WASHINGTON — With the capture of a suspect in the mail-bomb deliveries to prominent Democrats and CNN, President Donald Trump finds himself — with less than two weeks to go until the midterm elections — in a political box of his own making.
He has spent much of the last few years portraying some of the alleged suspect's targets — as well as the entire Democratic Party, the news media, figures in his own administration and many of his other critics — as enemies. He has depicted them as unpatriotic, dishonest, corrupt and, in some cases, even "evil."
And for all of that time, he's been warned that acts of violence could follow such highly charged demonization of his political opponents. The suspect in the mail bombs case is Cesar Sayoc, a Trump supporter who covered his social media accounts — and his van — in images and messages that align with Trump's themes.
Now, with the midterm elections fast approaching, the president has to decide whether there's greater risk continuing along the path he's blazed by denouncing his opponents in highly personal and often deeply moralistic terms, or in shifting course and acting more like his White House predecessors.
The political perils of staying the course are obvious: The broader electorate could see him as condoning — or fomenting — extremism and violence. To Trump, the risks of toning it down are just as real — he might appear to be acknowledging some measure of responsibility for inciting violence, and he could deflate his own backers in the campaign home stretch, as he's trying to energize them to vote for fellow Republicans.
On Friday, as he departed the White House for a rally in Charlotte, N.C., Trump told NBC's Kelly O'Donnell that he won't change the way he engages in the political arena.
"No, I don't think so, think we're running a great campaign," he said. "Republicans had great momentum, then this happened. ... Now we have to start the momentum again."
In fact, he said in an exchange with reporters, he might ramp up his rhetoric.
"Tone down? no," Trump said. "Could tone up. Think I’ve been toned down if you want to know the truth."
As for whether he bears any responsibility for Sayoc's actions, Trump was unequivocal.
"I heard he was a person that preferred me over others," he said of Sayoc. "There's no blame, there's no anything."
But many of Trump's critics see a correlation between the way he talks about his adversaries and the way his supporters behave toward them. And there's a risk, in the wake of the mail bombs, that swing voters, and even some Republicans, will decide that his power should be checked — particularly if he resumes the invective that has been his calling card in politics.
"Trump is in the awkward position of having to veer around what is by all appearances the central fact of this case: Himself, and his violent rhetoric," said Jeff Shesol, a former White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, who, along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was a target of one of the mail bombs. "He’s been baiting people like this for a long time now, and it was only a matter of time before some lunatic took him up on the suggestion."
Because of that, Shesol added, Trump is "unable to say — or say honestly or credibly — any of the obvious things that a president would say in a moment like this."
Even as he called for national unity on Wednesday, the day that most of the mail bombs were discovered, Trump took a direct shot at the media and condemned Democrats in thinly veiled terms.
The media have "a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endlessly hostility and constant negative and often times false attacks and stories," he said at a campaign rally in Wisconsin. "No one should carelessly compare political opponents to historical villains, which is done often, all the time, got to stop, we should not mob people in public spaces or destroy public property. ... We must accept the verdicts of elections and remember America’s greatest achievements have always been those achievements we embark on together."
Trump showed some inclination to control himself during his Wednesday rally — notably omitting many of his toughest standard attacks on individual Democrats that night, he repeatedly noted how well he was behaving — but has so far demonstrated no desire, and perhaps no ability, to rein in his supporters.
Many of those supporters don't just want Trump to blister his adversaries — they demand it.
During an event with young black conservatives at the White House Friday, someone in the audience yelled "Soros" — an apparent reference to liberal activist and donor George Soros, who received one of the pipe bombs — and then "lock them up."
At the Wednesday rally, even as Trump was calling for national unity, some in his audience yelled "CNN sucks!"
Mary Kate Cary, who served as a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, said it's understandable that Trump wants to push buttons with his voters so that they will show up to support GOP candidates.
"This close to the midterms, obviously, we’ve moved to mobilizing," she said. "Clearly the goal at this point is not to change minds, but to rile up supporters so that they get off the couch and vote."
But she would like to see him do it in a way that reflects the traditions of his office.
"Despite all his tweets and inflammatory comments at rallies — which I certainly disapprove of and wish would stop — any time President Trump calls for civility, restraint and avoiding violence, I’m all for it," she said.
The biggest question for presidential observers over the next 11 days isn't whether Trump can find the balance between the two approaches. It's whether he's going to try.