WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Sean Spicer publicly apologized Tuesday after he awkwardly compared Adolf Hitler to Syrian leader Bashar Assad and inaccurately asserted that Hitler did not gas his own people, glossing over Nazi death camps where he murdered German Jews in gas chambers.
“You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer falsely asserted during Tuesday’s televised press briefing from the West Wing of the White House.
Germany’s Third Reich exterminated about 6 million Jews and devised industrial means of mass slaughter, including the use of Zyklon B gas at Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Others viewed as subhuman by the Nazis, including gays and disabled people, met similar fates.
Spicer seemed to stumble over his words as he sought to clarify his remark later in the press briefing, but his subsequent efforts to assert that Assad’s actions were worse than Hitler’s were equally inaccurate and were similarly denounced by critics as insensitive.
“I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing, I mean, there was clearly — I understand your point, thank you,” Spicer said.
Spicer also referred to Nazi extermination camps as a “Holocaust center,’’ yet another utterance that provoked outrage.
“There was not — he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that,’’ Spicer told reporters, as he sought to explain himself. “I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.”
The rambling and inaccurate comments from President Trump’s chief spokesman came in the midst of Passover. After being widely panned for his appearance at Tuesday’s briefing, Spicer went on CNN and offered an apology.
“I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week, using chemical weapons and gas. Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison,” Spicer said. “And for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”
Spicer has been frequently mocked on “Saturday Night Live” for his aggressive approach to the press and he’s also been called out for his frequent mangling of the English language. He is a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Spicer’s fumbles in the past — such as his false assertions that Trump’s inauguration crowds were larger than President Obama’s — have been viewed by the media and Washington critics as more understandable because he has the unenviable job of trying to defend a president who makes gut decisions, often changes positions, and offers unexpected and controversial public comments.
But with Tuesday’s comments Spicer was in a different situation. He wasn’t trying to clean up after a Trump-made mess, he was creating it. Spicer’s comments put the White House back where it’s been for nearly all of its first months: on the defense.
The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, a New York organization that advocates for civil rights, called on Trump to “fire Sean Spicer now.’’
“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,” Steven Goldstein, the executive director of the center, said in a statement.
He called Spicer’s comments “the most evil slur upon a group of people we have ever heard from a White House press secretary.”
Moments after Spicer’s remarks, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tweeted video of US troops liberating the concentration camp in Buchenwald and Democrats called for Spicer’s removal.
Jewish groups already were wary of Trump and his White House.
In one case, the White House failed to include a reference to the Holocaust on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The White House has also come under fire for employing Steve Bannon as a top adviser. Bannon used to run the website Breitbart News, which offered a platform for anti-Semitic views. Also working in the White House as a national security advisor is Seb Gorka, who has been linked in media reports to anti-Semitic groups.
Trump was also slow to speak out against a spate of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries. The president has often pointed to his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism, when these issues have arisen in the past. She and her husband, Jared Kushner, are observant Jews. Both hold key positions in the Trump White House.
Democratic lawmakers wasted no time calling for Spicer’s removal Tuesday.
“While Jewish families across America celebrate Passover, the chief spokesman of this White House is downplaying the horror of the Holocaust,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi 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.”
“He’ll be a topic at many Seder dinners tonight,” added David Axelrod, a former Obama strategist.
Many found it head-scratching that Spicer would even bring up Nazi Germany.
“When it comes to professional communications, if you are in the White House or if you are the PR person for some small town, the third rail is always and always will be discussing Hitler and Nazi Germany,” said Jack Deschauer, a senior vice president with the public relations firm Levick.
Deschauer predicted it will be a difficult for Spicer to recover. “There is nothing you can do — apologize profusely and hope time heals wounds.”
Spicer sought to mend fences with Trump donor Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, who is Jewish and active in many pro-Israeli causes.
“Sean Spicer called and said he made a mistake and apologized,” said Andy Abboud, an Adelson spokesman.Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieLinskey.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described how many German Jews were killed by the Nazis. The correct number is 160,000 to 180,000, according to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.