: “DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ.”

The congresswoman’s name was misspelled on the label, a mistake that also appeared on other packages, authorities said.

Local and federal authorities, in a briefing Thursday afternoon, said the nationwide investigation is “still in the early stages” and declined to provide specifics about the possible origins of the packages, among other details. Officials have yet to determine a motive for the packages, nor have they attributed the packages to specific individuals or groups.


Officials provide an update Thursday on the suspicious packages from New York and elsewhere. Video by PBS NewsHour

Despite media reports questioning whether the packages were intended to explode or not, officials said investigators are treating them seriously, as “live devices.”

NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller said the packages all contained a similar black pipe bomb. None of the devices have detonated.

How are all these incidents being investigated?

The undetonated packages offer clues that could lead investigators to discovering their source.

Joseph Funk, who was a member of the Secret Service for 21 years, told the PBS NewsHour that the parcels “were received in whole” and could “lead to a cache of valuable investigative leads.”

The only package that set off was the first to be discovered, at Soros’ residence. A bomb squad forced that detonation.


Federal agents are investigating bomb scares targeting prominent Democrats, as well as CNN. Judy Woodruff discusses how officials might approach the case with Juliette Kayyem, who worked in the Department of Homeland Security under Obama, and Joseph Funk, former Secret Service.

Another thing that could be useful to the investigation is the wealth of digital footprints that could be discovered, said Juliette Kayyem, who served in the Department of Homeland Security under Obama.

There are “video cameras, purchases online that are going to be followed with someone buying a lot of one commodity that we should be worried about, as well as the physical aspect of having the bomb, which may have fingerprints,” she told the NewsHour.

How has the White House reacted?

Trump and White House Press sec SHS both called the attempted bombings “despicable” in separate statements.

First lady Melania Trump called the acts “cowardly”; so did Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

“In these times, we have to unify, we have to come together and send one clear, strong unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America,” Trump said at an event Wednesday.

That bipartisan message — of holding those responsible and seeking unity amid the turmoil — didn’t last long with the president.

At a rally in Wisconsin on Wednesday night, the president blamed journalists for the “hostility” following these intercepted packages.

Trump has attacked the media at his rallies and also Democrats. (Trump supporters at the Wisconsin rally also chanted “lock her up,” referring to Clinton, ahead of his remarks.) The president has at times advanced conspiracy theories, like one against Soros, that are false.

CNN head Jeff Zucker said in a statement that members of the Trump administration, including the press secretary, have “a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media.”

It’s not just high-profile figures or outlets that Trump has targeted with highly politicized rhetoric in the runup to midterms. In the wake of the Justice Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Trump has decried an “angry left-wing mob” enough times that The Washington Post Editorial Board published a column flagging the president’s rhetoric.

Sanders, in defending Trump from criticism of his rhetoric, said there’s a difference between “comments made and actions taken.”

Is there a connection to political rhetoric?

Words do matter, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, told the NewsHour.

“Our elected political officials are amongst the people who set the norms in the country,” Lukensmeyer said.

Trump, in particular, has used rhetoric to vilify his political opponents throughout his presidential campaign and during the first part of his term in office.

“Typically we think of the president of using transcendent language, focusing on what we all have in common as Americans,” said Jennifer Mercieca, associate communication professor at Texas A&M University. “We look to the president for that because he or she is the only leader elected by the whole nation and so should be able to speak to nation as a whole.”

Trump, however, is “not good” at transcendent rhetoric, Mercieca said. “I don’t know if he can’t do it or he won’t do it. He’s very good at polarizing rhetoric. He’s good at ‘us’ versus ‘them’; his friends versus his enemies.”

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah defended Trump to the Washington Post on Wednesday.

“I don’t see anything really wrong with the president. I think that, you know, he’s in a tough position, he’s attacked on all sides and he ought to be able to express himself,” he told the newspaper.

But, political officials can have an impact on how people perceive things and the actions they take, according to Lukensmeyer.

“In the 2016 election, we actually saw this connection between the use of demonizing language of otherizing groups — African Americans, Muslims, women, reporters — and then we actually watched in some rallies where that turned into violent action,” Lukensmeyer said.

It’s a link that’s been well-established over time, she added.

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