An avowed Donald Trump supporter in southern Florida was charged on Friday with sending pipe bombs to critics of the president, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Thirteen of the devices were mentioned on a federal criminal complaint. A 14th device was reported by the billionaire Tom Steyer, who has called for Trump’s impeachment.
Sayoc, 56, has an address in the Miami suburb of Aventura and an extensive arrest record. According to his social media accounts, he works as a booking agent for a live events company and is a former wrestler and cage fighter.
Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, said at a press conference in Washington Sayoc had been charged with five offences including threats against former presidents, assaulting current and former federal officers and mailing explosives. The charges were filed to federal court in Manhattan.
“Let this be a lesson to anyone, regardless of their political beliefs, that we will bring the full force of law against anyone who attempts to use threats, intimidation and outright violence to further an agenda,” Sessions said.
Asked why most of Sayoc’s alleged targets were Democrats, Sessions said: “He appears to be a partisan.” A court filing said the stickers covering Sayoc’s van included “images critical of CNN”, the TV station frequently derided by Trump, whose New York studios were the target of two bombs.
Speaking at the White House, Trump praised the “incredible job” done by investigators and promised to punish the person responsible. Speaking later at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, Trump won applause from his loyalist supporters for calling for national unity and an end to political violence. But he soon attacked the media, encouraged chants of “CNN sucks” and set the audience up to boo the Democratic House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and reprise “lock her up” chants aimed at Hillary Clinton.
FBI director Christopher Wray said Sayoc had been linked by a fingerprint to a package sent to the California congresswoman Maxine Waters. DNA possibly from Sayoc was also found in one of the packages, Wray said, stressing that they contained authentic explosives.
“These are not hoax devices,” Wray said, adding that more could yet be in the mail.
Three bombs were confirmed by authorities when charges were brought, bringing to 13 the number known to have been sent. None exploded before being found and no injuries were reported.
The packages found on Friday were sent to two senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California; to James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence. Steyer, a donor to Democratic groups, said an additional suspect package addressed to him was intercepted in Burlingame, California.
Sayoc was born in Brooklyn, New York, and registered as a Republican in 2016, according to public records. His social media accounts contain photographs and video clips in which he is wearing Trump’s signature red baseball cap with the slogan “Make America Great Again”.
The 56-year-old has also posted material online denigrating Muslims and raising popular rightwing conspiracy theories including the false claim that Clinton killed a former deputy White House counsel, Vince Foster.
He threatened CNN in a tweet in August. Rochelle Ritchie, a former aide to Democratic politicians, said on Friday she reported Sayoc to Twitter earlier this year after he warned her: “Hug your loved ones real close every time you leave you home.” Twitter told her Sayoc had not violated its rules. A Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment.
Sayoc’s arrest record stretches back more than 25 years and includes charges for theft, battery, domestic violence and other offences. In August 2002, he was found guilty of making a bomb threat to a utilities worker.
Daniel Lurvey, an attorney who represented Sayoc in some of his criminal cases, said Sayoc had been “normal and courteous” and did not seem politically angry. “I think it’s a recent phenomenon that’s happening to a lot of people who have feelings under the surface that are brought out by this divisive political climate,” said Lurvey.
On Friday afternoon, police and security guards were blocking off an upmarket 27-story condominium block in Aventura, where Sayoc has been listed as a resident.
Neighbours said they were surprised. But one, Dan Ochsenschlagen, said there had been friction on the condominium board between Sayoc’s mother, the registered owner of the apartment, and other board members. Ochsenschlagen said Sayoc’s mother, who often made political statements, was president of the board for 17 years until she was voted out last December.
“Some of the things that were going on were very questionable,” Ochsenschlagen said. He said he had reported what he called “financial irregularities” to police in Miami. The Guardian was not immediately able to verify the claims.
Authorities hoped Sayoc’s arrest would end the steady discovery of more matching envelopes, containing what appeared to be pipes packed with explosives and connected to wires, across the US. The criminal complaint against Sayoc said the packages included photographs of the targets’ faces that had been crossed out with a red “X”.
The first package was discovered on Monday in a mailbox at the New York home of George Soros, a wealthy liberal donor. It was followed by similar packages intercepted by the secret service that were addressed to the homes of Obama and Clinton.
Over the following days packages were found addressed to former vice-president Joe Biden, former attorney general Eric Holder, former CIA director John Brennan, Waters and the actor Robert De Niro. All are high-profile opponents of Trump.
The package addressed to Booker was intercepted in Florida while the one for Clapper was discovered at a post office in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. It was addressed to Clapper at the offices of CNN, a few blocks away, where he is employed as an analyst.
“This is not going to silence the administration’s critics,” Clapper told CNN. “But anyone who has in any way been a public critic of President Trump needs to be on extra alert and take some precautions particularly with respect to mail.”
Clapper praised the FBI for its work and for persevering in the face of abuse from the president. Trump has accused the FBI of being involved in a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine him and of botching an inquiry into a private email server used by Clinton. “Will the FBI ever recover its once stellar reputation?” he asked in a tweet in August.
Shortly before the arrest, Trump complained that the attempted bombings were damaging his party’s prospects for next month’s midterm elections. He also appeared to stoke conspiracy theories.
“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, 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!”, Trump said. The president had also complained in a 3am tweet he was being unfairly blamed for the attempted bombings.
Supporters of Trump speculated without evidence that the devices were not viable and could not have harmed people. Cuomo said: “No one can say that they were fake bombs. These were dangerous devices that could explode.”
De Niro made his first remarks on the pipe bomb discovered at his offices in lower Manhattan. “I thank God no one’s been hurt, and I thank the brave and resourceful security and law enforcement people for protecting us,” he said. “There’s something more powerful than bombs, and that’s your vote. People must vote!”