By Mark Landler and Katie Rogers
WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump took the podium in the East Room on Friday, he opened with a solemn expression of gratitude to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for arresting a suspect in a bomb plot against prominent Democrats and other critics of him.
Moments later, Trump veered to more familiar terrain, railing against Democrats, globalists and the news media. He grinned in delight as his audience of young black conservatives chanted, “Lock ‘em up,” “George Soros” and “CNN sucks.”
Trump’s quick-change act – half dignified presidential statement, half raucous “Make America Great Again” rally – captured the political challenge he faces after a fervent Trump supporter was charged Friday with mailing pipe bombs to former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other favorite targets of the president’s.
An energized Trump had planned to spend the final 10 days before the midterm elections whipping up Republican fears about a caravan of violent criminals allegedly heading toward the southern border and warning about the mob rule that will erupt if the Democrats capture the House of Representatives.
But now, as it became clear that the bombing suspect, Cesar Sayoc Jr., 56, was a die-hard backer of the president, whose white van was a mobile shrine to him – plastered with stickers celebrating Trump and vilifying his foes – the president’s appeals to nativism and partisan furies threatened to boomerang on him.
For once, Trump conceded, he was not the master of the news cycle. The migrant caravan has been relegated to the background. New statistics showing a growing economy went largely unremarked upon. Trump seemed to take particular umbrage that his ambitious proposal to cut prescription drug prices got lost amid the breaking news about explosive devices turning up in post offices in Florida and New York City.
“They were also competing with this story,” he said with palpable frustration. “Now our law enforcement’s done such a good job,” he added, “maybe that can start to disappear rapidly because we don’t like those stories.”
But on Friday, as Trump flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, for yet another rally, the bomb plot still dominated the airwaves. Photographs circulated of Sayoc holding a placard at a Trump rally and wearing a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap at his inauguration. Among the stickers on his van was one with Clinton’s face in a simulated gun-sight.
“I heard he was a person that preferred me over others,” Trump told reporters. But he denied any link between his inflammatory language and such acts of violence. “There’s no blame,” he said. “There’s no anything.”
“I think I’ve been toned down,” the president said, adding, “I could really tone it up.”
Trump continued to scapegoat the news media in Charlotte, saying that the focus on Sayoc’s political leanings was a product of their trying to start a political attack.
“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 at the rally. “The media has tried to attack the incredible Americans who support our movement to give power back to the people.”
For a few minutes in the morning, Trump did manage to project a grave tone. “These terrorizing acts are despicable and have no place in our country,” he said, speaking from prepared remarks.
“We will prosecute them, him, her – whoever it may be – to the fullest extent of the law,” Trump said. “We must never allow political violence to take root in America. We cannot let it happen.”
Trump’s ambiguous language left open the possibility there could be more than one suspect in the case – a prospect that neither FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, nor other law enforcement officials suggested in a later briefing.
Earlier in the day, before he had been briefed about the case by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump’s frustration boiled over. He characterized the bomb scares as an obstacle to Republican voters before the midterms.
He even suggested that the threat was not real or was exaggerated by putting the word “bomb” in quotes – language that edged close to that of conspiracy theorists on the alt-right, who claimed without evidence that it was a false-flag operation by Democrats to mobilize their voters.
“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,” the president said in a tweet. “Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!”
It was not clear how much he knew about the case before he posted this tweet, but he had received briefings throughout the week.
Trump has never troubled himself with keeping a presidential mien during times of national crisis, whether it was wildfires in California, shootings in Chicago or the racial clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia. But even by his standards, his remarks in the White House before a crowd of a few hundred mostly African-American activists were discordant.
In the same week that bombs were mailed to a former Democratic president, a vice president, a first lady, a senator and a congresswoman, Trump ridiculed the Democratic Party, saying its policies had led to unsafe communities, failing schools and overcrowded prisons. He even claimed erroneously that the party’s name was “Democrat,” adding, “I hate it. I hate just saying it.”
“Lock ‘em up,” several people chanted.
In the same week that a bomb was mailed to the suburban New York home of Soros, the philanthropist and Democratic donor – also the same week that Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian government expelled a university founded by Soros – Trump inveighed against “globalists,” whom he accused of cheating American workers.
“George Soros!” someone in the crowd shouted.
“Thank you for being a nationalist,” cried another.
And in the same week that two explosives were mailed to CNN’s New York offices – one addressed to John O. Brennan, the former CIA director; the other to James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence – Trump said the news media attacked him relentlessly and never covered his successes.
“Fake news!” said a person.
Gesturing and chuckling appreciatively, Trump repeated, “Fake news.”
Asked whether he planned to call Obama or any of the other Democrats who were targeted by the bombs, the president said, “If they wanted me to, but I think we’ll probably pass.”
Critics denounced Trump’s unrepentant partisanship on a day when explosive devices were still being uncovered. But close observers of his presidency were less surprised. The president was relying on a familiar instinct so close to the midterms, said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster for North Star Opinion Research.
“There’s an argument to be made that midterms are base elections,” McHenry said. “To the extent that this is true, the president has a consistent and proven method of speaking to his base and making sure they hear him above whatever other noise there is.”