President Donald Trump called for civility and unity in the wake of a series of bomb threats against prominent Democratic political figures on Wednesday. Then he placed a share of the blame at the foot of the American news media.
“The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories,” Trump told a rally crowd in Mosinee, Wisconsin. “They’ve gotta stop. Bring people together.”
Minutes after the rally ended, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted criticism of the administration’s favorite media villain. Sanders said that CNN, to whose New York offices an explosive device was sent on Wednesday, “chose to attack and divide” through a statement that criticized the president’s recent anti-media rhetoric.
Trump continued the attack on Thursday morning, claiming that a very large part of the “Anger” in society was caused by the media.
The president’s statement at the rally on Wednesday was a very Trumpian aside in an otherwise magnanimous kickoff to the event. There was no attempt to take responsibility for some of the heightened rhetoric. And even Trump seemed aware of the marked shift in tone. "You see how nice I'm behaving tonight,” he joked. “Can you believe this? We're all behaving very well and hopefully we can keep it that way."
Hours earlier, a string of crudely made explosive devices were mailed to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and former CIA Director John Brennan (care of CNN, where Brennan doesn’t actually work). The president, at an unrelated White House event, had called the attempted bombings “abhorrent to everything we hold dear,” and urged Americans to “come together” in the face of political violence. But despite calls from his opponents to cancel the rally, he jetted off to Wisconsin to help embattled governor Scott Walker (R-WI) at the Central Wisconsin Airport.
The tone and tenor of the evening felt off from the start. The hallmark “CNN SUCKS” jeers from the crowd were scattered and quickly drowned out. And though Trump delivered his standard serving of campaign catnip, he also was quick to keep his combative side in check.
He notably dropped his new election tagline: “Jobs not mobs.” And at one point, Trump called Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) a “socialist,” which she’s not. He then quickly added: “I’m trying to say that very nicely. Normally I would scream it... I’m trying to be nice.”
But Trump could only hold back so much. He accused Baldwin of voting in favor of “deadly sanctuary cities” and even suggested that if Democrats had their way, gangs of MS-13 would be roaming through Wisconsin.
It fit a familiar pattern for Trumpworld: In the wake of a national crisis, the president was taking a moment to say the right words with virtually everyone convinced that he would prove unwilling or incapable of sticking to moderation.
“He is going to do what he is going to do,” a West Wing official said. “There are many upsides and some down[sides] to letting Trump be Trump.”
After the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville last year, Trump failed to unequivocally denounce the white supremacist gathering, and was later forced to do so—only to reverse course one day later. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford alleged last month that Trump’s second Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh had tried to sexual assault her decades ago, the president refrained from attacking her—until he started tweeting about her and openly mocking her at a political rally, to the delight of the audience.
In the past, President Trump has repeatedly told advisers that he refuses to bow to media and political pressure to comport himself in a traditionally presidential manner. He’s done this, in part, because he feels “the media” will never give him credit for doing so, and will criticize him anyway. His frustration with the lack of “credit,” which he feels he richly deserves for his job performance as president, feeds his stubbornness and determination not to meet his enemies half-way, according to two people who speak regularly to Trump.
“I think he’s right that the media is never going to give him credit for it,” Barry Bennett, a senior adviser on the 2016 Trump campaign turned federal lobbyist, said in a brief interview on Wednesday afternoon. “His fighting stance is what’s gotten everything he’s gotten so far. You don’t have to check your ideas or your principles at the door [in moments like these].”
Wednesday’s series of events were particularly sensitive given the political investment Trump and other Republicans have made in portraying their opponents as the supporters of unruly and uncivil mob tactics. Shortly after reports of the suspected explosive devices surfaced, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders released a statement reading, “We condemn the attempted violent attacks recently made against President Obama, President Clinton, Secretary Clinton, and other public figures. These terrorizing acts are despicable, and anyone responsible will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Vice President Mike Pence issued a similar response slamming the “cowardly actions,” which the president quote-tweeted, adding: “I agree wholeheartedly!”
None of the four official White House statements in the immediate aftermath of the bomb scares mentioned liberal financier and mega-donor George Soros, whose Westchester home was reportedly targeted with an improvised explosive device on Monday. Trump previously accused Soros of funding left-wing protests against the recent confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The president led off his rally on Wednesday by stressing that “we want all sides to come together in peace and harmony,” and that no one “should carelessly compare political opponents to historical villains.”
“We should not mob people in public spaces or destroy public property,” he added.
Beyond that, not much more is expected. Trump aides typically don’t expend much energy, if any, on trying to temper their boss’s impulses in times of crisis, controversy, or the latest outrage. And according to three White House officials, there is no coordinated effort to do so this time around, either.
“It’s easy to blame Donald Trump…[but] it’s just where our country is today,” Bennett added. “It’s a very dangerous time. It’s a very short distance between hate and violence. People hate each other nowadays over political views… It’s a dangerous time.”