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After Suspicious Packages, Trump Tones Down Partisan Rhetoric, Attacks Media


The threat of potential pipe bombs going to prominent Democrats and a news outlet like CNN prompted President Trump to dial back his partisan rhetoric, at least temporarily. The president was restrained during a campaign rally in Wisconsin last night. By this morning, he was back on the offensive. Trump blamed the news media for much of the anger circulating in the country. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For not quite 24 hours, the suspicious, Bubble Wrap packages seemed to bring out the conventional in President Trump. He issued a call for unity at the White House and declared, political violence has no place in our country. Even at a partisan campaign rally in central Wisconsin, Trump sounded a note of "Kumbaya."


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony. We can do it. We can do it.

HORSLEY: This is exactly the sort of message one expects to hear from a president at a time when the country's frazzled nerves need soothing. Like presidents before him, Trump urged partisans not to demonize their opponents and TO settle their differences peacefully at the ballot box. When it came time to draw contrast with the Democrats, Trump self-consciously turned down the temperature from his usual scorched-earth rhetoric.


TRUMP: Yeah. I'm trying to say that very nicely. I'm trying to...


TRUMP: See, normally I'd scream, they want a socialist takeover. Now I say, want's a socialist takeover. I'm trying to be nice.

HORSLEY: But nice is not a natural fit for this president. Even as he appealed for calm, Trump managed to take a dig at mobs, which is how he often describes liberal activists. And he took a backhanded whack at his critics in the news media.


TRUMP: 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. Have to do it.


TRUMP: Have to do it.

HORSLEY: Trump amplified that attack this morning, tweeting the what he calls fake news is to blame for, quote, "a very big part of the anger we see in our society." Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who's an expert on political rhetoric at the Annenberg School for Communication, says Trump's brush with the conventional didn't last.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: He acted in that moment in a manner that is appropriate for the presidency. Unfortunately, the rhetoric appeared to shift to beginning to blame the mainstream media.

HORSLEY: Critics have pointed out that Trump himself has a long history of demonizing opponents and at times even condoning violence. But speaking to reporters this morning, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders rejected the idea that Trump's no-holds-barred approach to politics might contribute to a hostile climate in the country.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: You guys continue to focus only on the negative. And there is a role to play. Yesterday, the very first thing that the president did was come out and condemn the violence. The very first thing your network did was come out and accuse the president of being responsible for it. That is not OK. The first thing should have been to condemn the violence.

HORSLEY: CNN President Jeff Zucker, whose network was one of the targets of the would-be bomber, complained yesterday that the president has shown a, quote, "complete lack of understanding" about the possible consequences of his continued attacks on the news media. In the past, Jamieson says, Americans facing hardship and division have looked to presidents to help bind up their wounds. She wonders if perhaps we've lost that capacity, not only because Trump is ill-suited to play the role of unifier, but also because his audience, the American people, are hardwired to reject it.

JAMIESON: The move to tribalism in this moment is suggestive of deep fissures that are making it harder to do things that have unified the country in the face of real threats in the past, and that's worrisome.

HORSLEY: Jamieson suggests it would be best for now for everyone to hold off assigning blame while both the identity and motive of the would-be bomber are a mystery. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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