WASHINGTON — Even before authorities apprehended Cesar Sayoc, a 56-year-old Florida man suspected of sending crude pipe bombs to the homes of two former presidents and other top Democrats, Washington insiders assumed the devices were intended not to kill or maim, but to advance a political party or ideology.
After all, none of the suspicious packages discovered by authorities had exploded.
At that point, only one other question mattered to D.C. partisans: Which party could use these acts of domestic terrorism to hammer the other side?
The answer became clear Friday morning – neither Republicans nor the notion of national unity would win the story, no matter how much politicians gave lip service to the ideal of putting aside politics 11 days before the midterm elections.
Early Friday, President Donald Trump tweeted about how the suspicious package story hurt the GOP: “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. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!”
Democrats unleashed a torrent of blame toward Trump for setting a toxic tone that encouraged violence. Friday on CNN, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said “he spends most of the time at his rallies throwing verbal bombs at all the people that received these bombs in the mail.”
Wednesday, Trump called on the country to come together in the face of the bomb threats. Democratic politicians scoffed at the hollowness of Trump’s words given his combative tone. CNN President Jeff Zucker showed he held Trump responsible because “words matter.”
“It’s crazy to draw a direct line between President Trump and this incident,” said Marc Sandalow of the University of California Washington Program.
Speaking with reporters on the South Lawn Friday, Trump said he knew Sayoc was a supporter, but that he himself bears no blame.
“There is no blame,” he said, comparing the series of threatening packages sent to prominent Democrats to how a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders shot up a GOP baseball field last year, seriously injuring Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
Before Sayoc’s arrest, some conservatives were convinced that the bomb maker was a liberal activist trying to tilt the election in Democrats’ favor.
Candace Owens, communications director for the Young Black Leadership Summit, tweeted on Wednesday that there was “0 percent chance” a conservative sent the bombs: “The only thing ‘suspicious’ about these packages is their timing, Caravans, fake bomb threats – these leftists are going ALL OUT for the midterms.”
Owens deleted the tweet before attending a Young Black Leadership Summit event at the White House Friday.
Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh also argued that Republicans don’t “act in this manner.”
Fox News anchors Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace engaged Friday in a heated argument on air about whether Trump should be blamed for thepackages. Smith said the story “goes to the tone and tenor of” Trump’s rhetoric. Wallace responded it was ridiculous to blame Trump for the actions of “a twisted individual.”
“This poor man that they arrested who seems implausibly like such a loser, but has managed to threaten two presidents, two first ladies, 13 or 14 people, he’s listening to what Donald Trump’s saying,” said Ellen Tauscher, who served as an undersecretary of state under President Barack Obama. “The only people who are surprised by it are Trump apologists.”
Though Sandalow said it was wrong to blame Trump for the bomb mailings, he noted that the targets of the bomb packages were also targets of Trump’s ire. “If Trump had directed all of his wrath in the last two years against the Los Angeles Dodgers, it’s more likely they would have received pipe bombs,” he said.