President Donald Trump is holding Cuba responsible for the bizarre sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana that have affected as many as 25 people.
The comments, which came during an impromptu Rose Garden press conference Monday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, represented a departure from State Department messaging.
“I do believe Cuba is responsible,” Trump said.
The string of attacks has significantly cooled relations between the two former adversaries who have spent the last couple years strengthening ties after former President Barack Obama and Cuban ruler Raul Castro sought to ease more than a half-century of hostility.
The State Department has been more careful in its characterization of the attacks. It has not accused the government, but repeatedly warned that Havana is responsible for the safety of foreign diplomats on its soil under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.
The Trump administration however has turned up the rhetoric after announcing plans this month to kick out nearly two-thirds of Cuba’s embassy personnel in the United States. White House chief of staff John Kelly said Thursday during a press briefing that the Cuban government could have prevented more attacks.
“We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats,” Kelly said.
But a senior White House official told McClatchy Friday that Cuba is responsible for protecting United States personnel on the island, but Kelly was not saying that the Cuban government was behind the attacks.
The United States still does not know the nature of the device or weapon being employed against its staff. The most recent incidents were reported within the last few weeks.
The Cuban government has repeatedly stated it had nothing to do with the incidents. And in a speech to the United Nations last month, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said Havana had found “no evidence whatsoever” that could confirm the causes or the origin of the health problems reported by U.S. diplomats and their relatives.
“Cuba has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate actions of this sort,” he said. “Cuba has never allowed nor will it ever allow its territory to be used by third parties with that purpose.”
Some officials inside the State Department are swayed by the Cuban denials, even raising the possibility of a third-party actor operating against the United States.