Trump backs off threat to hit Iranian cultural sites

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWayfair refutes QAnon-like conspiracy theory that it's trafficking children Stone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Federal appeals court rules Trump admin can't withhold federal grants from California sanctuary cities MORE said Tuesday that he wants to obey the law when asked whether he would target Iranian cultural sites, which legal experts have said would likely amount to a violation of international law.

“If that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law. But think of it. They kill our people. They blow up our people and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions. But I’m OK with it. It’s OK with me,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting Tuesday with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Trump’s remarks seemed to back off a threat he issued over the weekend.

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The president went on to threaten a “strong” response to Iran if Tehran chooses to retaliate harshly for the U.S. strike against a top Iranian general, though he didn’t expand on what his administration was considering.

“If Iran does anything they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly,” Trump told reporters.

Trump made the remarks days after tweeting that his administration would target Iranian cultural sites should Tehran choose to strike American assets or individuals in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last Thursday.

Trump’s advisers have since insisted that the U.S. will act consistent with the law, while legal experts and others have said that targeting cultural sites would likely be a violation of international rules.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - All eyes on Florida as daily COVID-19 cases hit 15K Democrats see immigration reform as topping Biden agenda Graham says he will call Mueller to testify before Senate panel about Russia probe MORE (R-S.C.), a close ally of Trump's in Congress, said that he raised concerns about Trump’s remarks in a phone call with him, adding that he believed targeting cultural sites would “undercut” what the U.S. is doing in the Middle East.

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Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperWhite House CTO chosen to serve as acting Pentagon tech chief Congress pulls punches on Russian bounties firestorm Senate Democrats demand to see copies of Trump's intelligence briefings on Russian bounties MORE told reporters Monday that the U.S. military would “follow the laws of armed conflict” when asked if the Pentagon was prepared to strike Iranian cultural sites — a strong suggestion it would not despite the president’s prior comments.

Asked at a briefing earlier Tuesday afternoon whether he would resign if given an order that would violate international law, Esper said he wouldn’t engage in hypotheticals before adding, "I'm fully confident the commander in chief would not give us an illegal order."

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: US formally rejects Beijing's South China Sea claims | House set to consider defense policy bill next week | 57 injured as firefighters battle warship blaze Pompeo formally rejects Beijing's claims in South China Sea Wells Fargo told employees to delete TikTok from work phones MORE also engaged in a testy exchange with NBC anchor Andrea Mitchell at a briefing Tuesday morning when she asked about whether he would push back on Trump’s statements.

“I was unambiguous on Sunday,” Pompeo said. “It is completely consistent with what the president has said, every action we take will be consistent with international law and the American people can rest assured that that’s the case.”

Trump’s remarks about targeting cultural sites, made in a string of tweets late Saturday, prompted criticism over the weekend and accusations the president was threatening war crimes.

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Trump appeared to double down Sunday evening in remarks to reporters aboard Air Force One. 

“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site?” Trump said while traveling back to Washington from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Trump echoed those complaints on Tuesday, before saying he wanted U.S. actions to be lawful.

“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to maim our people. They’re allowed to blow up everything that we have and there’s nothing that stops them. And we are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.