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President Trump Rejects Any Blame For Bombs; Suspect Arrested in Package Bomb Investigation, Charged with Five Federal Crimes; Israel Launches Airstrike After 16 Rockets Fired From Gaza; FBI Director: Package Bombs Not Hoax Devices; Package Bomber an Avid Trump Supporter; Trump Refuses to Acknowledge Any Role in Motivating Suspect; Bombing Suspect to Appear in Court Monday. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 26, 2018 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Pro-Trump posts. The suspect's van offering clear evidence he is a supporter of the president and an opponent of many Democrats. We are going to tell you what authorities are now saying and not saying about a possible motive.

And rejecting blame. President Trump is praising authorities for making an arrest, while refusing to acknowledge that his divisive rhetoric may have helped inspire the suspect. Will he rile up supporters or try to tone it down at an event tonight?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the serial mail bomb suspect now in custody in Florida and scheduled to appear in court on Monday; 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc is charged with five federal crimes, including mailing explosives and threatening two former presidents.

Tonight, the FBI is stressing that all 13 bombs sent to prominent Democrats and other public figures were not hoax devices.

Sayoc's van, which was towed away, was plastered with pro-Trump and anti-Democrat images. Just a little while ago, President Trump said he heard that the suspect is a supporter of his, but he refused to say whether he bears any responsibility at all for any of this because of his inflammatory rhetoric.

This hour, I will talk to the former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior investigative correspondent, Drew Griffin. He's in South Florida for us right now.

Drew, we have new information about the bombs and the suspect's background.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: On the bombs, Wolf, they were not a hoax because, according to the FBI, they contained all, if not most of the components of a bomb.

What is unclear at this point is if they could have detonated and if they were designed to detonate. The suspect in custody now did cooperate initially with authorities, telling them he had no intentions to harm anyone. He now has a lawyer. Questioning has ended.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Tonight, authorities have a suspect in custody they say is responsible for at least a dozen package bombs discovered all across the U.S.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: Each device consisted of roughly six inches of PVC pipe, a small clock, a battery, some wiring, and what is known as energetic material, which is essentially potential explosives and material that give off heat and energy through a reaction to heat, shock or friction.

GRIFFIN: FBI Director Chris Wray indicating a fingerprint found on one of those packages led FBI investigators to 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc, who is facing five federal crimes and up to 48 years in prison.

WRAY: Based on their analysis, they uncovered a latent fingerprint from one of the envelopes containing an IED that had been sent to Congresswoman Maxine Waters. We have confirmed this fingerprint is that of Cesar Sayoc.

There is also a possible DNA connection between samples collected from pieces of two different IEDs mailed in separate envelopes and a sample previously collected from Sayoc in connection with an earlier arrest down in Florida.

GRIFFIN: Fifty-six-year-old Cesar Sayoc is in federal custody, arrested in South Florida. Authorities also impounding this white van, taking every precaution, unaware of what may be inside.

MAN: Yes, we just took him into custody. We're concerned reference signal 46 (INAUDIBLE) and we want the road shut down, and then we will start evacuating.

GRIFFIN: According to law enforcement officials, Sayoc had been living in the van recently after being kicked out of his parents' house. That van, covered in political stickers with images of President Donald Trump, targets on prominent liberals, as well as a sticker says "CNN Sucks."

Here he is at a Trump campaign rally last year holding a sign saying the same thing. Sayoc's social media accounts feature numerous postings from Trump rallies and countless more about politics. The various accounts read like a target list for those who've received package bombs this week.

He trolls President Obama, tweeting about Bobby Kennedy with photos disparaging the Kennedy family. He mocks Vice President Biden's 9/11 message with a photo of his Delaware home and pictures that suggest firebombing it.

He blames former Attorney General Eric Holder for the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, even threatening death. He vilifies California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, tweeting bad memes and encouraging his like-minded followers to attend an event with her in California.

A denier of the Parkland High School shooting massacre, Sayoc accusers Democratic fund-raiser George Soros for funding a cover-up and paying students like David Hogg to pretend they were victims. And public records show Sayoc had an extensive criminal record dating back as far as 1991.

[18:05:10]

The most notable offense? A 2002 charge of threatening to discharge a destructive device at a Florida utility company. Just recently, a package addressed to Democratic donor Tom Steyer was found in California.

[16:05:07]

And earlier today, one intended for former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper addressed to CNN in New York was intercepted at a New York facility, and another addressed to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was found in Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: Wolf, Sayoc now being held in federal detention in downtown Miami, awaiting his first court appearance -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Drew, thank you very much, Drew Griffin reporting for us.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, and our law enforcement analyst, Josh Campbell. He's a former FBI supervisory agent.

Josh, what do the suspect's social media posts say about his political motives?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Yes, Wolf, well, it is additional clues.

And obviously as we paint the narrative here, build a picture of who this person was, authorities are going to want to know everything about him, including what he has written, what he has said. If you think about what these kind of posts are, these are outward manifestations of your beliefs, as are the stickers that were on his van.

Again, he is not hiding that these are the things that he believes. One thing that's interesting, I know we have former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara coming up, who has worked a number of different cases. And he will tell you in different instances, sometimes, criminals try to hide what it is that they're doing and what they believe and what their motives are. Here, he is telling us what they are. He's signaling these are the things that I believe.

And, again, this is something that is going to be key for investigators as they piece this all together and draw the line through all of these clues in order to build a case.

