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After Suspicious Packages, Trump Urges Civility While Blaming 'Fake News' Media

While President Trump called for unity at a campaign rally in Wisconsin on Wednesday, he has also criticized the news media.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
While President Trump called for unity at a campaign rally in Wisconsin on Wednesday, he has also criticized the news media.

Updated at 11:48 a.m. ET

The list of prominent people, eight and counting, who were sent suspicious packages reads like a Trump enemies list, politicians and Trump critics who are often targeted in his rally speeches and tweets.

Just Monday night at a rally in Texas, Trump's criticism of Hillary Clinton prompted the now-familiar chants of "lock her up." He told the crowd that Congresswoman Maxine Waters is a "low-IQ individual." A week ago, at a rally in Montana, Trump imagined a fight with former Vice President Joe Biden. "He'd be down [fast]," Trump said to laughter as part of a riff in which he praised a Republican congressman for body slamming a reporter.

Suspected pipe bombs have been sent to all three of them, and at least five others, all of whom have criticized Trump and been criticized by him. None of the devices have exploded.

At a campaign rally Wednesday night, Trump started by delivering a statement about the ongoing investigation: "Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy itself," Trump said, calling for people on "all sides" to come together in "peace and harmony."

The references to Clinton, Waters, Biden and others were gone from Trump's speech.

"Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective," Trump said, possibly referring to his critics rather than himself.

The tone was subdued by the standards of a Trump rally. He mostly stuck to the script and delivered a speech that could just as easily have been in the East Room of the White House rather than an aircraft hangar in a part of Wisconsin that is Trump county. And the president was transparent about what he was trying to do.

"Do you see how nice I'm behaving tonight?" Trump said. "We're all behaving very well, and hopefully we can keep it that way, right?"

Not even 24 hours later, Trump was back to his old self on Twitter, seeming to blame the media for what is happening. "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," he wrote.

Holding court on the driveway outside the West Wing, press secretary Sarah Sanders elaborated, saying media coverage of Trump is 90 percent negative and while he condemns violence he feels "everyone has a role to play."

Sanders specifically called out CNN, which had to evacuate its New York studios Wednesday after one of the specific packages showed up in the network's mail room. It was addressed to former CIA Director John Brennan, who has been a vocal Trump critic. Brennan responded to Trump's tweet by telling him to stop blaming others and look in the mirror.

"Your inflammatory rhetoric, insults, lies, & encouragement of physical violence are disgraceful," Brennan wrote. "Clean up your act....try to act Presidential. The American people deserve much better. BTW, your critics will not be intimidated into silence."

It is not known who is behind the packages or what their political leanings may be.

Sanders told reporters there's a big difference between insulting his critics and taking action. Trump is no more responsible for the suspicious packages, she said, than Sen. Bernie Sanders was for a supporter of his opening fire on the congressional baseball practice last year.

Trump supporters push 'false flag' theories

Even as Trump touted civility at Wednesday night's rally, some of his most influential supporters were suggesting — without evidence — that Democrats were involved in a "false flag" operation designed to garner sympathy. It's a reflection of the conservative movement's distrust of the media and American institutions – they were not open to the idea that one of their own could be behind the attacks.

"Republicans just don't do this kind of thing," said Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host Wednesday morning. "It's clear that this happening in October. There's a reason for this."

Added Michael Savage, another conservative talk radio host, "it's a high probability that the whole thing is set up as a false flag to gain sympathy for the Democrats No. 1, and No. 2, to get our minds off the hordes of illegal aliens approaching our southern border. Yes, that is what I'm saying."

Other pro-Trump commentators encouraged this line of thinking. Conservative writer Kurt Schlichter said in a tweet, "I don't buy this super convenient turn of events."

But among Republican Party officials, there was a more neutral line in this early stage of the FBI's investigation into who sent these devices to prominent critics of the president.

"Those behind such reprehensible acts must be brought to justice," said GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan. "We cannot tolerate any attempt to terrorize public figures."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
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