The would-be terrorist who failed to harm CNN and George Soros did succeed at one thing: ruining President Donald Trump’s week.
Trump had hoped to capitalize on growing Republican enthusiasm in the final weeks of the midterm campaign — stoking fears of a Central American migrant caravan and hoping his Thursday unveiling of a plan to lower prescription drug prices would hold the news media’s attention heading into the weekend.
But even Trump can’t shape the media narrative to his will amid an attempt at mass political assassination and a nationwide manhunt.
“It didn’t get the kind of coverage it should have,” Trump complained on Friday, speaking of his prescription drug proposal. “We’re competing with this story that took place, our law enforcement’s done such a good job, so maybe that can start to disappear rapidly.”
For Trump, the story could not have appeared at a worse time. “The pendulum was swinging back toward the Republicans thanks to the migrant caravan story,” a person close to Trump said. “This story definitely interrupts that positive news cycle for them [and] most definitely favors the Democrats politically.”
One former Trump administration official said the White House is expecting wall-to-wall coverage of the bombing story for three to four more days.
Trump had already vented his frustration on Friday morning, tweeting, “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!”
What’s worse, Trump’s allies had been speculating without evidence that the failed bombings — which exclusively targeted Trump antagonists — were actually part of a “false flag” leftist plot to make Republicans look unhinged.
Instead, Florida police arrested a man, Cesar Sayoc, who appears to be an unhinged Republican partisan. Photos showed Sayoc’s white van covered in pro-Trump and anti-CNN stickers.
The van was festooned with pictures of prominent Democrats with cross hairs over their faces and a sticker reading, “I am Donald Trump and I approve this message.” Photos soon surfaced online of the suspect attending a recent Trump rally in Florida.
The prospect of right-wing political violence muddies an argument made by Trump and other Republican leaders in recent weeks, ever since demonstrations against Brett Kavanaugh created images of impassioned protesters over-running the Capitol: that Democrats are the party of mob rule, and Republicans the party of law and order.
A former senior White House official predicted right-wing political violence would now become a top campaign issue. “The Democrats now have a message going into Election Day,” the former official said.
In announcing the man’s arrest on Friday, Trump steered clear of any talk of motive, instead suggesting that the real perpetrator, or perpetrators, could still be anyone — perhaps even a woman. “We will prosecute them, him, her, whoever it may be, to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
The suspect’s apparent political sympathies provided only more fodder for critics who argue that Trump’s rhetoric has fostered a dangerous political atmosphere and encouraged violent attacks against his opponents.
“Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric is inciting violent behavior, and he is too cowardly to admit it,” tweeted author Stephen King.
“No one in politics or wingnut media made this guy send bombs. Period.” tweeted Tom Nichols, a Trump critic and professor at the U.S. Naval War College, of the president and his media allies. “What they did, instead, was superheat the political environment and flood crazy bullshit into the information space so regularly that unhinged guys like this think they’re being patriots by sending bombs.”
Even some voices sympathetic to Trump took the opportunity to chastise him.
“The pipe bomber suspect’s van is emblazoned with sinister targets over Trump opponents – some of whom received the bombs. He’s obviously a lunatic, but lunatics get triggered,” tweeted the British media personality and former CNN host Piers Morgan, who often praises the president. “The President can’t ignore this, he MUST cool down his often violently aggressive rhetoric.”
But asked Friday if he would do just that, Trump told reporters, “I think I’ve been toned down, if you want to know the truth. I could really tone it up because as you know the media’s been extremely unfair to me and to the Republican Party.”
Trump also deflected a question about whether he should shoulder any of the blame for the attempted bombings. “There’s no blame. There’s no anything,” he said, going on to cite a failed assassination attempt by a left-wing gunman last year that left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, badly wounded.
At a rally Friday night in Charlotte, N.C., Trump accused the media of scoring “political points” against him and the Republicans ahead of the midterm elections.
While Trump fumes, at least one of his allies sees a silver lining in the bombing story. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the House members closest to Trump, took the arrest as an opportunity to swipe at the state’s Democratic candidate for governor.
“The mail bomber is a convicted felon who had been arrested for making threats in the past,” Gaetz tweeted. “This is exactly the type of person who’s voting rights @AndrewGillum would automatically restore.”