Overnight Defense: Esper says 'most believe' Beirut explosion was accident, contradicting Trump | Trump later says 'nobody knows yet' what happened in Lebanon | 61-year-old reservist ID'd as fourth military COVID-19 death

Overnight Defense: Esper says 'most believe' Beirut explosion was accident, contradicting Trump | Trump later says 'nobody knows yet' what happened in Lebanon | 61-year-old reservist ID'd as fourth military COVID-19 death

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: The massive explosion that devastated Beirut and killed more than 100 people is believed by most to be an accident, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Stopgap spending measure awaits Senate vote | Trump nominates former Nunes aide for intelligence community watchdog | Trump extends ban on racial discrimination training to contractors, military Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers Official: Pentagon has started 'prudent planning' for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May MORE said Wednesday.

The comments from Esper contradict President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE’s assertion a day earlier that the explosion was an “attack.”

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, Esper said U.S. officials are “still getting information on what happened,” but added that “most believe that it was an accident, as reported.”

“We mourn for the dozens, if not hundreds, of Lebanese possibly killed and thousands hurt,” Esper said. “Lebanon's struggling right now in a number of ways, and it's just a shame to see it happen. When you see the video, it's just devastating.”

Esper also said he’s been in touch with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Trump's push for win with Sudan amps up pressure on Congress  Putin nominated for Nobel Peace Prize MORE about humanitarian aid to Lebanon.

“We're positioning ourselves to provide them whatever assistance we can, humanitarian aid, medical supplies, you name it, to assist the people of Lebanon,” Esper said.

What Trump said Tuesday: Hours after the explosion Tuesday, Trump called the incident an “attack” despite the Lebanese not yet ascribing motive.

At the top of a White House press briefing Tuesday evening, Trump said “it looks like a terrible attack.”

When pressed later in the briefing on the assertion, Trump attributed his perspective to unspecified “great generals.”

“I've met with some of our great generals, and they just seem to feel that it was,” Trump said. “They would know better than I would, but they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”

What Trump said Wednesday: Pressed Wednesday about his Tuesday comments, Trump seemed to temper his comments, though still questioned how the explosion could be an accident.

"Whatever happened it's terrible, but they don't really know what it is,” Trump said. “Nobody knows yet. At this moment they're looking. How can you say accident? Somebody, you know, left some terrible explosive type devices and things around, perhaps. Perhaps it was that. Perhaps it was an attack.”

“You have some people think it was an attack and some people that think it wasn’t,” he added.

What Lebanon says: The Lebanese government has blamed the explosion on 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers and bombs, that was stored at the port without proper safety measures after being confiscated from a ship six years ago.

Officials there have not indicated whether explosions were deliberate or an accident. 

Reuters reported Wednesday that a fire started at one warehouse at the port and spread to the warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored, with a source telling Reuters the initial investigation indicates the blast was caused by negligence.

Reports Wednesday also said Lebanon was placing several port officials under house arrest.

Meadows defends Trump: After Esper’s comments, White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsWhite House chief of staff knocks FBI director over testimony on election fraud Anxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid Pelosi hopeful COVID-19 relief talks resume 'soon' MORE defended Trump’s Tuesday description of the explosion as an attack.

Meadows would not say himself if he believed the explosion was the result of a deliberate attack. But he defended Trump's interpretation, saying it was based on an initial briefing.

"I can tell you from Secretary Esper’s standpoint, he doesn’t know," Meadows told CNN. "I had a meeting with him earlier today. Intelligence is not something that we talk about. But it’s also developing.

"I can tell you the initial report was exactly what the president shared with all of you. I happen to know that he was briefed on that, the initial reports looked at an explosion," he added. "We still have not totally ruled that out."

“Without sharing anything classified, I’ve been able to see a lot of what has taken place there. We’ll continue to evaluate that," Meadows continued. "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.”

The chief of staff said he was hopeful that the explosion was "just a tragic accident." But he argued that Trump's reference to an attack was "not speculation on his part."

Pompeo offers help: In a call with Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Wednesday, Pompeo reiterated the United States’ “steadfast commitment” to help in the aftermath of the explosion.

In the call, Pompeo “expressed his condolences to the Lebanese people for the horrible explosion at the Beirut port, which killed and injured so many and caused devastating destruction to the city,” State Department spokesperson Cale Brown said in a statement.

“The secretary reaffirmed our steadfast commitment to assist the Lebanese people as they cope with the aftermath of this terrifying event,” the statement added. “Secretary Pompeo further stressed our solidarity with and support for the Lebanese people as they strive for the dignity, prosperity, and security they deserve.”

COVID DEATH ID’D: As noted in this newsletter Tuesday, a fourth service member died from COVID-19.

The Army Reserves later identified that service member as Spc. Curtis Fort, 61, of Roanoke, Va.

Fort died Thursday from complications related to COVID-19, Army Reserve spokesperson Lt. Col. Simon Flake said. Fort was a radio and communications security repairer that had been assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2-319th Cadet Summer Training Battalion in Salem, Va.

In his civilian life, Fort was a pastor, according to his online obituary

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Jason Abend
to be Pentagon inspector general; Bradley Hansell to be deputy under secretary of Defense for intelligence and security; Lucas Polakowski to be assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs; and Louis Bremer to be assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict at 9 a.m. https://bit.ly/3i4vj9o

The Air Force will host a transition ceremony for Gen. Charles “C.Q.” Brown to become chief of staff and Gen. David Goldfein to retire at 9:30 a.m. https://www.af.mil/Live/

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for several nominees at 10:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/3icRGcS

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal

-- The Hill: Amnesty International calls for international investigation into Beirut explosions

-- The Hill: Opinion: Why the US-Japan partnership prospered despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki

-- Reuters: Pompeo says U.N. Security Council to vote next week on extending Iran arms embargo

-- Military Times: Esper says he underestimated how much racial injustice affects service members

-- Washington Post: Gen. David Goldfein, bypassed to be Trump’s top military adviser, retires