By William K. Rashbaum
Pipe bombs were sent to several prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, setting off an intense investigation on Wednesday into whether figures vilified by the right were being targeted.
From Washington to New York to Florida to Los Angeles, the authorities intercepted a wave of crudely built devices that were contained in manila envelopes.
In the center of Manhattan, the Time Warner Center, an elegant office and shopping complex, was evacuated because of a pipe bomb sent to CNN, which has its New York offices there. It was addressed to John Brennan, a critic of President Donald Trump who served as Obama’s CIA director.
None of the devices harmed anyone, and it was not immediately clear whether any of them could have. One law enforcement official said investigators were examining the possibility that they were hoax devices that were constructed to look like bombs but would not have exploded.
The FBI said the devices were similar to one found Monday at the home of George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and liberal donor, in a New York City suburb.
Coming less than two weeks before the midterm elections, the discovery of the pipe bombs reverberated across a country already on edge, stirring anew questions about whether political discourse had grown too vitriolic.
Clinton, Obama, Soros and CNN have all figured prominently in right-wing political attacks – many of which have been led by Trump. He has often referred to major news organizations as “the enemy of the people” and has shown contempt for CNN.
Trump, speaking at the White House on Wednesday, called the attempted bombings “despicable acts.”
“In these times we have to unify,” Trump said. “We have to come together and send one very clear, strong, unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.”
He continued in the same vein later Wednesday at a rally in Wisconsin, encouraging “all sides to come together in peace and harmony,” before taking aim at the news media.
“The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks,” Trump said.
Clinton, in an address to a crowd of about 200 Democratic donors in Florida, said: “It is a troubling time, isn’t it, and it’s a time of deep divisions and we have to do everything we can to bring our country together.”
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the attempted bombings “an effort to terrorize” and vowed the city’s residents “won’t allow terrorism to change us.”
But Jeff Zucker, the CNN worldwide president, accused Trump of demonizing journalists.
“The president, and especially the White House press secretary, should understand their words matter,” Zucker said.
All the devices were packed in envelopes lined with Bubble Wrap and bearing return addresses with the name of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who was once chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, the FBI said. The mailing labels were computer-printed, and six first-class stamps were affixed to all of the envelopes.
A fifth device sent to Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., was apparently incorrectly addressed, and because Wasserman Schultz’s name was on the return address, it was delivered to her district office in Florida, the FBI said.
Another package addressed to Rep. Maxine Waters, a D-Calif., was intercepted at a congressional mail facility, Waters said in a statement. In recent months, Trump and Waters have often ridiculed each other.
Later, yet another package addressed to Waters was discovered at a mail facility near downtown Los Angeles, according to a law enforcement official. The discovery forced the evacuation of the facility.
The device that went to CNN’s offices arrived by courier, a law enforcement official said. However, it still had half-a-dozen first-class postage stamps on it. Investigators believe the bomb delivered to Soros’ home was dropped off in his mailbox.
The device sent to Clinton was found late Tuesday by a Secret Service employee who screens mail for her, a statement from the Secret Service said.
A security guard at the Clinton Foundation’s Midtown Manhattan offices said the package was addressed to Clinton’s home in Westchester County, north of New York City, not her offices.
The package addressed to Obama was intercepted early Wednesday by Secret Service personnel in Washington.
A law enforcement official said the devices were made with a 1-inch-by-6-inch length of PVC pipe filled with suspected pyrotechnic powder and broken glass to serve as shrapnel. They had a small button battery with a digital clock as a timer and a hot bridge wire initiator, the official said.
The devices contained some of the components that would be required to build an operable bomb, but law enforcement officials would not say late Wednesday whether they were viable.
The devices were being sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, where they would be analyzed.
A senior law enforcement official in New York, describing the bomb sent to CNN, said it was intercepted in the basement mailroom and resembled the others: “Same package. Same device.”
On Wednesday afternoon, New York City’s police commissioner, James O’Neill, said that the CNN bomb was “a live explosive device” and that it would be rendered harmless and sent to the FBI to be analyzed. The package that contained the device also included white powder that the police were testing to determine if it was toxic, he said.
Some bomb technicians who studied photos of the device that circulated on social media suggested that the bomb sent to CNN had hallmarks of fake explosives – the kind more typically depicted on television and in movies, rather than devices capable of detonating.
A digital clock was taped to the middle of the pipe, a feature that experts say is typically shown on fictional bombs in an attempt to ratchet up dramatic tension, but unnecessary in real life.
In fact, bomb-makers generally avoid attaching visible clocks to their devices to keep from tipping off their targets about when the bombs are set to explode.
Earlier this month, federal authorities said they intercepted multiple packages suspected of containing the lethal substance ricin, addressed to Trump and at least two top Pentagon officials. In February, an envelope containing a white, powdery substance that investigators later determined was cornstarch was sent to the Manhattan apartment of Donald Trump Jr.’s mother-in-law.
On Wednesday, the authorities said bomb technicians would seek to determine where the bombs’ components were purchased or the bombs were made. Evidence technicians will try to recover traces of DNA or fingerprints from the components and the envelopes that contained the bombs.
Federal agents with the United States Postal Inspection Service could play an important role in the investigation if any of the packages were delivered through the mail.
The envelopes had more postage than needed to be delivered, according to a former law enforcement official briefed on the investigation. The extra postage led investigators to believe that the person who sent the devices wanted to avoid going to a post office to buy the correct postage – a step to evade detection, the official said.
The Postal Inspection Service would examine the postage and postmarks and seek to determine where the envelopes were mailed from. Investigators could examine surveillance video at post offices and around blue letter boxes where the packages may have been deposited.