WASHINGTON — Not even suspected explosive devices in the mail have prompted much of a ceasefire in politics.
A lot remains unknown about who sent at least 10 suspicious packages to some of President Trump’s favorite Democratic foils, and why. Those threatened include two former presidents and a former vice president, a former CIA director and former attorney general, a sitting congresswoman, a major Democratic donor, an actor/activist – in all, the most widespread attempt at political violence in America in at least a half-century and arguably since the Civil War.
At the White House on Wednesday, a conciliatory Trump called for national unity, and he tempered some of his most provocative rhetoric at a rally that night in Wisconsin. But on Thursday morning, even as more suspicious devices were being discovered, the more familiar, combative Trump was back on Twitter. He blamed the news media for an incendiary moment in U.S. politics.
“A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” he asserted. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clear up its act, FAST!”
That is not the tone modern presidents traditionally have taken at such moments of national tumult.
“Whether it’s the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy or the U.S.S. Iowa explosion or the trauma of 9/11 or any of these national tragedies, the commander-in-chief becomes the consoler-in-chief, the uniter-in-chief,” said Frank Sesno, a veteran journalist who is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. He called Trump’s reaction “completely and thoroughly unprecedented.”
The president’s attacks on the press create one more complication for those covering his words. “You want to report the story, not be the story,” Sesno said. “He’s made it the story.”
One of the suspicious packages was delivered to CNN, forcing staffers to evacuate the New York bureau and broadcast from the street for a time. Trump has often attacked CNN in particular and journalists in general, calling them “the enemy of the people,” a chilling historical phrase associated with Joseph Stalin. “There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media,” CNN president Jeff Zucker said.
The president’s quick blame-game also sparked a debate among some Democrats about whether to respond in kind, to counter with their view that Trump himself is responsible for the nation’s increasingly corrosive politics. “We have a toxic stew right now,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on MSNBC. With Trump’s continued “inflammatory” words, he went on, “we have a stirring of the pot.”
At one time or another, the president has verbally attacked each of those who were intended to receive the suspicious packages — dubbing Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary” and smiling as crowds chant, “Lock her up!” Saying former vice president Joe Biden was “weak, both mentally and physically” and calling California Rep. Maxine Waters “an extraordinarily low IQ person.” Accusing John Brennan of being “the worst CIA Director in our country’s history” and revoking his security clearance.
Brennan, for one, did fire back on Twitter.
“Stop blaming others,” Brennan posted. “Look in the mirror. Your inflammatory rhetoric, insults, lies, & encouragement of physical violence are disgraceful. Clean up your act….try to act Presidential. The American people deserve much better.”
Actually, the American people will have a chance to weigh in when the midterm elections are held in just a week and a half. Republicans hope to hold or even fortify their narrow majority in the U.S. Senate. But Democrats are optimistic they can regain control of the House of Representatives, giving them the power to pursue investigations and a stronger standing to press policy initiatives.
As Election Day nears, strategists have been braced for an “October surprise,” a news development in the final weeks of the campaign that might give one side or the other some final momentum.
Some thought that might turn out to be a report or a leak from special counsel Robert Mueller, investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Republicans have seized on the image of a caravan of Central American migrants walking toward the U.S.-Mexican border as a rallying cry for hardline immigration policies. The aftermath of the contentious confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is another late-breaking controversy.
At his campaign rallies in recent days, Trump has framed it as “an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order and common sense.”
Now it is an election of the suspicious package, too.