World / Crime & Legal

Florida man charged in connection with 14 bombs sent to Trump critics

Reuters, AP

A man suspected of sending at least 14 bombs to prominent critics of U.S. President Donald Trump in the run-up to elections next month was arrested Friday in Florida and charged with five federal felonies.

Cesar Sayoc, 56, a former stripper and professional wrestler once charged with threatening to bomb an electric company for trying to shut off his lights, was taken into custody outside an auto parts store in Plantation, Florida, near Miami.

Authorities also seized a white van belonging to Sayoc, the windows of which were plastered with pro-Trump stickers, the slogan “CNN SUCKS” and images of Democratic politicians with red cross-hairs over their faces.

Fingerprint and DNA evidence was used to identify the suspect, but FBI Director Christopher Wray cautioned that the arrest did not necessarily end the threat.

“There may be other packages in transit now and other packages on the way,” Wray said.

One federal law enforcement source said that authorities were investigating whether other individuals were involved and did not rule out more arrests.

Sayoc’s arrest followed an intense four-day manhunt sparked by bombs addressed to high-profile Democrats and critics of Trump including former U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Trump defeated in the 2016 presidential race.

The first of the bombs surfaced on Monday at the Westchester County, New York, home of billionaire Democratic donor George Soros. Four packages turned up on Friday, the 14th addressed to another wealthy contributor to the Democratic Party and liberal causes, Tom Steyer. That parcel was found at a post office outside San Francisco.

Each consisted of explosive material packed in a plastic pipe and wired to a small clock and a battery, Wray said. He said investigators had yet to determine whether the bombs were actually “functional,” but the devices could be dangerous “if subjected to the right combination of heat or shock or friction.”

All were sent through the U.S. Postal Service system and intercepted before reaching their intended targets without exploding. No one has been hurt.

Bomb experts have said that based on the rudimentary construction of the devices, they appeared more likely designed to sow fear than to kill.

According to CNN, Sayoc told investigators the bombs would have done no injury and that he would not have wanted anyone hurt. Wray declined to say whether the suspect was cooperating with authorities after his arrest.

He told the news conference that fingerprints on one of two packages sent to U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a Los Angeles Democrat, belonged to Sayoc.

The bombs have heightened tensions during what was already a highly contentious campaign season ahead of the Nov. 6 elections in which Democrats are battling to seize control of Congress now held by Trump’s Republican Party.

A criminal complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan charged Sayoc with five felony counts, including interstate transportation and illegal mailing of explosives, threatening a former president, making threatening interstate communications and assaulting federal officers.

If convicted on all charges, Sayoc would face up to 48 years in prison, officials said.

“We will not tolerate such lawlessness, especially political violence,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a news conference announcing the charges.

Announcing the arrest to a cheering audience at the White House, Trump said such “terrorizing acts” were despicable and had no place in the United States.

“We must never allow political violence to take root in America — cannot let it happen,” Trump said. “And I’m committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it and to stop it now.”

But Trump said Friday that while he knows the pipe bomb suspect was one of his supporters, he 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.”

A native of New York City’s Brooklyn borough and a registered Republican, Sayoc’s home address was listed in public records as an upscale, gated apartment complex in the seaside town of Aventura, Florida.

Apart from the rightwing imagery pasted on his van, Sayoc’s political leanings were evident on social media. His Facebook and Twitter accounts were filled with posts railing against Democrats and liberals, including one anti-Soros tweet published two days before a bomb showed up at the financier’s home.

Public records show numerous arrests over the years for domestic violence, theft and other charges, including the alleged bomb threat against a utility company.

Sayoc was initially held at an FBI processing center in Miramar, Florida. He was expected to be taken to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami and will likely make his first appearance before a judge on Monday, according to former Assistant U.S. Attorney David Weinstein.

In addition to Steyer, the intended recipients of packages discovered on Friday included Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Democratic U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

Hours after a federal law enforcement official said the investigation’s focus on Florida had intensified, police closed roads around the parking lot of an AutoZone store in Plantation where Sayoc was arrested and helicopters flew overhead.

Investigators covered Sayoc’s van with a blue tarp before removing it on a truck.

All the people targeted by the suspicious packages have been maligned by rightwing critics. In addition to Obama, Clinton, Soros and Waters, packages that surfaced earlier in the week were addressed to former Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder, actor Robert De Niro and former CIA Director John Brennan. His package was delivered to the Manhattan bureau of CNN, where he had served as an on-air analyst.

The episode has sparked an outcry from Trump’s critics charging that his inflammatory rhetoric against perceived enemies among Democrats and the press has fostered a climate ripe for politically motivated violence.

Trump’s supporters have accused Democrats in turn of unfairly suggesting that the president was to blame for the bomb scares.

“If we don’t stop this political mania, this fervor, rancor, hatred, you’ll see this again and again and again,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told MSNBC. “We have to get to the genesis, and the genesis is an overheated, vitriolic political division in this country and it starts with the leaders, and it starts with the president.”

After first calling for unity at the White House event, Trump lamented partisan attacks against him and again pointed at the media.

“I get attacked all the time. … I can do the greatest thing for our country, and on the networks and on different things it will show bad,” he told the crowd, acknowledging an attendee who shouted “fake news.”

With a suspect in custody, Trump pledged to prosecute those responsible for the pipe bomb scare “to the fullest extent of the law.”

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.