Short-lived call for unity shelved for political barbs
Washington – It didn’t last.
With the country on edge over a widening pipe-bomb scare, talk of national unity quickly gave way to finger-pointing. President Donald Trump cast blame on the media for fomenting anger in society, while candidates across the country traded partisan broadsides.
Less than two weeks before midterm elections, the discovery of pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats – an episode that might have prompted national reflection in another era – hardly made a ripple on the campaign trail. Attack ads remained on the air. Attack lines stayed in stump speeches. The president did not deliver a speech from the Oval Office or reach out to his predecessor, one of the targets of the threat. He did return to his favorite punching bag.
“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,” Trump wrote on Twitter Thursday. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
Trump continued the rhetoric overnight, tweeting just after 3 a.m. Friday that CNN and others were blaming him, 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!’”
CNN was among the targets of the mail bomb plot. While stopping short of blaming Trump’s rhetoric for inspiring the attacks, Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, contended there was a “total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media.”
Trump’s reaction was more evidence of the politics of the moment, in which unity is overrated, a news cycle moves on fast and there seems to be little incentive for either major political party to seize the high road. Instead, what might have been a moment for a deeply divided country to come together becomes the latest fodder for Democrats and Republicans to blame each other for America’s shortcomings.
Aides at the national Democratic and Republican Senate campaign arms said they were seeing nothing to suggest candidates were adjusting their messages or schedules because of the explosives scare. But many candidates were beginning to move into their closing election messages, which are typically more positive.
Indiana Republican Senate candidate Mike Braun was airing a new ad equating Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly to one of the inflatable dancing devices used to attract attention at car dealerships, describing him as a “say-anything, do-nothing senator.”
Other candidates, such as Wisconsin’s Republican Senate candidate Leah Vukmir and the Democratic senator she’s trying to unseat, Tammy Baldwin, were plowing ahead as well. Vukmir linked Baldwin to Hillary Clinton on Wednesday amid chants of “Lock her up!” at an evening rally with Trump. Baldwin was planning to go ahead with an event Friday with former President Barack Obama in Milwaukee.
Some Trump critics have blamed him for setting a harsh tone and not taking responsibility for contributing to the poisonous political atmosphere.
“Nobody else is being as divisive and inciteful as Donald Trump and so to suggest otherwise is completely wrong,” said former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who is considering a 2020 Democratic presidential campaign. “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation with any other president, Republican or Democrat, because they would be big enough to avoid this kind of hateful and inciteful rhetoric.”
Trump on Thursday had yet to call Obama or Clinton about the packages sent their way, but he had spoken to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, the state where many of the packages were delivered.
Trump has insisted that those on the right have been victims of harassment as well, pointing to high-profile incidents in which conservatives have been accosted in restaurants and public spaces by political critics. A number of his 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.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted in Trump’s defense: “I didn’t blame Bernie Sanders when a Bernie supporter shot Congressman Steve Scalise. And I’m not going to blame President @realDonaldTrump for this nut job.”
That was a reference to the 2017 shooting that badly injured Scalise and others. The gunman, James Hodgkinson, had posted social media messages suggesting he targeted Republicans.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “disgraceful” to suggest the president bears any responsibility for the packages sent to his opponents. She told reporters Thursday that there’s a big difference between “comments made and actions taken.” She, too, cited the Scalise shooting.
Asked whether the president intended to tone down his rhetoric and personal attacks, she said the president would “continue to lay out the case in the differences between Democrats and Republicans” ahead of the midterm elections next month.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Juana Summers in Washington, Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, Brian Slodysko in Indianapolis and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.