Sean Spicer says even Hitler didn’t gas his own people, before clarifying ‘my blunder’
White House press secretary’s clumsy comparison drew immediate backlash as critics pointed out Hitler’s use of gas chambers to exterminate Jews during the Holocaust
White House press secretary Sean Spicer has apologised for a clumsy reference to the Holocaust and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, in which he suggested that even Hitler didn’t gas his own people.
Spicer said in an interview with CNN that he mistakenly used “an inappropriate, insensitive reference to the Holocaust.” He says there was no comparison and “it was a mistake to do that.” He adds, “It was my blunder.”
Spicer had said earlier that Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” in a jaw-dropping comparison to Syria that drew instant rebuke from Jewish groups and critics who noted it ignored Hitler’s use of gas chambers to exterminate Jews during the Holocaust.
Spicer was attempting to discuss the horror of the chemical weapons attack last week in Syria, which the Trump administration is blaming on President Bashar al-Assad.
“You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said, arguing that Russia and other countries that support Assad — whom Spicer at one point referred to as “Ashad” — are on the wrong side of history.
Spicer’s rendering ignored the horror of the Holocaust, in which gas chambers were used as part of a genocide campaign that killed 6 million Jews as well as millions of others, including Gypsies and gay people.
Asked by a reporter to clarify, Spicer delivered a garbled defence of his remarks. The attack in northern Syria left nearly 90 people dead, and Turkey’s health minister said tests show sarin gas was used.
“I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no, he (Hitler) was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” Spicer said. “There was clearly ... I understand your point, thank you. There was not ... He brought them into the Holocaust centre I understand that.”
“I appreciate the clarification. That was not the intent,” he said.
He referred to the Syria bomb victims as “innocent.”
The suggestion that Holocaust victims were not Hitler’s “own people” — intended or not — hit a sore nerve for Jews and other victims who considered themselves loyal subjects of Germany. Hitler’s propaganda cast them as disloyal and inferior.
It was the second day in a row in which Spicer, President Donald Trump’s main spokesman, appeared to struggle to articulate the president’s foreign policy at a critical time. The White House generated criticism at the start of the year when a statement on international Holocaust Remembrance Day did not make any reference to Jews.
The comparison to World War II appeared to be part of a message the administration was trying to deliver as it explains its tactics in Syria. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis noted in a separate briefing that “the intent was to stop the cycle of violence into an area that even in World War II chemical weapons were not used on battlefields.”
After the briefing, Spicer emailed a statement to reporters: “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using air planes to drop chemical weapons on population centres. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.”
Democrats and Jewish organisations condemned the comments.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement that Spicer was “downplaying the horror of the Holocaust” and should be fired.
Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland said in a tweet:
— Senator Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) 11 April 2017
Sean Spicer: Really? The term you were looking for was concentration camps.
— Senator Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) 11 April 2017
The New York-based Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect called on Trump to fire Spicer, saying he denied that Hitler gassed Jews during the Holocaust.
Representative Lee Zeldin, a Jewish Republican from New York, said in a statement that “as far as comments being made and comparisons of various tactics and methods between now and World War II, you can make the comparison a little differently and it would be accurate, but it’s important to clear up that Hitler did in fact use chemical warfare to murder innocent people.”
Spicer’s comments came on the first day of Passover and a day after the White House held a Seder dinner marking the emancipation of the Jewish people, a tradition started during the Obama administration.
According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazis experimented with poison gas in late 1939 with the killing of mental patients, which was termed “euthanasia.” Both mobile and stationary gas chambers were later used, with up to 6,000 Jews gassed each day at Auschwitz alone.
It was the second straight day in which Spicer was forced to walk back a public comment.
On Monday, the White House clarified remarks Spicer made from the podium that the use of barrel bombs by Assad’s government might lead to further military action by the United States.
In an exchange with reporters Monday, Spicer appeared to draw a new red line for the Trump administration when he told reporters that if a country gases a baby or it puts “a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president.”
Until Monday the administration had maintained that last week’s airstrikes were in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. A White House spokesman said later that “nothing has changed in our posture” and the president retains the option to act if it’s in the national interest.
The Trump administration has faced criticism in the past for comments related to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The White House released a statement on international Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this year that did not make any reference to Jews, and some have taken issue with the speed with which Trump has condemned anti-Semitic attacks, including threats against Jewish community centres.