President Donald Trump said Sunday that the United States was prepared to respond to the devastating attacks on two oil installations in Saudi Arabia that halved the state oil company's production output, while Iran rejected U.S. accusations that it was responsible.
"There is reason to believe that we know the culprit," Trump said in a tweet Sunday evening. He said the United States was "locked and loaded depending on verification."
Trump did not name Iran, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had on Saturday, nor specify whether he was contemplating a military response. He said he was waiting to hear from the Saudis on "who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!"
His administration was contemplating what U.S. officials characterized as a serious military response, though some in the Pentagon were said to be urging restraint. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Trump met with Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday afternoon.
Oil futures jumped Sunday evening as markets opened for the first time since the attacks. The price of Brent crude surged 18 percent before falling back to 12 percent; the U.S. benchmark West Texas intermediate climbed 12 percent before easing to a 10 percent gain. Trump said he had authorized the release of oil from strategic reserves, "if needed," to blunt the market impact of the attacks.
The attacks on Saturday could upend Trump's hopes for new U.S.-Iran negotiations, an effort in which he has faced opposition from close ally Israel and many of his own hawkish foreign policy aides. Trump said last week that he would not rule out a personal meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this month.
The Houthis, a rebel group in Yemen allied with Iran, claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying it had sent a fleet of drones toward the Aramco facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia. The most pointed public U.S. comment has come from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who blamed Iran Saturday for what he called "an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply."
There was "no evidence the attacks came from Yemen," Pompeo said in a tweet; he has not offered evidence for his claims. His comments, along with a U.S. government damage assessment of one of the stricken oil facilities that suggested the attack might not have come from Yemen, fed speculation that the strikes had been launched from Iran, or by Tehran's allies in neighboring Iraq.
The U.S. government's working assumption is that the attacks did not emanate from Yemen, meaning the Houthis either were not involved in the attacks or did not carry them out on their own, according to a U.S. official with familiarity with ongoing discussions. The official cited the advanced nature for the attack as reason for that belief.
Saudi Arabia, which said Saturday that it was still probing the source of the attack, was silent Sunday about the possible culprit. Media outlets in Kuwait, which sits between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, reported that officials were investigating a drone sighting over the country, deepening the mystery.
The possibility that Iran had played a direct role in an attack on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure unnerved a region already reeling from multiple conflicts: a war in Yemen, a feud between Qatar and its neighbors and a confrontation between the United States and Iran.
The Trump administration has made isolating Iran a centerpiece of its foreign policy. The administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran struck with world powers and imposed economic sanctions and an embargo on oil exports.
The United States blamed Iran for a spate of mysterious attacks on commercial tankers in the Persian Gulf region; In June, Iranian forces shot down a U.S. Navy spy drone. The incident nearly prompted a U.S. counterstrike.
Trump said he called the operation off at the last minute, saying it would be disproportionate and a hindrance to potential diplomacy.
That incident opened a window on Trump's dual approach to Iran, which has increasingly included invitations for negotiations to replace the 2015 deal with one he says would be stronger.
Trump's desire to meet Rouhani with no preconditions has roiled his own advisers, it and was a factor in the departure last week of former national security adviser John Bolton. Bolton opposed calling off the strikes in June and was deeply skeptical of the value of new diplomacy with Iran. A person close to Bolton said Saturday that Bolton had submitted his resignation after a suggestion from Trump last Monday that the United States could drop some sanctions as a sweetener for talks.
Trump said he fired Bolton over policy disagreements.
A senior Kuwaiti diplomat said his government was "extremely concerned" about the region's stability after Saturday's attacks. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, did not say whether Kuwait believed Iran was directly involved.
The attack on Aramco "aimed to disrupt oil markets worldwide and to undermine regional stability," he said. "It's a very dangerous period in the gulf region."
Officials in Iran and Iraq pushed back forcefully Sunday against allegations the attacks had come from their territories.
"Having failed at 'max pressure,'" Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, Pompeo was now "turning to 'max deceit.'"
Iraq's prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, denied the strikes had been launched from his country. He said his government would "deal firmly" with anyone trying to attack neighboring countries from Iraq.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Albukhaiti reiterated the group's claim that it had carried out the strikes. "We confirm that the Yemeni forces are the ones who hit the oil fields, and everyone knows our credibility, in every attack we announce," he said in a telephone interview.
"We don't need to provide evidence," he added, and pointed out that Pompeo had not provided any proof that strikes had come from Iran or Iraq.
The weekend incident will probably heighten concerns at the Pentagon that increasing tensions with Iran expose U.S. troops, who are stationed at facilities across the Middle East, to greater risk of Iranian-sponsored attack.
