clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The investigation into pipe bombs and the political fallout, explained

A suspect was arrested on Friday, and authorities have recovered at least 12 suspicious packages.

Suspicious Package Mailed To Robert DeNiro In Manhattan
NYPD in Tribeca, after a suspicious package was sent to actor Robert De Niro.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

A suspect has been taken into custody in connection to the pipe bombs that were mailed to high-profile Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump this week.

He has been identified as Cesar Sayoc Jr., 56, of Florida, according to multiple news outlets.

The arrest came after the FBI found two more explosive devices on Friday, bringing the total number of bombs uncovered so far to 12.

One of the devices was in a package addressed to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and another was intended for former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, though it was addressed to CNN’s offices in New York.

The list of prominent figures who have been sent pipe bombs over the past week includes several high-profile Democrats, such as former President Barack Obama and former presidential candidate and secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

None of the devices exploded, and no one has been injured so far. Federal law enforcement officials said the devices were all sent in similar packaging, and most were intercepted by screeners or investigators before they reached their intended targets.

In response to the news, Trump has urged unity and condemned “acts or threats” of political violence — but he’s also blamed the media for inciting anger. On Friday, before the suspect was arrested, he seemed to dismiss the severity of the incidents, claiming they were distracting from the midterm elections.

The story is still unfolding. Here’s what you need to know to get caught up.

Prominent Democrats have been targeted with pipe bombs: a timeline

On Monday, an employee at the Westchester, New York, home of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a major donor to Democratic causes and a frequent target of right-wing conspiracy theorists, discovered a suspicious package in Soros’s mailbox. Law enforcement officials later confirmed it was a bomb.

Two days later, the FBI confirmed that packages containing bombs were sent to the home of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Chappaqua, New York, and to the office of former President Barack Obama in Washington, DC.

Later that day, CNN’s offices in Manhattan were evacuated after a suspicious package was delivered to its studio. A dramatic scene played out as a fire alarm went off while the media outlet was broadcasting the news.

New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill said at a press conference on Wednesday that the package sent to CNN contained what appeared to be “a live explosive device.” Investigators also discovered white powder inside the package found at CNN, but assistant FBI Director William Sweeney said Thursday at a press conference that authorities determined it “did not present a biological threat.”

Adding to the confusion, FBI officials later confirmed that the package sent to CNN had been addressed to former CIA Director John Brennan, who is a contributor to MSNBC and NBC. Brennan, whose security clearance was revoked by Trump in August, has been an outspoken critic of the president.

Another suspicious package was sent to Eric Holder, the US attorney general under Obama, but the parcel was misaddressed, and it was instead delivered to the office of Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — whose name was listed as the return address on all the packages.

The FBI also confirmed that two packages containing bombs had been mailed to California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, whom Trump routinely attacks at his rallies. One was intercepted at a congressional mail sorting facility outside of Washington, DC, and the other was uncovered at a mail sorting facility in South Los Angeles.

On Thursday morning, New York police received a call that a suspicious package had been sent to the production offices of actor Robert De Niro in Tribeca. De Niro had delivered an anti-Trump speech at the Tony Awards ceremony in June, which he punctuated with the statement, “Fuck Trump.”

John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, said Thursday at a press conference that a retired detective was watching the news and saw an image of one of the devices sent to other officials, and realized that it resembled a package that had been received at De Niro’s office on Tuesday. The retired detective contacted the NYPD, which found that the package contained a suspected pipe bomb.

Also on Thursday, investigators intercepted two packages at a Delaware mail facility that were intended for former Vice President Joe Biden. At least one of the packages addressed to Biden was in the process of being rerouted to Schultz’s office in Florida, according to the New York Times. The packages discovered Thursday “appeared similar” to those found earlier in the week, the FBI said.

And on Friday, law enforcement found two more suspected bombs. One was addressed to Sen. Booker, and the FBI said it was recovered in a mail facility in Florida.

The second suspicious package was reportedly on its way to CNN’s offices in New York, but James Clapper, former director of national intelligence and an outspoken Trump critic, was the intended recipient. The parcel was discovered at a postal facility in Manhattan, according to the New York Times.

Clapper told CNN on Friday that “this is definitely domestic terrorism. There is no question in my mind.”