BLITZER: Evan, what do we know about his record? He's been arrested several times over the years.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. He's been arrested at least nine times dating back to the 1990s, Wolf.

One particular 2002 to arrest was for making a bomb threat to a utility down in South Florida. So he had a pretty extensive criminal record, which was a huge help when the FBI was doing -- began doing its investigation.

One of the things that happened certainly by yesterday they had identified a fingerprint on one of the devices that was being sent to Maxine Waters, the congresswoman. And then secondly they found DNA belonging to this man also on one of the Maxine Waters bombs and one that was being sent to former President Barack Obama.

So those two things, they were able to go back to the state of Florida, where they found -- obviously, they had some his fingerprints on record, and they were able to identify him up fairly quickly, certainly by last night.

BLITZER: He has a court date set for Monday, right?

PEREZ: He has a court date, federal charges that he is facing.

In Miami -- he has to first get removed from the state of Florida. We will see whether or not he fights that or not, but it's pretty routine and normal circumstances before he goes -- goes to New York to face charges there.

BLITZER: Five federal charges, potentially 48 years. Remember, he's 56 years old right now.

Josh, tell us how the arrest went down. What are you hearing?

CAMPBELL: Yes, Wolf, we're piecing together how this all began.

And, obviously, authorities have been on high alert since these packages started coming in the mail, trying to track this person and identify him. We're told that there was cell phone communication devices that were used in order to help track -- to determine where he was.

One thing that's interesting, Wolf, is in these types of situations, law enforcement officers will often try to arrest someone in the early morning hours or at some point in time where law enforcement has the benefit.

We're told that one factor that was key here was, they had an address for the person, but they didn't necessarily want to hit that house and arrest him or attempt to located him and then arrest him, because they weren't quite sure if there were possibly explosives involved, if they were inside, if that would pose a threat the officers.

So they wanted to do it an outside an actual residence. We are now learning these details that he may have recently actually been living in his van, this vehicle. But, again, that kind of explains why it went down in this public area and at this particular time of day. Law enforcement officers were -- we understand they were surveilling him and then made that decision that it was time to take him down.

BLITZER: What can you tell us about these IEDs? That's what's Christopher Wray, the FBI director, calls them, these improvised explosive devices, how they were made, where the material came.

PEREZ: Right, Wolf.

These are not -- quote, unquote -- "bombs," as some people have tried to call them. Christopher Wray, the FBI director, made clear that these are not hoax devices. They could have hurt people. And so, look, the suspect, once he was arrested in his first statements to law enforcement, said that these things weren't going to hurt anybody, I wasn't trying to hurt anyone.

But that's not how the FBI sees them, because they believe that there was the certainly the makings here, the components that someone could have been hurt. And that's the reason why you see him charged today.

BLITZER: These IEDs were clearly bombs.

PEREZ: These IEDs were bombs. And nobody should try to use quote marks around them, because that's what they.

BLITZER: Well, the president did use quote marks around them in a tweet earlier in the day, before the arrest.

He says, now this -- quote -- "bomb stuff" happens, as if he was belittling the whole nature of these serious bombs that -- fortunately, no one was hurt, but a lot of people could have been badly injured or killed.

(CROSSTALK)

[18:10:07]

PEREZ: And keep in mind, Wolf, this man, for all of the apparent craziness that surrounds this, he was apparently good enough that he was -- he tried to make clear that his DNA wasn't going to be there.

He made mistakes, however. And that's how the FBI was able to get his fingerprints. So he was careful enough that they were only able to find his fingerprints on one of the devices and his DNA on two of them. So we shouldn't belittle his expertise in what he was doing here.

BLITZER: They found that fingerprint on one of those packages sent to Congresswoman Maxine Waters out in California.

PEREZ: Right.

BLITZER: Go ahead. Make your point, Josh.

CAMPBELL: No, I was just going to say, Wolf, that obviously investigators keep an open mind, as we do journalists and the public should.

But as we started learning details about the targets and all of these clues started coming together, it appeared as though this was leading in one direction. And it's important now to hear our officials on record, the attorney general, the FBI director, standing at that press conference, basically knocking down some of these additional narratives, counternarratives that we have seen.

They're saying these were -- these were not hoax devices. And they're saying that this person was likely a partisan. Again, that's leading in that one direction, that this person was probably acting based on these political beliefs that we have seen on these social media postings and the like.

BLITZER: All right, Josh and Evan, I need both of you to stand by.

There's more breaking news we're following tonight. The president acknowledging that the bomb suspect is a supporter of his, but Mr. Trump refused to draw any connection between his own rhetoric and the 13 mail bombs sent to people he's targeted with very divisive words.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is in Charlotte, North Carolina, for us, where the president is getting ready to hold yet another political rally tonight. A huge crowd already has gathered.

Jeff, the president, at least so far, isn't accepting any responsibility.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good evening.

He is not. As the president was leaving the White House a short time ago, he was asked specifically if he holds any blame. And he said look, no, there's no blame. There's no blame for anything.

And he was also asked if he disavows the support from that Florida suspect. And he said -- he would not actually answer that question. But, Wolf, this comes after earlier today, the president said he's committed to stopping political violence.

The question is, what will we do about it?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump urging Americans to unify tonight, but refusing to acknowledge how his divisive rhetoric has contributed to an overheated and dangerous political climate and may have motivated bombing suspect Cesar Sayoc.

