Defense Secretary Esper says Beirut blast likely an accident, breaking with Trump

An accident was the likely cause of the explosion in Beirut, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday, contradicting the statement made by President Trump on Tuesday that the blast that killed at least 135 people, wounded 5,000 and leveled a large portion of the city was caused by an attack.

“Most believe it was an accident, as reported,” Esper said.

Esper made his comments to the Aspen Security Conference Wednesday. Trump spoke at a White House briefing hours after the explosion after he said he was briefed by “generals.” The Pentagon referred questions about that briefing to the National Security Council.

Esper also said information was still being collected to determine the cause. The Pentagon has offered the Lebanese government aid, he said.

“It’s really, really bad,” Esper said. “It could have been much worse.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper

Esper and Trump have been at odds on several issues over the summer. Last week, Esper defended the decision to move 11,000 troops out of Germany as a strategic move to counter Russia. Later that day, Trump called it retribution for Germany’s failure to pay more to NATO. 

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They have also differed over banishing Confederate names and emblems from military bases, with Trump favoring the names as historic.

Esper also resisted invoking the Insurrection Act to allow federal troops to quell protests earlier this summer. Trump has argued for a more forceful approach.

Asked June 3 if Trump had lost confidence in Esper over that issue, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany offered a tepid endorsement. 

“As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper,” she said.

On Wednesday, the Lebanese government ordered port officials put under house arrest, pending an investigation into how the ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port for years. Investigators searched the wreckage of Beirut for clues.

Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told a TV station that it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse since it was confiscated from a cargo ship impounded in 2013.

Ammonium nitrate was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2.4 tons of fertilizer and fuel oil killed 168 people in a federal building.

A senior U.S. Defense Department official and member of the U.S. intelligence community told the Associated Press there were no indications the explosion was the result of an attack by either a nation state or proxy forces. Both individuals spoke to the AP under condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss intelligence briefings publicly.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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