There were audible gasps in the White House press room Tuesday when spokesman Sean Spicer appeared to forget about the Holocaust in asserting that the Syrian military’s use of sarin gas on civilians exceeded the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
With Spicer’s credibility already strained, opposition Democrats and others began calling for the White House press secretary to be removed from his position.
Spicer, known for previous incidents of clumsy wording on the White House podium, said: “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” making a comparison to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military using chemical weapons on its own civilians last week.
When a reporter subsequently asked, “What about the Holocaust?” Spicer responded that he understood the point but said Hitler used chemical weapons in what the White House spokesman termed “Holocaust centers.” The German dictator, Spicer said, “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Ashad (sic) is doing.”
That explanation “made things much worse,” CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter said after the briefing, adding, “He’s got some more clarifying to do.”
Indeed, shortly after similar comments on other cable television news channels, Spicer issued a further written clarification saying he was “in no way … trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust,” but rather “trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers.”
That explanation did not mollify some.
“Sean Spicer must be fired and the president must immediately disavow his spokesman’s statement,” said the Democratic Party’s leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi of California. “Either he is speaking for the president, or the president should have known better than to hire him.”
Pelosi noted Spicer’s statements came on the first day of Passover, the story from the biblical Exodus celebrating the ancient Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery.
Late in the day, the chastened White House press secretary began making separate appearances on national news programs to apologize for his latest verbal gaffe.
“I just want to set the record straight on what was intended,” Spicer told VOA as he shuttled outside the West Wing between live and taped appearances on several television networks.
Minutes earlier, on CNN, Spicer said “I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust…I apologize.”
Spicer said he was apologizing not only to Holocaust survivors but also to “anyone who was offended by those comments. It was a mistake, I shouldn’t have done it,” he added.
The press secretary was accused of “Holocaust denial” by Steven Goldstein, executive director of New York’s Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect.
“Spicer’s statement is the most evil slur upon a group of people we have ever heard from a White House press secretary,” added Goldstein, saying Spicer now “lacks the integrity to serve as White House press secretary, and President [Donald] Trump must fire him at once.”
The Holocaust was the systematic state-sponsored persecution and murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.
Call for education
Historians saw Spicer’s stumbling as a learning moment to call for better education about one of the most horrific events in world history and a cornerstone of modern Jewish identity.
“It’s embarrassing,” said professor Wolf Gruner, a specialist on the Holocaust who heads the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research.
Gruner, originally from Germany, said a public figure of Spicer’s stature “should be informed of the basic facts of the Holocaust and other genocides.”
Historians conservatively estimate that about 300,000 German citizens (including those of Austria) were killed by the Nazis using poison gas, whether as Jews or during euthanasia programs, according to Gruner.
Spicer had other rhetorical difficulties during both of his briefings held so far this week.
He suggested on Monday that Trump could take military action if Assad dropped more barrel bombs, something Syrian government forces have done with regularity.
The White House subsequently walked back that comment.
And in Tuesday’s briefing, the press secretary also declared Iran a failed state in discussing Russian allies.