What we know about the pipe bombs — and the potential suspect(s)

A Justice Department official confirmed Friday that a suspect had been taken into custody. Several news outlets have identified him as Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr., 56, of Florida.

Federal investigators had focused their investigation on that state, according to several reports, since at least some of the packages reportedly passed through a mail processing center in Opa-locka, which is outside of Miami.

All the packages sent to prominent figures this week consisted of yellow manila envelopes lined with bubble wrap and plastered with half a dozen “Forever” postage stamps.

The address and return labels were printed, and the Schultz’s office was listed as the return address on all of the packages, though her name was misspelled “DEBBIE WASSERMAN SHULTZ.”

The bomb delivered to CNN was adorned with a parody of the ISIS flag, which included the phrase “Get Er Done,” according to NBC News. It’s a right-wing meme that has circulated on the internet for several years.

It’s not quite clear yet why the bombs did not explode; they could have been intended to go off but were intercepted, they could have malfunctioned, or they could have been dummies just sent as a threat. (The FBI has described the bombs as “potentially destructive devices.”)

All the packages will be analyzed for evidence in the FBI labs in Quantico, Virginia.

How President Trump and others are responding

The White House was quick to respond to early reports that suspicious packages had been sent to high-profile Democrats, including a former president and a former presidential candidate. Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, condemned the “attempted violent attacks” in a statement and called them “terrorizing acts” that are “despicable.”

Trump’s first comment on the packages came after Vice President Mike Pence issued a statement condemning the attempted attacks. Trump retweeted the veep’s statement with the comment, “I agree wholeheartedly!”

Later on Wednesday, at a signing event for bipartisan opioid legislation at the White House, Trump addressed the incidents directly. He called for unity and said that “acts of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.” The president did not mention any of the people who had received packages by name, however.

Trump also attended a rally in Wisconsin on Wednesday night, which he kicked off in an uncharacteristically staid manner.

“Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy itself,” he told the crowd. “No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion, or control.”

But it didn’t take long for Trump to veer back into campaign mode. After calling for unity, he unleashed an attack on the media. The press, Trump said, has a “responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories.”

Trump amplified his criticism Thursday morning with another, more pointed attack. He blamed journalists for fomenting anger and spreading “purposefully false” stories. “Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!” he tweeted.

Many of the intended recipients of these bombs have been vocal opponents of the president. They’ve also featured prominently in Trump’s relentless attacks on Democrats.

Cheers of “lock her up” or “Crooked Hillary” can still be heard at most of Trump’s rallies (and even happened on Wednesday night). Trump frequently bashes Rep. Waters, saying she has a “low IQ.” And he has peddled conspiracy theories about Soros financing anti-Brett Kavanaugh protesters.

However, Sanders, speaking to reporters outside the White House on Thursday, pushed back on the idea that Trump’s rhetoric may have instigated these attempted attacks.

“The president is certainly not responsible for sending suspicious packages to someone, no more than Bernie Sanders was responsible for a supporter of his shooting up a Republican baseball field practice last year,” she said.

Trump pushed back too, in a tweet about CNN on Friday morning, hours before the latest round of packages were detected.

He followed this up with a bizarre tweet that seemed to called into question the seriousness of the attempted attacks, and implied they were a distraction from his midterms message.

Trump’s tweet also seemed to hint at a conspiracy theory embraced by his most ardent right-wing supporters. Some pundits have peddled a “false flag” conspiracy theory — that these attempted attacks were somehow orchestrated by Democrats to sway the public against Trump.

Later on Friday, Trump delivered remarks at the Young Black Leadership Summit, where he congratulated law enforcement for their efforts in apprehending a suspect. This time, he was back on script, urging unity once again — despite the tweet sent earlier in the day.

“We must never allow political violence to take root in America,” he said. “We cannot let it happen. We are committed to do everything to stop it. To stop it now. Stop it now.”

Most Republican and Democratic officials and lawmakers have roundly condemned the attempted attacks, renewed calls for civility in political discourse, and credited law enforcement for their quick responses.

The attempted attacks, coming just two weeks before the midterm elections, have left politicians and the public on edge. One thing is clear though — unity seems far off.