TRUMP: The bottom line is that Americans must unify and we must show the world that we are united together in peace and love and harmony, as fellow American citizens.

ZELENY: But those words so far are just words, not followed by action.

TRUMP: We must never allow political violence to take root in America. Cannot let it happen. And I'm committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it, and to stop it now, to stop it now.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ZELENY: That's teleprompter Trump with a carefully scripted message 11 days before the midterm elections.

TRUMP: These terrorizing acts are despicable and have no place in our country. No place.

ZELENY: But officials tell CNN the president does not believe he's complicit in contributing to the red-hot political atmosphere, where an apparent supporter allegedly sent package bombs to more than a dozen Trump critics.

And CNN has learned that the president is telling allies and advisers that he does not believe it is fair to link his rhetoric to the attempted violence, despite the political leanings plastered in stickers on the suspect's van.

Leaving the White House for his rally tonight, the president said this:

TRUMP: I did not see my face on the van.

I don't know. I heard he was a person that preferred me over others, but I did not see that.

QUESTION: Are you to blame at all for what happened?

TRUMP: No, not at all. No, I mean, not at all, no. That -- there is no blame.

ZELENY: The president did not say whether he would change his tone and painted himself as the victim.

TRUMP: Well, I think I have been toned down, if you want to know the truth. I could really tone it up, because, as you know, the media has been extremely unfair to me and to the Republican Party.

ZELENY: This morning, even as authorities in New York discovered another package bomb and were closing in on the 56-year-old suspect in South Florida, the president diminished the threat, suggesting the serial bombing attempts were politically inconvenient.

"Republicans are doing so well in early voting and at the polls and now this 'bomb' stuff happens. The momentum greatly slows," the president saying on Twitter, "news not talking politics. Very unfortunate what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote."

While the president put "bomb" in quotation marks, tonight, FBI director Christopher Wray made clear the severity of the threat.

WRAY: These are not hoax devices.

ZELENY: At the Justice Department, forceful words from officials reflecting the assassination attempt oft Obamas, Clintons and other Democratic officials and critics of Trump, but the president, he was airing his grievances in the middle of the night on Twitter.

[18:15:03]

At 3:14 a.m. writing: "Funny how lowly rated CNN and others can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11 and the Oklahoma City bombing."

While Trump never shies away from calling out Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and others by name.

TRUMP: Lying, crooked Hillary. He is a terrible, terrible president.

With Biden, you go like this, and he goes down.

ZELENY: And he routinely attacks CNN.

TRUMP: You watch the Clinton news network, CNN, it's a joke.

ZELENY: He mentioned none of the targets by name today.

TRUMP: On the packages and devices that have been mailed to high- profile figures throughout our country and a media organization.

ZELENY: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who's often publicly belittled by the president, said the suspect's partisan leanings appeared to contribute to his actions. He delivered the administration's sternest warning to any copycats.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: This is a law and order administration. We will not tolerate such lawlessness, especially not political violence.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, some of the strongest words today from the administration were indeed coming from the Justice Department, calling out exactly what this is, political violence, and saying it was partisan in nature. Now, the president has not gone nearly that far. But, Wolf, the

question is tonight, when the president arrives here in Charlotte, which he is scheduled to do within the hour, what tone will he take in the final 11 days of the midterm election campaign? He seems much more interested in talking about that.

He believes all of this, this week has slowed the Republican sort of drive, if you will, and their spirit going into the midterm elections. He said they need to get their energy back. So, Wolf, tonight, here in Charlotte, in this arena, which is already filling up -- holds about 8,000 people or so -- he's campaigning for a House seat.

That's how targeted his campaigning is. We will see what tone he takes, if he addresses this at all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're told Air Force One has now landed in Charlotte. So get ready over there, Jeff. The president will be heading over to that rally fairly soon, Jeff Zeleny reporting for us.

Joining us now, CNN senior legal analyst former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.

Preet, thanks so much for joining us.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let me get your initial reaction.

Is this an open-and-shut case?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, nothing in life is an open-and-shut case really. Fingerprint analysis is really good. It's not infallible, and it sounds like they have a clear match with respect to one of the IEDs.

There was also -- according to the statements made today by Chris Wray and what I read in the criminal complaint, there's the possibility of a DNA match. It doesn't seem that that's fully nailed down yet. But, yes, there's a lot of circumstantial evidence. You have the fingerprint connection.

I'm anxious to hear and understand what the results of a search warrant that was executed today yield. The report that I saw said there was a residence associated with the defendant that was searched. Ordinarily, as we have been hearing over the last few days from lots and lots of experts, and in my own experience, you might find bomb- making materials of a similar sort.

You might find envelopes. You might find labels. You might find stamps that link him further to these activities. And then I also heard that he's been living in his van that had all this -- the political -- politically charged stickers on them. And you would expect to find things in that van as well that connect him to these various bombs that were sent.

So prosecutors don't like to say open-and-shut case, slam-dunk case, because anything can happen, but it seems very, very strong at this point. And it's only just beginning.

BLITZER: Yes, we saw video of law enforcement searching the home of his mother down in Florida. He apparently, the 56-year-old, had been kicked out of his mother's home, was living out of that van. So, I'm sure they're searching the van. I'm sure they're searching his mother's home as well.

We have a lot of information about his political ideology, Preet. What does that tell you about how he developed his list of targets and what may have motivated him?

