White House chief of staff defends Trump’s description of Beirut ‘attack’

While officials are still gathering information about the incident, “most believe that it was an accident as reported,” Esper said in an appearance at the virtual Aspen Security Forum earlier Wednesday.

But hours later, Meadows sharply contradicted the defense secretary, and defended Trump’s comments as “not speculation on his part.”

“The initial reports looked at the explosion. We still have not totally ruled that out,” Meadows said, noting that officials are still gathering intelligence. “Obviously, there’s no group that has claimed any responsibility. But what the president shared with the American people is what he was briefed on. And as we look at that, we’ll continue to evaluate it. Hopefully it was just a tragic accident and not an act of terror.”

Minutes later Trump doubled down during a press conference.

“I mean, somebody left some terrible explosive type of devices and things around, perhaps it was that, perhaps it was on attack. I don’t think anybody can say right now,” he said. “You have some people think it was an attack and some people think it wasn’t.”

Asked directly about Esper’s comments, Trump said “I’ve heard it both ways too. … it could have been an accident, and it also could’ve been something very offensive.”

There have been conflicting reports about what caused the explosion, but Lebanese officials have not called it an attack. Officials initially blamed a major fire at a fireworks warehouse near the port.

In a statement, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab later said that 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a type of agricultural fertilizer, had been stored since 2014 at a warehouse in the port without adequate safety measures.