White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday apologized for claiming that Adolf Hitler did not use chemical weapons, seemingly minimizing the atrocities of the Holocaust.
The statement immediately drew fire from Democrats, Jewish groups and Holocaust memorial institutions, who expressed dismay that Spicer would downplay Hitler’s actions by comparing them to the gas attacks allegedly ordered up by Syrian president Bashar Assad and by appearing to refer to concentration camps as a “Holocaust center.”
“I mistakenly used an inappropriate, insensitive reference to the Holocaust,” Spicer told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday evening. “I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”
He also apologized for not staying focused and for not helping President Donald Trump’s messaging. “I didn’t want to be a distraction to the president’s agenda,” Spicer said.
The mea culpa came after Spicer had stoked a firestorm with his comments.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II,” Spicer told reporters at the afternoon’s press briefing, as he criticized the Russian government for its support of Assad. “Someone who is despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons. You have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself, is this a country that you, and a regime that you want to align yourself with?”
In fact, Hitler’s Nazi Germany did use chemical weapons. Many of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were killed in gas chambers using Zyklon B and other poisons. And sarin gas, the weapon believed to have been used by Assad’s regime, was first created and weaponized by Nazi scientists in 1938.
The White House quickly tried to clarify the comments, first during the briefing, when Spicer only appeared to dig in deeper, saying that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people in the same way that Assad is doing” (Hitler’s systematic murder of Jews — including many in Germany — and other groups left millions of people dead).
The White House followed up with a written statement after Spicer’s first clarification was also widely criticized.
“In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust,” Spicer said in the second statement. “I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.”
Speaking to CNN, Spicer denied that he has a credibility problem, and said he was simply trying to do the right thing. “When you make a mistake you own it,” he said.
But no matter his attempts to walk them back, the comments quickly generated a flood of negative headlines, distracting from the White House’s messaging scolding Russia and Syria and adding to the series of controversial statements from the White House that have been perceived as insensitive to Jews.
MSNBC fact-checked Spicer with a chyron summarizing what the press secretary had said and adding parenthetically that “Hitler gassed millions.” The Anne Frank Center accused Spicer of engaging in Holocaust denial. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for the White House to fire him.
“While Jewish families across America celebrate Passover, the chief spokesman of this White House is downplaying the horror of the Holocaust,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Sean Spicer must be fired, and the President must immediately disavow his spokesman’s statements. Either he is speaking for the President, or the President should have known better than to hire him.”
Even the conspiracy-theory minded conservative radio host Alex Jones was critical. Speaking to a guest on his show Tuesday, Jones wondered aloud if Spicer was being sarcastic and then said, “it shows how historically ignorant his crew is.”
It is not the first time that President Donald Trump’s White House has been forced to answer questions about the Holocaust. Critics in January jumped on the administration’s statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which omitted any mention of Jewish victims. At the time, Spicer defended the statement by saying it had been written in part by a Jewish staff member whose family members had survived the Holocaust. He called criticism of the Trump administration over the statement “pathetic.”
Trump also came under heavy criticism for not quickly condemning a series of threats on Jewish community centers and other examples of a surge in anti-Semitism. When pressed about the issue during a news conference in February, Trump told the reporter from an Orthodox Jewish weekly to “sit down” and accused him of not asking a “fair question.”
Spicer himself has had a rocky first few months at the White House podium. He greeted the press corps on the first full day of the new administration by making a series of false claims about the president’s inauguration crowd size, and then refusing to take questions.
The actress Melissa McCarthy has since immortalized the press secretary and his frequent battles with reporters in a series of scathing “Saturday Night Live” skits. And after video of him lecturing reporter April Ryan for shaking her head at one briefing went viral, “The Daily Show” mocked Spicer in a clip that compared him to a kindergarten teacher.
Those incidents have prompted persistent rumors that Trump is unhappy with Spicer and has considered replacing him, though in public statements the White House has repeatedly affirmed its confidence in its embattled press secretary.
Largely lost in the outcry Tuesday was another dubious statement that Spicer made during the briefing. Responding to a question about the president’s stalled ban on Syrian refugees, Spicer suggested that the refugees are “not looking to flee” their war-torn country, which they are.
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