WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that even Adolf Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons in the way that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has, appearing initially to neglect the fact that Jews were killed in gas chambers during the Holocaust.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II,” Spicer said. “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
By evening, he issued an apology in a CNN appearance.
“It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it. I won’t do it again,” Spicer said.
Earlier, pressed for explanation by reporters who noted that Hitler used poison gas in his systematic murder of Jews, Spicer had said, “He was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”
Spicer was attempting to make a comparison to an apparent sarin gas attack April 4 in Syria that killed dozens, including children, and prompted President Donald Trump last Thursday to launch a retaliatory missile strike against Assad.
Spicer’s remarks and attempts at clarification drew condemnation from Jewish community leaders and ridicule on social media.
Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, called for Spicer’s ouster.
“On Passover no less, Sean Spicer has engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death,” he said.
During his news conference, Spicer stumbled over his words and couldn’t recall the phrase “concentration camps,” saying instead that while Hitler used chemical attacks in “the Holocaust center,” Assad used them in “the middle of towns.”
Spicer released written statements of clarification after the press briefing, but didn’t apologize in them.
“In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust,” he wrote in the most recent revision. “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.”
Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and past president of the American Jewish Congress for Long Island, said Spicer tried to rationalize his comments about the Holocaust.
“This administration is showing stunning ignorance of world history while making decisions about the world’s future,” he said.
The White House in January had been criticized for an International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration statement that had no mention of the Jewish community.
On Twitter, reaction to Spicer’s remarks drew inspiration from Passover traditions as well as public relations fallout from Pepsi’s ad on social justice movements and United Airline’s violent removal of a customer from a plane.
One tweet read, “Traditionally, the youngest press secretary is asked to issue the Four Clarifications at the Seder.”
Another imagined a dialogue, “United: We’re having a bad week. Sean Spicer: Hold my Pepsi.”
Earlier Tuesday on Twitter, Trump pressured China to cooperate against North Korea for its ballistic missile testing.
“I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” he wrote.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters he believes China won’t act against North Korea until Trump gets “tough” on China’s unfair trade practices.
Spicer said Trump has made it clear that North Korea’s provocations are “not tolerable.”