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Amid a poisonous political campaign, GOP leaders condemn explosive packages

Authorities continue to investigate more suspicious packages containing explosives that seem to target prominent liberal figures and Democratic politicians. (Video: Joyce Koh, Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Republican leaders rushed Wednesday to decry the suspected explosive devices or suspicious packages sent to four Democrats and a news network that President Trump has repeatedly demonized, saying that such acts cannot be tolerated despite the corrosive tone on the campaign trail.

Packages containing devices and addressed to former president Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton were intercepted by the Secret Service, while an explosive device was found at the home of liberal philanthropist George Soros. A suspicious package was found at CNN’s New York headquarters and another, addressed to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), was discovered at a congressional mail sorting facility.

All five recipients are regular targets of sharp criticism from Trump and his conservative allies.

With just 13 days until the midterm election, the packages appeared to prompt some politicians to pause to reflect on a political atmosphere notable for apocalyptic imagery, violent confrontations and Trump’s mantra that the GOP is “the party of jobs and the Democrats are the party of mobs.”

The White House characterized the mailing of explosive devices as “terrorizing acts,” while prominent Republican lawmakers condemned it as a cowardly attack aimed at terrorizing public figures. Universal calls were made to quickly bring to justice those responsible.

Trump, speaking from the East Room of the White House, said he and officials in his administration were “extremely angry, upset, unhappy about what we witnessed this morning.” He vowed that “the safety of the American people is my highest and absolute priority.”

“The full weight of our government is being deployed to conduct this investigation and bring those responsible for these despicable acts to justice,” Trump said. “In these times, we have to unify. We have to come together and send one clear, strong and unmistakable message. . .acts of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.”

Clinton, speaking at a fundraiser for congressional candidate Donna Shalala in Coral Gables, Fla., thanked the Secret Service for intercepting the package addressed to her home and called it “a troubling time.”

“It is a time of deep divisions and we have to do everything we can to bring our country together,” she said. “We also have to elect candidates who will try to do the same, who will set goals that will lift up every Floridian and American.”

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who survived a shooting of lawmakers at a baseball field in 2017, wrote in tweets, “These attempted attacks that have been made are beyond criminal, they are acts of pure terror. Violence and terror have no place in our politics or anywhere else in our society.”

He went on to write, “Those responsible for these evil acts of terror must be hunted down and brought to justice, and I have great confidence that our law enforcement officers will succeed in that mission. As a nation, we must agree that this is a dangerous path and it cannot become the new normal.”

At the White House, Vice President Pence wrote in a tweet, “We condemn the attempted attacks against fmr Pres Obama, the Clintons, @CNN & others. These cowardly actions are despicable & have no place in this Country. Grateful for swift response of @SecretService, @FBI & local law enforcement. Those responsible will be brought to justice.”

Trump retweeted Pence’s statement and added, “I agree wholeheartedly!”

When asked Wednesday whether some of Trump’s rhetoric might have contributed to the mailings, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) defended the president’s remarks.

“A lot of things could have contributed to that,” he said. “Our society has become fairly complex. We think people ought to moderate on both sides.”

He added, “I don’t see anything really wrong with the president. I think that, you know, he’s in a tough position, he’s attacked on all sides, and he ought to be able to express himself.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an earlier statement: “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. The United States Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies are investigating and will take all appropriate actions to protect anyone threatened by these cowards.”

Trump’s highest-profile adult children echoed the statements emanating from the White House. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son and campaign-trail surrogate for Republican candidates, tweeted, “As someone whose family has directly been the victim of these mail threats I condemn whoever did this regardless of party or ideology. This crap has to stop and I hope they end up in jail for a long time.”

And Ivanka Trump, a senior adviser in the White House, tweeted : “I strongly condemn the attempted acts of violence against President Obama, the Clinton family, @CNN & others. There is no excuse — America is better than this. Gratitude to the @SecretService and law enforcement for all they do to keep this nation safe.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted, “An attack on an American who happens to be a Democrat, Republican or Independent is an attack on America. The terrorist behind this will soon find out that while a free people have politics that are conflictive, if you try to kill any of us you will have to face all of us.”

Democratic leaders issued similar denunciations. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), a possible 2020 presidential candidate and a regular target of Trump’s attacks, tweeted: “Violence against private citizens, public officials and media organizations has no place in our democracy. I am thankful for the bold and swift action of law enforcement to ensure no one was hurt.”

Investigators have not disclosed information about the origin of the packages. No evidence has surfaced connecting the acts to any political campaign.

Trump has long assailed the targets of the packages. He regularly excoriates Obama’s presidency and was a leading proponent of the conspiracy theory that the nation’s first black president was not born in the United States. Despite defeating Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Trump still goes after her in his speeches, inspiring chants from his rally crowds to “Lock her up!”

At his rallies, Trump routinely mocks Waters as “a low-I.Q. individual” and attacks CNN as reporting “fake news,” to which his rally crowds regularly chant back “CNN sucks!” And Soros has long been a target of far-right groups and the subject of conspiracy theories with anti-Semitic overtones.

In recent weeks, Trump and other Republicans have tried to cast Democrats as the party of the “mob” and attempted to link specific candidates to radical figures on the left.

In Minnesota’s rural 1st Congressional District, the National Republican Congressional Committee has repeatedly linked Dan Feehan, an Army veteran who received a Bronze Star, to leftist Antifa activists who’ve clashed with right-wing protesters and police.

“Feehan works at a liberal organization bankrolled by George Soros, chief financier of the global left and anti-American causes,” says a narrator in one spot, as the sound of smashing glass plays over images of anarchist protesters.

Another NRCC ad in Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District begins with a clip of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asking why there “aren’t uprisings” happening nationwide, then cuts to footage of violent protesters smashing windows and peaceful protesters chanting outside the Supreme Court.

“It’s gone on too long — liberal extremists tearing America apart,” says a narrator, warning that electing Democrat Elissa Slotkin, who worked in Obama’s State Department, would put radicals in power.

Pelosi’s reference to “uprisings” came from a June news conference on Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. She suggested that voters should be outraged by images of children of undocumented immigrants being separated from their parents by U.S. officials along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Footage of protests during the confirmation battle of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, which led to hundreds of arrests but no violence, has appeared less frequently in Republican ads than footage of anarchists smashing windows or burning cars. Although Republicans have said the treatment of Kavanaugh fired up their base at the start of October, some say the electorate has moved on.

“The Kavanaugh thing caused a little flutter, but that, frankly, appears to have dissipated in the polls,” said Rep. Stevan Pearce , who’s running for governor in New Mexico, where the president remains unpopular.

The protests and the accusations against Kavanaugh do play prominently in a national ad from Future45 that is being aired less frequently in swing seats than the NRCC spots.

“The screaming. The violence. The smears,” a narrator says. “Voting for any Democrat gets you all of that.”

John Wagner and Erica Werner contributed to this report.