Trump has claimed without evidence that the explosion might have been an “attack.”
The United States has reached no official conclusion on the cause of the massive explosions that ripped through Beirut’s port area on Tuesday, the top Pentagon spokesman said on Thursday.
The statement was a subtle shift from Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s claim on Wednesday before that “most people believe” the incident was “an accident,” bringing the Pentagon into closer alignment with the White House’s public statements on the matter.
"The situation has been fast-evolving. On Tuesday and Wednesday we saw different information come to light,” the spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, told reporters at the Pentagon. “[Defense Secretary Mark Esper] and the president have been consistent that we've reached no definitive cause for the explosion. Information is continuing to come in.”
The Lebanese government has pinned the blast on a cache of dangerous fertilizer that had been stored at the port unsafely since its seizure in 2014 — an explanation that a growing number of weapons experts and U.S. officials speaking on background say appears to be true.
“No change to our assessment” that the blast was the result of a tragic accident, not an attack, one military official told Defense One on Thursday morning.
But President Donald Trump on Tuesday evening raised the possibility — without evidence — that the blast was the result of an attack. Lebanon has been the seat of rising tensions between the politico-militia group Hezbollah and Israel, and is also struggling with a disintegrating economy that is near collapse.
“I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was [an attack],” Trump told reporters at the White House. “This was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event — they would know better than I would. They seem to think it was an attack, it was a bomb of some kind, yes."
It is not clear which “generals” briefed the president.
The next day, Esper said that “most people believe” that the incident was “an accident” — almost immediately putting the beleaguered defense secretary back in the crosshairs of the president, who reported flirted with firing him earlier this summer after he didn’t support Trump’s plan to use active duty troops to quell protests in Washington, D.C.
Chief of Staff Mark Meadows fired back on Tuesday night, saying that the defense secretary did not have accurate information.
“From Secretary Esper’s standpoint, he doesn’t know,” Meadows said, telling reporters that the United States hadn’t ruled out an attack.
Trump, asked about the discrepancy with Esper, insisted that there was information to support both scenarios.
"I don't think anybody can say right now. Some people think it's an attack. And some people think it wasn't,” he said on Wednesday.
Multiple U.S. officials who spoke to Defense One on the condition of anonymity since Tuesday say that they have seen no evidence that the explosion was the result of any kind of attack by a country or non-state terrorist group. They pointed to the public explanations by Lebanese officials that tons of ammonium nitrate — a fertilizer that can be used in bomb making — was confiscated from an abandoned ship in port in 2014 and then left in the port warehouse until it combusted on Tuesday.
"I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a televised speech after the blast. “Those responsible will pay the price… Facts about this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014 will be announced, and I will not preempt the investigations."
One official familiar with the initial Lebanese investigation told Reuters in Beirut that although the question of storing the seized fertilizer safely had come up before official committees and judges, “nothing was done.”
“It is negligence,” the official said.
Hoffman on Thursday declined to answer a question about whether there was any evidence that the explosion was the result of an attack, and said the U.S. would work with Lebanon on the investigation if it was asked.
"I'm not going to offer any conclusions from the U.S. government or the intelligent community,” Hoffman said.