BHARARA: Well, to answer that question, you don't need to have had years and years of experience as a federal prosecutor, nor as the U.S. attorney.

The common sense tells you that he was a partisan, as the current attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, said at the press conference earlier today at main Justice.

So he decided his victims, clearly, according to what his political belief system was. And that is evidenced not only by the targets, as you say, who received some of these IED devices, but also by his activity over a number of years, who he complained about, who he criticized, who he didn't like.

And so there's a basically like a matching of one to one between who he didn't like politically and who he decided to send a device to potentially kill them.

BLITZER: The suspect will be prosecuted, we're told, in the Southern District of New York, in New York City, where you served as the U.S. attorney.

What more will prosecutors be looking forward to build their case?

BHARARA: Well, the first thing you want to make sure to be doing, prosecutors working alongside law enforcement -- and I want to commend them all and I'm very proud of my former office for being on top of this and getting it done so quickly.

We had act of terrorism cases in my office involving explosive devices, some of which went off and harmed people as well.

[18:20:05]

But the first you want to make sure of is that you have gotten all the devices. And that's a job that prosecutors and law enforcement agents work with -- work together on to make sure of.

With respect to the case, as I said, you want to see what the take is from the search warrants. You want to see what his communications were. You want to get a download of his devices, his cell phones, any computers he might have been using. There's no evidence here right now that I have seen, because conspiracy has not been charged, that he was working in concert with other people. That's one of the first things you care about. And even if he wasn't

working in concert with other people, was he in communication with like-minded people who may be trying to think about doing something in a copycat fashion, or independently do something like this guy was doing?

Lots of times, people who have a particular kind of grudge or a political feeling about something or an association with drugs or anything else, they associate with other folks like themselves. And even though they may be lone wolves unto themselves with respect to a particular act that they engage in, you can often find evidence that leads you to other people.

So you both want to think about making sure that there's no remaining threat to anyone to see if there's anyone else he can connect you to. And with respect to the case, I think you see what the take is, you see if other people have evidence of him saying things that indicated that he was intending to do these things, because I'm assuming there's lots and lots of surveillance tape from various places where he went, either to buy materials to make the bombs, to mail the bombs, to put them together.

And so I'm expecting you will see lots and lots of additional evidence. Maybe you don't need all of it, because it's pretty strong. But these folks in my old office are very, very thorough, and they will leave no stone unturned.

BLITZER: They have already said that they have got five criminal charges against him. Potentially, he could serve 48 years in prison.

Does that seem like the bare minimum of charges to you? Do you expect more charges will come forward?

BHARARA: Yes, I do expect that. I was thinking about the other statutes that might be able to be chargeable here, and I think there are a number of them.

But bear in mind that this is just a criminal complaint at this stage. So it was authorized by a magistrate judge in Florida. At some point, within a certain period of time, depending on what rights the defendant waives, the prosecutors have to come up with an indictment, which requires 23 Americans in a grand jury to decide that they approve of the charges.

And usually at that time, after you have had a few more days to think about the evidence and look back at the law, lots of other charges could be added. So, I expect that to go up, because there's lots of other things that could be charged with respect to the use of what he made use of, these destructive devices, yes.

BLITZER: Acts of terror, as you know, they're always a test for the leadership of the country, specifically the president of the United States.

So what do you make of the way the president has been handling the situation? BHARARA: Well, the president, on a number of issues, doesn't handle this kind of situation well, particularly when there's violence or a threat of violence. We saw that in Charleston, and we're seeing it -- in Charlottesville -- I'm sorry.

And we're seeing here again. And I understand that, politically, he thinks it's death to ever admit blame or responsibility or a failing in any way, shape, or form. And that has been good for him, I guess, in some ways.

But, to my mind, it shouldn't be that difficult for a politician of any stripe to, in simple, straightforward words, condemn violence, especially condemn violence for political reasons, against news organizations in particular, people who are only doing their jobs in politics.

It's -- I think it sends a massive bad signal, not just to the country generally, but also to other people who might be thinking about these things.

Now, I'm not saying is a direct line between what Donald Trump has said and what he seems to be able to accept and this person doing these terrible things. I mean, this person, obviously, as the reporting has shown, has a long record of criminal conduct. He has for a long time before Donald Trump became the president of the United States, it should be said, in fairness, has clearly had a particular partisan viewpoint and has targeted people for his vitriol, if not with violence.

So it didn't originate with President Trump. But you have to appreciate, I think, in an environment that gets increasingly charged and where people are increasingly separated by their tribes, that you have people like this guy out there.

And maybe they are set off further and maybe they are inclined to do something further when their leaders make it seem like it's OK and make it seem like the press is the enemy of the people.

I mean, I'm sitting here in Washington, Wolf. I'm sitting in the Time Warner Center, at the very place where this person tried to send devices that were intended to kill people.

So it's not a joking matter. As the FBI director said a short while ago, these were not hoax devices, notwithstanding the fact that, for the last couple of days, supporters of the president and the president himself in a tweet suggested this was all nonsense. He used word "bombs" in air -- in quotes in one of his tweets.

This is serious business. The president is the leader of all Americans. And he should condemn things straightforwardly and directly and not use dog whistles.

