US President Donald Trump has acknowledged that the suspect charged in connection with a pipe bomb campaign targeting Democrats is one of his supporters, but says he bears “no blame” for the man’s actions.
“There is no blame. There’s no anything,” Mr 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 session 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, Mr Trump replied: “I think I’ve been toned down. You know, I could really tone it up.”
With a suspect in custody, Mr 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.
Mr 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,” Mr Trump tweeted in the hours before Sayoc was take into custody. “Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!”
Mr 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 Mr 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 favourite television show, Fox & Friends, ran a segment on Friday morning in the hours before his tweet that raised the possibility that the bombs were a “false flag” operation meant to increase Democratic enthusiasm.
Mr Trump also issued a 3am 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 on Friday about the suspect in custody, Mr 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,” Mr 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. Mr Trump also complained that coverage of the manhunt distracted from his announcement on Thursday about an effort to lower prescription drug prices.
Mr 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.