Packages containing makeshift pipe bombs and addressed to high-profile political targets, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, set off a wave of panic Wednesday as the FBI and Secret Service intercepted the devices before they could be delivered.
Similar packages were mailed to former CIA chief John Brennan, former Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Los Angeles Rep. Maxine Waters.
On Monday, an explosive device was found at the suburban New York home of George Soros, the billionaire supporter of liberal causes. Soros' home in Katonah, N.Y., is a short drive from the home that President Clinton and Hillary Clinton own in Chappaqua.
Law enforcement officials said authorities suspect at least five of the devices — and possibly all of them — were made and sent by the same person or persons. The officials described an aggressive “full court press” to identify and capture whomever is responsible.
“It appears that an individual or individuals sent out multiple similar packages," said John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counter-terrorism.
President Trump pledged the “full weight” of the federal government to bring “those responsible for these despicable acts to justice.” During an East Room event about the opioid addiction crisis, Trump said, “We’re extremely angry, upset, unhappy about what we witnessed this morning, and we will get to the bottom of it.”
Fearing additional packages were sent, authorities quickly stepped up screening of other potential targets across the country.
The motive was not immediately clear. The list of targets suggested a political intent, but the sender may also be trying to create that impression or be motivated by a personal grudge or other unknown reasons.
Obama, Clinton, Brennan, Holder and Waters have been the subject of frequent attacks by Trump and other conservatives. Trump has criticized Obama’s foreign policy and economic programs, and he has led “lock her up” chants at political rallies about Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of State whom Trump defeated in the 2016 presidential race.
At a political rally Wednesday night in Mosinee, Wis., Trump avoided such standard attacks, joking several times that he was trying to behave. "Did you see how nice I'm behaving tonight?” he quipped at one point.
He began his remarks by reading a statement from a teleprompter lamenting that the explosive devices were "an attack on our democracy itself,” adding, “such conduct must be firmly opposed.”
“We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony. We can do it,” Trump said. After dozens of rallies in which he said Clinton should be prosecuted and described Waters as “low-IQ Maxine,” Trump said in Wisconsin, “Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective.”
Trump revoked Brennan’s security clearance in August, in what many considered an act of retaliation over Brennan’s frequent public criticisms of Trump. As Obama’s attorney general, Holder long aggravated conservatives and later was hired by the California state Legislature to represent its interests against the Trump administration.
Late Wednesday, the Los Angeles Police Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were investigating another suspicious package addressed to Waters, which arrived at a South-Central Los Angeles postal facility, according to multiple sources. One of the officials said postal workers believed the package resembled those found on the East Coast. The Central Avenue facility was evacuated and bomb-disposal robots deployed.
The package to Brennan was sent in care of CNN’s New York office. CNN anchors, speaking live from cellphones outside their bureau at the Time Warner Center, described the evacuation of the Midtown Manhattan landmark that disrupted traffic and drew the New York Police Department’s bomb squad.
Brennan does not work for CNN; he is a contributor to NBC and MSNBC.
The package to Holder ended up at the offices of Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat.
Law enforcement officials said at least five of the packages had Wasserman Schultz’s name — misspelled as “Shultz” — in the return address. When the package to Holder could not be delivered, it was sent to the congresswoman’s Florida office, a law enforcement official said.
Most of the packages were mailed in manila envelopes with bubble wrap interiors. They were affixed with computer-printed address labels and six standard U.S. Postal Service “forever” stamps, officials said.
The packages to Soros and the CNN office were not postmarked, suggesting they were hand-delivered. The FBI is trying to track down the courier firm CNN says delivered the Brennan package to the cable network’s offices. Meanwhile, members of a Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York are checking video from dozens of cameras located near where packages were delivered.
One law enforcement official described the devices as pipe bombs made of lightweight material. Another said they included plastic pipe, shrapnel and fireworks-like material. The bombs were sent for analysis to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va.
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said that the Brennan package sent to the CNN mailroom “appeared to be a live explosive device” and that an unknown white substance was also found. It was found to be nontoxic. CNN tweeted a picture of the package, showing Wasserman Schultz’s name on the return address and Brennan as the addressee. Both of their names, as well as the word "Florida," were misspelled.
Wasserman Schultz was chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee until she was forced to resign in 2016 over complaints that she was favoring Clinton over her Democratic primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton spoke about the packages during a campaign appearance in Florida, expressing her gratitude to the Secret Service for intercepting the device and her fear about a difficult and dangerous moment for the country.
“It is a troubling time, isn't it?” she said. “And it's a time of deep divisions, and we have to do everything we can to bring our country together. We also have to elect candidates who will try to do the same.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, speaking at a news conference with law enforcement officials and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, initially said his office had also received a suspicious package. But that turned out to be a false alarm, as did reports of a package sent to a San Diego building.
The New York officials said law enforcement planned to increase its visibility at other potential targets, including media offices, but said they had no more specific, credible threats in New York.
“This is a political year. It’s a political season. We are weeks from an election, and that’s obviously in the air and that’s an obvious factor,” Cuomo said.
“What we saw here today was an effort to terrorize,” De Blasio said.
Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) also condemned the attack. “Political violence is never acceptable especially in a free & democratic country,” he tweeted. “I hope this terrorist is caught & punished to full extent of the law.”
While Trump called for unity and bipartisanship, critics said he bore responsibility for creating a climate of violence against political opponents and members of the media, noting that only last week at a rally Trump praised a Republican lawmaker for body-slamming a reporter.
“Trump has stoked a cold civil war in this country,” Steve Schmidt, a former Republican political consultant who has become a leading voice among conservative critics of the president, wrote on Twitter. “His rallies brim with menace and he has labeled journalists as enemies of the people. That someone would seek to kill their political enemies is not aberrational but rather the inevitable consequence of Trump’s incitement.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called on Trump to soften his rhetoric. “If he would take a more civil tone, it would help,’’ Flake told CNN.
At his Wisconsin rally, Trump tried to shift blame to the media. “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone,” he said.
The Secret Service said the packages addressed to Obama in Washington and Clinton in Westchester County, N.Y., were identified late Tuesday and early Wednesday, respectively, by Secret Service personnel “during routine mail screening procedures.”
“Both packages were intercepted prior to being delivered to their intended location,” according to the statement from Mason Brayman, assistant special agent in charge with the United States Secret Service. “The protectees did not receive the packages nor were they at risk of receiving them.”
On Capitol Hill, officials warned lawmakers’ offices against accepting packages or any mail that is not processed through official sorting facilities, and to be careful about personal mail sent to their homes. After the discovery of the Waters package, a congressional sorting facility was temporarily evacuated.