BLITZER: Especially when two former presidents, a former secretary of state, a former attorney general, former CIA director, a former director of national intelligence, members of Congress are specifically targeted by these kinds of improvised explosive devices. [18:25:12]

Preet, thanks so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Sure. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we're getting some new information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

We will take a quick break. We will update you on all the latest news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news on the suspected serial bomber now in custody in Florida.

The FBI chief is warning that 13 bombs sent to top Democrats and other prominent figures were not -- repeat -- not hoax devices.

Here's more of what the FBI director, Christopher Wray, told reporters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[18:30:13] CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: Each device consisted of roughly six inches of PVC pipe, a small clock, a battery, some wiring and what is known as energetic material, which is essentially potential explosives and material that give off heat and energy through a reaction to heat, shock or friction. Though we're still analyzing the devices in our laboratory, these are not hoax devices.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in our analysts and our correspondents. And Phil Mudd, at one point you worked at the FBI. What jumped out at you from what we heard over at the Justice Department?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, there are two pieces. First the immediate piece: people are talking about what these devices looked like. There were people in danger for the past week. These were real devices. There is debate about this. No one can dispute Chris Wray. He is a presidential appointee by President Trump, working for the attorney general. We had a real threat here.

The other thing I'd say is, you know, there's a lot of negativity in this country, Wolf. Step back, Friday night, pop a bottle of champagne. The system worked.

The NYPD put out the images. People knew about this stuff. We got DNA. We got fingerprints. We found the mail-sorting facility partly by, I assume, postal inspectors, and the takedown was smooth. You've got to love it. It worked.

BLITZER: You know, David Chalian, this suspect made it clear he was a huge supporter of President Trump. I want you to watch how the president responded to that. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I did not. I did not see my face on the van. I don't know -- I heard he was a person that preferred me over others, but I did not see that.

Not at all, no. That, that -- t no blame, anything. If you look at what happened to Steve Scalise, that was from a supporter of a different party. You look at what happened, in numerous of these incidents, they were supporters of others.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Why can't he reflect on the fact that his words may have inspired this guy, even inadvertently?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Why can't Donald Trump do "X" is a question we've been asking for a year and a half on some of these things, Wolf. I don't have an answer for that, except that that has not been his pattern at all. And I don't anticipate he will ever have that introspective moment or, in some way, speak about his role in this.

And by the way, collectively, there are all the political actors from both sides, from the media. We could all take a step back and look at how do we shape the political atmosphere? That might be a healthy thing.

But Donald Trump is the president of the United States. He's the leader of the country, and as you noted, as we've noted over the last couple of days, everybody on this target list is somebody that Donald Trump has singled out in a rally or in a tweet or what have you as a political target. There is an -- it is impossible to ignore the nexus, and Donald Trump is doing just that, ignoring the nexus.

He's not to blame for what this guy did, but it would be refreshing leadership if he could have an introspective moment. I don't anticipate it. It's not his style, and I don't think we should be waiting for it.

BLITZER: You know, Dana, I want you to look at this video. This guy posted video of himself at various Trump rallies. And you can hear him chanting, "Trump, Trump, Trump." Also at one point chanting, "CNN sucks." What do you make of that?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, it's not surprising, given what we saw on his van and the -- the -- not to mention the number of people and the kinds of people he sent these potential deadly bombs to, the package bombs to.

Sara can speak to this more than I, because she's been to probably more of these rallies than you can count, but this is the atmosphere. And this is the atmosphere we've been talking about. It's the atmosphere that we've been dealing with. I agree with David, the president certainly didn't -- it's not his

fault, but it is also true that all of us, including and especially the president, has rhetoric that he can tone down; and he's not going to.

BLITZER: You've attended a lot of those rallies, and maybe you were there when this guy was there, as well.

And at one point the president actually used the phrase "enemy of the people," referring to the mainstream news media. Enemy of the people. Clearly, this guy was influenced by that.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, that's right. I think what we've seen is the way the president talks about the media, the way the president talks about CNN has really permeated among his fans and his followers.

You know, even tonight at this rally that Jeff Zeleny is that people are still chanting, "CNN sucks," in the same week that explosive devices were sent to our office in New York. And so it has clearly resonated with them.

And I can't even -- it happens constantly throughout the rally. There is merchandise that says, "CNN Sucks," "CNN Lies," "CNN is ISIS."

And the president a no point, not even in this week, has said, "OK, I may have gone too far," or you know, "Even if I have disagreements with this media outlet or any media outlet, I'm never condoning violence. I don't want my followers to act on this. Express your grievances about their coverage, but I don't want you to resort to violence."

[18:35:10] BLITZER: You know, Shawn, the -- there were warning signs involving the suspect out there for years, long before Donald Trump decided to run for president. Back in 2002, he was arrested for making a bomb threat.

So what led him to act now and follow up and allegedly make these specific -- not just a bomb threat, but send out these bombs?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, you know, there's no doubt that this is an individual that had some extreme anger against the people that he sent these bombs to. I mean, we know that he had made these threats in the past.

But as far as we know, up until this point, he had not acted on any of those threats. So the key question we have to ask ourselves is what was the trigger that caused him to wake up one day and say, "Today is the day I'm going to engage in terrorist activity. I'm going to try to assassinate two former presidents of the United States."

And, as several people said on the panel here, "Look, we cannot blame the president for this, but we have to ask ourselves whether or not the divisive nature of our current political rhetoric played some role, and what triggered this individual to decide that today was the day he was going to do this." And that doesn't mean it was the president. You can have a situation

where someone has mental health issues, but they also can -- can experience what is happening in their environment and be triggered by that. And that's certainly something we're going to have to look at.

