An accident was the likely cause of the explosion in Beirut, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday, contradicting a statement made by President Donald Trump on Tuesday that the blast that killed at least 135 people, wounded 5,000 and leveled a large portion of the city was an apparent attack.
“Most believe it was an accident, as reported,” Esper said at the Aspen Security Conference in Colorado.
At a White House briefing hours after the explosion, Trump said he was briefed by “generals,” and “they seem to think it was an attack.” The Pentagon referred questions about that briefing to the National Security Council. The NSC did not offer a response on Esper's comments.
Wednesday evening, Trump attempted to take back his assertion that an attack caused the explosion.
“Whatever happened, it’s terrible,” Trump told reporters of the explosion. “They don’t really know what it is ... I don’t think anybody can say right now.”
Esper said information was being collected to determine the cause of the blast. The Pentagon offered the Lebanese government aid, he said.
“It’s really, really bad,” Esper said. “It could have been much worse.”
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 differed over banishing Confederate names and emblems from military bases. Trump favors the names as historic.
Esper resisted invoking the Insurrection Act to allow federal troops to quell protests this summer. Trump argued for a more forceful approach.
Asked June 3 whether 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.
Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told a TV station in Beirut that the disaster was apparently caused by the detonation of tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a port warehouse since it was confiscated from a cargo ship impounded in 2013.
Wednesday, the Lebanese government ordered port officials put under house arrest, pending an investigation into why the ammonium nitrate was left at the port for years. Investigators searched for clues in the wreckage left by the explosion.
Ammonium nitrate was used in the domestic terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City 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 Beirut 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
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mark Esper breaks with Trump, says Beirut blast probably an accident