President Donald Trump said Friday that he knows the pipe bomb suspect was one of his supporters, but said he bears "no blame" for the suspect's actions.
"There is no blame. There's no anything," Trump told reporters at the White House before leaving for a political rally in North Carolina.
"If you look at what happened to Steve Scalise, that was a supporter of a different party," he said, recalling the 2017 shooting at a Republican baseball practice that left several wounded, including the congressman from Louisiana.
Asked if he planned to tone down the partisan rhetoric at rallies, which his critics contend has deepened political divisions in the country, Trump replied: "I think I've been toned down. You know, I could really tone it up."
With a suspect in custody, Trump pledged to prosecute those responsible for the pipe bomb scare "to the fullest extent of the law." He called for national unity just hours after complaining that all the focus on "this 'Bomb' stuff" was distracting from the midterm elections.
Trump, in his first remarks since Cesar Sayoc was apprehended in Florida, declared that "we must never allow political violence take root in America." At least a dozen explosives have been sent in recent days to political opponents of the president, gripping the nation and escalating political tensions just days ahead of the midterms.
His remarks came a short time after he tweeted a complaint that the media's focus on bombs was distracting from Republican efforts in the upcoming midterm elections.
"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!"
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. 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 "false flag" operation meant to gin up Democratic enthusiasm.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for an explanation as to the president's meaning.
Trump also issued a 3 a.m. tweet in which he complained that CNN and others were blaming him for the scare, 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 packages was sent to CNN, forcing an evacuation of their Manhattan studios.
While he updated the nation Friday about the suspect in custody, Trump heaped praise on law enforcement agencies for doing "an incredible job" and said that, in America, "every day we are showing how truly great we are."
Moments later, in his address to members of the 2018 Young Black Leadership Summit, he returned to delivering broadsides against the media.
"Come to think of it, who gets attacked more than me," Trump told the cheering crowd. "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."
Among those in attendance was Candace Owens, a prominent African-American conservative activist who cast doubt earlier in the week on the authenticity of the bombs.
Trump's comments on Twitter were the latest break from talk of national unity over the bomb scare. He cast blame on the media for fomenting anger in society, and one of Trump's tweets hit out at CNN, where two of the packages were addressed.
While stopping short of blaming Trump's rhetoric for inspiring the attacks, Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, contended there was a "total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media."
Late Friday, at a rally in North Carolina, Trump lectured the media, accusing reporters of trying "to use the sinister actions of one individual to score political points" against him. His comments came hours after police apprehended a staunch supporter of his in connection with the mail-bomb scare targeting Democrats and CNN.
Trump, who held back some of his usual name-calling at a rally in Wisconsin earlier this week, was back to his usual attack lines Friday evening even as he called for an end to the "politics of person destruction."
Not long after, he referred to his 2016 opponent as "Crooked Hillary Clinton," prompting a round of "Lock her up!" chants.
Clinton was among the frequent Trump targets sent pipe bombs this week.
"Oh boy, they're going to be reporting about you tonight," Trump joked in response. The crowd also broke into frequent chants of "CNN sucks!"
Obama intelligence chief James Clapper, one of the bombs' intended targets, told CNN Friday after learning of the package addressed to him that he thinks Trump "bears some responsibility for the coarseness and uncivility of the dialogue in this country."
He said that there isn't a direct link between what Trump has said and the letter bombs, but wished Trump would stick to his earliest remarks about the devices, which were about how Americans' safety was his highest priority.
"He needs to remember that his words count, his voice is the most important in this country — and for that matter, the world — and he should think about that in the way he addresses the country," Clapper said.
Less than two weeks before midterm elections, the discovery of pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats and others — an episode that might have prompted national reflection in another era — hardly made a ripple on the campaign trail. Attack ads remained on the air. Attack lines stayed in stump speeches. The president did not deliver a speech from the Oval Office or reach out to his predecessor, one of the targets of the threat.
Robert De Niro, a critic of Trump's who was targeted by one of the packages, released a statement Friday about the incident that, like Trump's tweet, urged people to vote — though unlike Trump, he didn't limit his appeal to one political party.
"I thank God no one's been hurt, and I thank the brave and resourceful security and law enforcement people for protecting us. There's something more powerful than bombs, and that's your vote. People MUST vote!" De Niro wrote.
The reaction was more evidence of the new politics of the Trump era, where unity is overrated and a news cycle moves on fast. Instead, what might have been a moment for a deeply divided country to come together becomes the latest fodder for Democrats and Republicans to blame each other for America's shortcomings.
Aides at the national Democratic and Republican Senate campaign arms said they were seeing nothing to suggest candidates were adjusting their messages or schedules because of the explosives scare. But many candidates were beginning to move into their closing election messages, which are typically more positive.
Indiana Republican Senate candidate Mike Braun was airing a new ad equating Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly to one of the inflatable dancing devices used to attract attention at car dealerships, describing him as a "say-anything, do-nothing senator."
Other candidates, such as Wisconsin's Republican Senate candidate Leah Vukmir and the Democratic senator she's trying to unseat, Tammy Baldwin, were plowing ahead as well. Vukmir linked Baldwin to Hillary Clinton on Wednesday amid chants of "Lock her up!" at an evening rally with Trump. Baldwin was planning to go ahead with an event Friday with former President Barack Obama in Milwaukee.
Some Trump critics have blamed him for setting a harsh tone and not taking responsibility for contributing to the poisonous political atmosphere.
"Nobody else is being as divisive and inciteful as Donald Trump and so to suggest otherwise is completely wrong," said former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who is considering a 2020 Democratic presidential campaign. "We wouldn't even be having this conversation with any other president, Republican or Democrat, because they would be big enough to avoid this kind of hateful and inciteful rhetoric."
Not everyone has directed blame over the incidents. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a target of two of the packages, addressed the letter bombs for the first time Thursday by saying he hoped it would encourage the country to come together.
"This division, this hatred, this ugliness -- it has to end," he said at an event in Buffalo.
Trump on Thursday had yet to call Obama or Clinton about the packages sent their way, but he had spoken to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, the state where many of the packages were delivered.
Trump has insisted that those on the right have been victims of harassment as well, pointing to high-profile incidents in which conservatives have been accosted in restaurants and public spaces by political critics. A number of his 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.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted in Trump's defense: "I didn't blame Bernie Sanders when a Bernie supporter shot Congressman Steve Scalise. And I'm not going to blame President @realDonaldTrump for this nut job."
That was a reference to the 2017 shooting that badly injured Scalise and others. The gunman, James Hodgkinson, had posted social media messages suggesting he targeted Republicans.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it "disgraceful" to suggest the president bears any responsibility for the packages sent to his opponents. She told reporters Thursday that there's a big difference between "comments made and actions taken." She, too, cited the Scalise shooting.
Asked whether the president intended to tone down his rhetoric and personal attacks, she said the president would "continue to lay out the case in the differences between Democrats and Republicans" ahead of the midterm elections next month.