CHALIAN: And I just -- you can see how uncomfortable the president is just watching that tape, that it is a supporter of his.

I think two things here. One, the president himself said, just politically, he's like, "the Republicans have lost their momentum. We need to get our momentum back." Clear acknowledgement that he doesn't think this story is a politically advantageous story to him in any way whatsoever.

I wonder how the president would have been answering questions today if it was a liberal supporter or a Democrat or a Soros donor who this guy ended up being. I would imagine it would be a very different tone.

And that is the problem. It shouldn't matter who this guy supports either way. It was a terrorist act, and it should be condemned at all levels; and it should spark this kind of introspection. But I am willing to bet the president would have had a very different response if his politics --

BLITZER: We're getting some new information on his social media posts that are very, very telling. We'll have that and more right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:42:01] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: the suspect in the attempted serial bomb attacks is in custody in Florida and now is scheduled to appear in court on Monday.

Let's dig deeper into the pro-Trump political views he had, that he very publicly displayed on his van and on social media. I want to go to our national correspondent, Athena Jones.

Athena, what are you learning?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Well, Cesar Sayoc was a prolific sharer and poster on social media, frequently posting pro-Trump messages and attacking prominent Democrats and the news media, particularly CNN. His angry tweets and posts at times reading like a conspiracy theorist's handbook.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): Cesar Sayoc, seen here at President Trump's rally in Melbourne, Florida, last year, holding up a sign calling for CNN to be banned.

In addition to repeatedly slamming CNN, Sayoc was a frequent online critic of the very people federal prosecutors say he targeted with 13 pipe bombs sent through the U.S. postal system in the last few days.

The 56-year-old registered Republican has been active across social media, where he has posted multiple images of himself attending Trump rallies or wearing a "Make American Great Again" hat, even wishing Trump a happy birthday back in June.

He has also tweeted pro Republican messages like "It's time to take our country back. Vote Republican," and "The Swamp to be Drained," a post that includes pictures of prominent Democrats and the logos of all major television news networks except FOX News.

Sayoc's online persona and activities echoing conspiracy theories and themes popular on right-wing web sites, posting on Facebook this photo of Hillary Clinton in May 2016 with a caption, "I presided over $6 billion lost at the State Department, sold uranium to the Russians through my faux charity, illegally deleted public records and murdered an ambassador."

And on Twitter, this string of posts about President Obama, including this message about his, quote, "real father," and posting just weeks before the presidential election, "Clinton is worst on terrorism. Her and Obama have made America weak and open to world terrorist attacks."

A Facebook spokesman telling CNN the company previously removed multiple posts from Sayoc's account for violations of its community standards, at times following complaints from other users. The company would not say how many posts were removed but said the violations were not severe enough to prompt them to shut down Sayoc's account until after he was named a suspect.

Sayoc maintained at least two Twitter accounts, just this week tweeting about President Obama and two billionaire Democratic activists, Tom Steyer and George Soros, after authorities found the pipe bomb he allegedly sent to one of Soros's homes, the first such device to be detected.

He tweeted about former vice president Joe Biden in late September, two days later posting this message about New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker.

Sayoc, who has had multiple run-ins with the law and a string of arrests dating back to the early '90s, tweeted about another target, California Representative Maxine Waters, back in April.

[18:45:06] Sayoc's van, which investigators seized, was decorated with pro-Trump imagery and a "CNN sucks" sticker, a reference to a chant heard frequently at Trump rallies.

CROWD: CNN sucks!

JONES: And this tweet falsely saying CNN was Hillary Clinton's eighth largest donor, even though CNN does not make political donations or take political positions.

Sayoc also posted a series of threats to CNN, its anchors, correspondents and contributors, tweeting: Go screw, CNN. You're next. You over enemy of America, CNN, you're next. So, the corrupt con job media like make threats, April and Don Lemon next.

Among the many ramblings of a prolific social media user who was clearly pro-Trump saying on the president's birthday, thank you for all you do against everyone and not be stopped ever, straight ahead. Get it done. Awesome. Build wall.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: And we are learning a bit more about this man, this suspect, Cesar Sayoc. His former lawyer telling CNN today that Sayoc has struggled for years with a, quote, lack of comprehension of reality -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Excellent reporting, Athena. Thank you very much.

I want to get back to our correspondent it and our analysts.

And, Phil Mudd, at one point this guy tweeted a threat to you. It was horrible to see that today. The president also has verbally attacked you by name.

You know, you are someone who served your entire career in the CIA and the FBI. You tried to do some public service. What does it feel like to see all of a sudden, you're being attacked by this guy, this guy making a direct threat to you, but over these past months, the president of the United States also verbally attacking you?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I only did 25 years, Wolf. I guess it doesn't count. The president has done, what, 20 months?

Look, something happened today that resulted from what I witnessed in August. On about August 20th, the president attacked me publicly on Twitter. Now, 96 hours later this -- roughly, this individual arrested today uses my name in a tweet and suggests he wants to kill me.

And that's coincidence? I don't have the profile of a movie star. How do you think that guy got my name?

Meanwhile, I got a call. My 86-year-old dad and my sister and then contact my girlfriend and tell them they're going to hear about a death threat against me tonight because the president attacked me on Twitter. And meanwhile, I also called the local police department to say I'm going home to Washington tomorrow. If there's a bomb in my house because this guy sent one before he got arrested, I will give you a ring.