Israeli officials said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not expected to comment on the strikes in Saudi Arabia or Pompeo's assertion of Iran's role. But many within Israel's security community were ready to see Teheran's fingerprints on the sophisticated attack.
"They are trying to prove what they have said in the past," said Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence. "That if they are not going to export oil, no one will export oil."
Netanyahu, who is days away from a too-close-to-call election, has based his campaign largely on warnings of Iran's destabilizing moves in the region. Israel is widely assumed to have been behind recent strikes on Iranian-backed militia targets in Iraq and Lebanon, and Netanyahu this month displayed intelligence images of what he said were previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear weapons facilities.
Bernard Hudson, a former director for counterterrorism for the CIA, said the attacks likely involved a mixture of drones and cruise missiles.
"It used to be that only governments had air forces, but drones have democratized violence from the sky," said Hudson, now a fellow on Gulf Security issues at Harvard University. "The Houthis, with help and advice from Iran, have perfected it to a level no one else has done."
Hudson, an investor in drones, called the industry "immature."
"But the counter-drone industry is exceptionally immature." For military personnel, he said, the biggest problem is "detection at a distance. . . . If you don't detect it until it's on top of you, you have very little time to respond."
The blasts Saturday struck facilities in the districts of Khurais and Abqaiq, Saudi officials said.
Khurais, the site of one of Saudi Arabia's largest oil fields, is believed to produce about 1.5 million barrels per day. The kingdom's largest oil processing facility is in Abqaiq, built to process about 7 million barrels a day of oil to be shipped out of the Persian Gulf to foreign markets.
Saudi Arabia produced 9.85 million barrels of oil a day in August, or about 10 percent of the global supply.
Aramco said Saturday that the attack by "projectiles" had forced it to suspend production of 5.7 million barrels of crude per day, or more than half of the kingdom's output.
An assessment by the U.S. government found that 15 structures at Abqaiq were damaged on the west-northwest-facing sides - not the southern facades, as would be expected if the attack had come from Yemen.
Oil industry analysts were still trying to assess the extent of the damage. Aramco initially said it would be ready to supply all its customers on Monday, but by Sunday it was clear that would not be possible.
"In the short term, Saudi Arabia will be able to maintain exports and use reserves to ensure supply security," the information analysis firm S&P Global said. But "any evidence of prolonged disruption of production would heavily impact [OPEC's] spare capacity and the ability of International Energy Agency to use Strategic Petroleum Reserves to shore up the market."
The firm said "higher oil prices would add to the headwinds facing the global economy" and "could tip it into recession, which would itself limit any prolonged period of excessively high oil prices as demand rebalances the market."
Trump tweeted that he had authorized the release of supplies from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve "in a to-be-determined amount sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied."
The strategic reserve can pump as much as 2.12 million barrels a day of crude to global markets, at least theoretically. But S&P Global noted that as much as 1.74 million barrels a day of additional marine distribution capacity would likely be needed in the event of an Abqaiq attack, according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Energy report.
Customers would also have to align location and quality of oil, an important factor in lining up crude with refineries capable of using it. As of Friday, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve held 644.8 million barrels of crude in four sites in Texas and Louisiana, according to the Energy Department.
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Gearan and Mufson reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Steve Hendrix contributed from Jerusalem; Ali Al-Mujahed contributed from Sanaa, Yemen; Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe and Carol Morello contributed from Washington.
WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidates on Sunday demanded that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh be investigated or impeached in response to a new allegation that he exposed himself to a female classmate at a drunken dorm party years ago at Yale University.
The allegation surfaced Saturday night in a New York Times report. A classmate, Max Stier, said he saw Kavanaugh with his pants down at the party, where friends pushed Kavanaugh's penis into the young woman's hand, The Times reported. Stier notified senators and the FBI before Kavanaugh's confirmation, but the FBI did not investigate, The Times reported.
The Washington Post last year confirmed that two intermediaries had relayed such a claim to lawmakers and the FBI. The Washington Post did not publish a story, in part because the intermediaries declined to identify the alleged witness and because the woman who was said to be involved declined to comment. The Times article, drawing from reporting for a forthcoming book, is based on interviews with "two officials who have communicated with Mr. Stier."
Stier, the chief executive of a nonpartisan group in Washington, declined to comment Sunday. A court spokeswoman said Kavanaugh had no comment. The woman did not return a call seeking comment.
The political fallout from the new allegation suggested the divisions surrounding Kavanaugh's nomination last year will continue to be felt in the 2020 campaign. Republicans denounced the Times report as an effort by the media to smear Kavanaugh. Some seized on the fact that the story - labeled as a news analysis - did not mention that, according to the book, the woman involved in the alleged incident has told friends she does not recall it.
