The FBI has arrested a suspect in connection to the slew of pipe-bombs mailed to prominent critics of the president throughout the last week. Cesar Sayoc, 56, was taken into custody by federal agents Friday morning in the parking lot of an AutoZone car repair center in Plantation, Florida, bringing a temporary end to a case that has gripped the national media and exacerbated political tensions in the final weeks of the midterm elections.
Mr. Sayoc, apparently a resident of Aventura Florida (20 minutes from where he was arrested), had according to some residents apparently been living out of his white van, which was often parked at a local strip mall. The van, towed away by authorities at the time of his arrest, was coated in a wide variety of window stickers: pictures of Trump, slogans like “CNN Sucks,” and pictures of Trump’s political rivals like Hillary Clinton with crosshairs photoshopped over their faces.
In light of the accusations leveled against Sayoc, the van hardly comes as a surprise. He is accused of having sent homemade pipe-bombs in the mail to at least 13 political and media figures. These people include Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Maxine Waters, and former intelligence officials John Brennan and James Clapper. The actor Robert De Niro, a vocal critic of the president, also received an explosive device, most if not all of which were sent in manila envelopes with the misspelled name of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chair of the Democratic National Convention, on the return address.
Using a clause termed the national security exception, authorities are reportedly going to initially question Sayoc without the presence of a lawyer. This is presumably because of the ongoing delivery of the bombs through Friday and the likelihood that there are more in the postal system that have yet to reach their destinations.
Clapper, a former Director of National Intelligence, has been a routine critic of the president’s and was one of several former intelligence officials whose security clearances were revoked last month. In an interview on CNN on Friday, he said that he anticipated receiving a package after the first round of them were reported, and called the bomb threats acts of “domestic terrorism.” “Anyone who has in any way been a critic, publicly been a critic of President Trump, needs to be on an extra alert,” he said.
Many of the Trump’s opponents, including some of those who received the packages, have blamed the president’s rhetoric for inciting violence on the right. “The country has to come together, this division, this hatred, this ugliness, it has to end,” Joe Biden said on Friday. “And words matter, words matter.” Biden also said that he hoped politicians across the board would try to “lower the temperature in our public dialogue.”
Trump himself has implicitly accused the media of using the story to ratchet up tensions and decrease Republican turnout in the midterms. “Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls,” he wrote on Twitter at around 3 a.m. on Friday, “and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens, and the momentum greatly slows – news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!” In a rare show of support for the Justice Department, the president praised the work of federal authorities and FBI agents in identifying the suspect on Friday, and condemned the attacks as having “no place” in the United States. When asked about the suspect’s apparent infatuation with the president, Trump replied it seemed he “preferred me over others.” “There is no blame,” Trump added, “There is nothing at all.”
Democratic politicians struck back at the president on Friday, as the media storm surrounding the bomb threats increased upon news of Sayoc’s arrest. “Elected officials and others need to say that this is not who we are as a country,” said Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “That would be a heck of a lot stronger if that message also came from the White House.”
No one was injured in the slew of incidents, as none of the devices exploded. Whether or not they were intended to explode or simply to create a panic was unclear, although New York City police commissioner James O’Neill said that they were treating the devices as “live” explosives as packages continued to arrive across the country through Friday. The bombs, according to one source, appear to have been based on widely-available designs online for such homemade explosives.
Bystanders at the scene of the arrest also claim to have heard what sounded like an explosion as FBI agents arrived at the AutoZone, and a woman in her yard next door said she saw smoke coming from the parking lot.
Sayoc’s life, however, and what may have led him to sending bombs across the country remains mostly unknown. A former stripper and pro wrestler, there was no immediate evidence of his activity in politics – either locally or online. Public records show that Sayoc has a history of arrests for domestic violence, theft, and an alleged bomb threat against a utility company. Officials say that fingerprints taken from at least one of the devices was instrumental in leading them to Sayoc.
Sayoc was charged on Friday with five federal crimes including mailing explosives and threats against a former president. If convicted, say officials, he could face up to 58 years in prison.
“We will not tolerate such lawlessness, especially political violence,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions, adding, despite the uniformity of the targets, that the degree to which Sayoc was acting as a “partisan” would become clearer over the course of the investigation.