Twenty-five years in and that's what you get. The president's playing with fire, 55 million Twitter followers -- I'm not suggesting he is responsible for the acts of a deranged individual. I'm saying when you got 55 million Twitter followers and you say, lock her up and CNN sucks and you take a shot at people personally, somebody is going to look at it and say, I went to a rally where people are really aggressive and now I'm going to act on it. And finally, we saw it happen this week.

I am irritated, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you should be. And our heart goes out to you and everybody else this guy threatened. And he threatened a whole bunch of people.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: This is why it is unacceptable that the president refuses to discuss his rhetoric. This is why it is an unacceptable response from Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, to dismiss it as a viable topic to talk about, because of exactly what Phil is saying.

You have to be ignorant of reality to not see the impact of the rhetoric, and so that's why when you are the leader of the free world and the president of the United States, it is an incumbent responsibility on you to speak to this very thing.

He said today, I have toned down my rhetoric. You know what? He has in several of his public appearances this week, but he has also taken to Twitter and slashed the media again and destroyed -- and has a crowd chanting, CNN sucks before he gets there. Is the president going to arrive on that stage and say, please don't ever chant that again.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, there's a lot you can do even if you're not the president. The president has his people on the ground at that rally right now, and it's not hard for someone to go to the mike and say, you know what, this chant is really inappropriate. Obviously, you know, we have knocked CNN before, but they received explosive devices this week.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Cut it out.

MURRAY: It's not appropriate, cut it out. And this is a conversation we have had for a long time, that it only takes one crazy person to act on, you know, this sort of idea that President Trump has fostered, the idea that the media is the enemy, the idea that he supports candidates who have physically assaulted journalists. It does not mean, as you pointed out, the president is responsible for sending the explosive devices. He is not.

But he is responsible for the words that come out of his mouth, and right now he is choosing once again not to take any responsibility.

BASH: And this is a conversation we have had publicly, you said it on the air and I don't, you know, have any problems saying we have had privately with people in that world.

[18:50:01] Let's have these discussions. Let's have these potential disagreements, but just be careful because somebody is going to get hurt. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to go from A to B.

SHAWN TURNER, CNN ANALYST: Yes, and I think one of the most important things that Phil said here is he made the connection between when the president attacked him on Twitter and when this individual attacked him on Twitter, and everyone's right here. We can't say that the president was responsible, but I think we're going to be able to go back and we're going to be able to recreate instances in which the president attacked many of these individuals who received bombs and we will see this kind of characteristic attacking of these individuals in twitter, and so we can't dismiss outright the possibility that there's a connection here.

Clearly, the president's not responsible, but the rhetoric has to be in some way contributing to this.

BLITZER: Because Phil, you know, I've been worried as our viewers know, for a long time when the president of the United States says that we, the media, the mainstream media, are the enemy of the people, you know, most people will just hear that and move on, but there are some crazy people, a very small number of people, who will say to themselves, you know, if they are the enemy of the people, we got to do something about that, and clearly, this individual thought he had to do something about it.

MUDD: Well, I've saw that through 25 years in my career. When there's people out in revolutionary organizations overseas that I follow, I didn't follow stuff domestically, when someone issues a call and they've got 55 million followers, a few of them are going to say, I'm going to take that to a new level.

Look, there's a personal piece to this, Wolf. So, let me -- I probably shouldn't do is this. Let me cut to the chase here. I'm out last night and somebody comes up to the bar and offers to buy me a glass of wine, my first question is, what's in this person's hands? Are they going to hurt me?

So, I'm not afraid. I don't feel under threat but the president has created an environment where all those individuals you've seen on photos who were sent bombs have to look around and say, when I go into a restaurant, is somebody going to walk up and do something when I'm with my niece and nephew? That is some place we can't be.

All the president has to do is to say, maybe we should be more polite. Just as Mrs. Mudd would have said to me when I was 6 years old.

BASH: I think we should go back to what David said. Everybody needs to take a breath. Everybody does.

And what you're seeing and hearing from the people who work here and from our colleagues at other media outlets is frustration that is boiling over that this was preventable. And unfortunately, given the atmosphere that we're in, it was potentially inevitable that something along these lines would happen.

And what Phil said, which should also be repeated. Thank goodness the system worked. It is remarkable the way that not only the reaction on the day of and the next day when these packages were found, but the speed with which law enforcement got this guy.

TURNER: Yes. Wolf, you know, in order for everyone to take a breath, someone's going to have to step out front and lead that effort. You know, the president has the power to step away from the teleprompter and speak to the American people from a place of sincerity and say that this is not who we are. And that we need to tone down this rhetoric and he needs to say that I'm going to do what's important and I'm going to lead by example. I'm going to be the first one to do that.

If the president were to do that, look, you know, he has to be consistent. He can't say that and then go to a rally and say the polar opposite of that because then we don't know what's sincere and what's not.

CHALIAN: But the president -- he would see that -- if I -- you know, he would see that as conceding to his political opponents and conceding to a media frame that is out there now, and to so that's why we see him doubling down on the attacks against the press right now.

BASH: And I also should just sad --

CHALIAN: He doesn't want to give ground.