On Sunday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted that Kavanaugh should "start suing people, or the Justice Department should come to his rescue."
"The lies being told about him are unbelievable. False Accusations without recrimination. When does it stop? They are trying to influence his opinions. Can't let that happen!" Trump tweeted.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote that the "far left's willingness to seize on completely uncorroborated and unsubstantiated allegations during last year's confirmation process was a dark and embarrassing chapter for the Senate."
Impeachment calls came from Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, all presidential candidates.
"He was put on the Court through a sham process and his place on the Court is an insult to the pursuit of truth and justice," Harris said in a tweet. "He must be impeached."
Warren tweeted: "Last year the Kavanaugh nomination was rammed through the Senate without a thorough examination of the allegations against him. Confirmation is not exoneration, and these newest revelations are disturbing. Like the man who appointed him, Kavanaugh should be impeached."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., called for an investigation of Kavanaugh, citing what he said was "a pattern of sexually demeaning women."
Kavanaugh's bitter confirmation hearing captivated and divided the nation last fall. The hearings were dominated by Christine Blasey Ford's account, first reported by The Post, that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were high school students in the 1980s. Kavanaugh strenuously denied Ford's claim, calling it an "orchestrated political hit."
The new claim echoes an allegation made by a different female Yale student, Deborah Ramirez, during Kavanaugh's confirmation process. Kavanaugh has denied that allegation.
Shortly before the scheduled vote on his nomination, the Trump administration asked the FBI to investigate those allegations, though the inquiry was restricted in scope. The FBI interviewed fewer than a dozen people - most of them from Kavanaugh's high school days. They interviewed Ramirez.
As the FBI was wrapping up its investigation, the intermediaries working on behalf of Stier delivered his account to agency officials. The intermediaries told The Post last year that they had relayed that a classmate of Kavanaugh had witnessed the incident while taking a study break at Yale's Lawrance Hall. They declined to give The Post the classmate's name.
No one from the FBI called the classmate to follow up on the account, they said.
The Post could not independently corroborate the allegation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the witness had not authorized them to use their names.
The Times on Saturday identified the witness as Stier, chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. The Times story was based on research for a book, "The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation," by two of its reporters. It said that at least two senators on the Judiciary Committee learned of Stier's allegations.
Last fall, the intermediaries said they shared the account with a veteran FBI agent, who told them he passed the information on to officials directly responsible for Kavanaugh's background check. They said the witness also shared his account with a Senate Judiciary Committee member who offered assurance that it would be passed on directly to officials responsible for the background check.
Mike Davis, who was chief counsel for Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, during the Kavanaugh nomination process, said that to the best of his knowledge, Grassley's office has no record of Stier reaching out with his allegation.
"Even if we did receive an allegation from Mr. Stier as described by the New York Times reporting, it is difficult to see how this unsubstantiated hearsay, 'corroborated' by anonymous sources, involving an alleged victim who other unnamed sources said does not even remember the event, would have changed the outcome of the confirmation vote," said Davis, who now leads the Article III Project, an advocacy group that promotes Trump's judicial picks.
Even before Stier's account was made public, the background check had drawn criticism from some quarters for its highly curtailed scope. Agents did not interview Ford, a professor in California who alleged Kavanaugh assaulted her decades ago in Maryland.
The account attributed to Stier bears similarities to the claims made by Ramirez, who accused Kavanaugh of thrusting his penis in her face at a drunken party, causing her to touch it without her consent. Ramirez's representatives provided agents with the names of more than 20 people they said may have information relevant to her claims. During the background check, Ramirez's team had no indication that the bureau had interviewed any of them.
Ramirez's account was first published by The New Yorker last year. The magazine said that Ramirez in their initial conversations was reluctant to characterize Kavanaugh's role in the incident, but that she grew more confident after assessing her memories and consulting with an attorney.
In their Saturday article, The Times reporters said they spoke with at least seven people who supported Ramirez's account, including two classmates who heard about the incident shortly after it allegedly occurred. Ramirez's mother told the reporters that she had heard about the Yale incident long before Kavanaugh was a federal judge. The other people whose accounts supported Ramirez were not identified in the Times story.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment Sunday on the Kavanaugh background investigation.
At a Senate hearing later that year, FBI Director Christopher Wray defended his agency's handling of the politically radioactive issue.
"As is standard, the investigation was very specific in scope, limited in scope, and that is the usual process," adding that "my folks have assured me that the usual process was followed."
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The Washington Post's Seung Min Kim, Sean Sullivan, Amy Gardner, Bob Barnes and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.