BASH: And he's not the only one who has said outrageous things. The Democratic side, we've seen it too. I mean, what Maxine Waters said was rightly condemned by her own party leadership, calling on people to go out and go after Republicans. And even Eric Holder said he was misunderstood but when he said kick them, he was condemned and that should have been the case.

BLITZER: She's not the president of the United States.

BASH: No, but it's still not appropriate.

BLITZER: Absolutely not appropriate, but remember we have one president, one commander in chief, one leader of the free world who has a responsibility.

All right, everybody stand by. I want to go to our CNN chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter. He's at president Trump's rally right now in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Brian, tonight, the president is claiming that he's toned down his rhetoric but these rallies are where he unleashes his strongest attacks on the news media and his opponents. What are you seeing so far? I know he hasn't started speaking yet.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is where he shares talking points with his most loyal supporters and I'm really struck here, Wolf, by the reactions in the crowd to the reporters in the room. You know, as a media reporter talking to the folks in the crowd, the rally goers, a lot of them are in on it. They think it's theater. They think it's, like, pro wrestling.

When they chant, "CNN sucks", some of them, then come up to me afterwards and say, hey, Brian, nothing personal.

[18:55:03] We're glad you're here.

But, Wolf, not everybody here feels that way. Not everybody here is joking around. Some are very serious.

And I wonder at the end of this week if Trump is able to control the forces he has unleashed. Is he able or willing to tamp down the fire that he has started? Will his crowds continue to chant, fake news, and will he continue to encourage that? Or will he show leadership?

Because absolutely, those of us in the news business have a responsibility to be fair and to be accurate, but he has a responsibility to be a leader and show leadership.

So, let me just show you real quick, Wolf. This brand-new statement from the Committee to Protect Journalists. I was really taken aback by the strong language here from Robert Mahoney, one of the leaders of the group.

He said: Look, while we cannot say that Trump's speech directly incites violence, it is clear that some people are influenced by it. Influenced by the rhetoric. He said journalists across the country feel unsafe because of the constant hostility and the belittling of their role in our democracy by the head of state.

And the statement finishes by saying: This needs to stop. As you know, Wolf, news rooms across the country have stepped up security this week as a result of the bombs.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you very much. Brian Stelter on the scene for us in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I quickly want to turn to another major story that's breaking right now. Israeli war planes and helicopters striking Gaza after at least 16 rockets were fired at Israel.

CNN's Oren Lieberman is working the story from Jerusalem.

Oren, I take it a sharp escalation unfolding tonight.

OREN LIEBERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And just about two minutes ago, I got another rocket alert from the Gaza periphery, indicating that this escalation isn't over yet. We've seen outsiders step in, other organizations, including Egypt and the United Nations to step in and pull back both Israel and Gaza from these sharp escalations. We've seen that repeatedly in recent weeks and month. But each time they attempt to, it brings us closer and closer to the brink of war between Israel and Gaza.

This starts earlier today. Israel says Gaza fired a number of rockets, more than a dozen at this point, some ten of which or more perhaps at this point have been intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome aerial defense system. As you pointed out, Wolf, Israeli aircraft and helicopters striking targets in Gaza. We expect a summary of those targets from the Israel Defense Forces, the Israeli military, little later on tonight. We will certainly update you when we get that list of targets.

This follows protests, clashes earlier in the day along the Gaza fence. We've seen those clashes weekly. They've been almost daily now. Israel says some 16,000 Palestinians participated in those protests along the Gaza border. We've seen those protests become violent.

Part of that Israeli response is a response to those protests, air strikes carried out earlier in the day. The Palestinian ministry of health says four Palestinians were shot and killed during those protests. Wolf, the question is, where does this go now? Are Egypt and the United Nations able to step in to bring Israel and Hamas, Israel and Gaza back from the brink? That's the critical question at this point as the exchanges continue, as the escalation continues -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very quickly, is there fear right now that this could escalate into a full-scale war between the Israelis and the Hamas at Gaza as occurred in 2014?

LIEBERMAN: That fear is always there. Is it ever present right now? Is it imminent at this point?

I wouldn't say it is at this point. Both Israel and Hamas have said repeatedly that they don't want a war. Now, will they act on not wanting a war?

BLITZER: Oren Lieberman in Jerusalem for us -- Oren, thank you very much. We'll stay on top of that story as well.

Finally, tonight, if you'll indulge me, I want to say a few words about this week, a historic week indeed. The people who work here at CNN do their very, very best to report the news fairly, accurately, and responsibly.

Of course, we make mistakes, but when we do, we acknowledge them and we fix them. That's the role of journalists.

CNN isn't just made up of people that you see on camera, like me and our other correspondents. It's made up of thousands and thousands of very hard-working, very dedicated, very caring people here in the United States and indeed around the world. People just like you, men and women who have children, men and women who have families, men and women who have lives just like all of our viewers.

People want to go home to those children. People want their lives back after working hard all day and it can be very, very tense. Those were the people who were put at risk by these improvised explosive devices, people whose names and faces you'll never see, people who work in our mail rooms, handle our deliveries, and work so hard to keep all of us safe.

Many others were put at risk as well, postal workers, clerks, mail carriers, inspectors, police officers, bomb technicians. We are so, so lucky they weren't hurt. I think I speak for all of my colleagues here in the United States and around the world when I say thank you to those folks, those people you never see for discovering these devices and for keeping us safe, and I can assure you, CNN will keep doing what it does, reporting the news undeterred, unafraid as we do every night, including tonight. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.