WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer apologized Tuesday evening for telling reporters earlier in the day that Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons.
“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, and frankly I mistakenly used an inappropriate, insensitive reference to the Holocaust — for which, frankly, there is no comparison,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“For that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”
Spicer took pains to distance his boss, US President Donald Trump, from his comments.
“My comments today did not reflect the president’s, were a distraction from him and frankly were misstated, insensitive and wrong.” He added, “Obviously it was my blunder.”
During a press briefing Tuesday afternoon, Spicer stunned the Washington press corps by incorrectly telling reporters that Hitler did not use chemical weapons during World War II.
His words were an attempt to amplify the magnitude of assessments that Syrian strongman Bashar Assad used sarin gas in an assault last week on Khan Sheikhoun, a town in Syria’s Idlib province.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II,” Spicer said. “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
Sean Spicer: I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, there is no comparison https://t.co/Jgc1ccgMeK
— The Situation Room (@CNNSitRoom) April 11, 2017
Prompted to explain his initial comments, Spicer then issued a number of clarifications, saying he knew millions of Jews and other victims of the Nazis were killed in “Holocaust centers” in Nazi-occupied Europe, many in gas chambers, but that “when it comes to sarin gas, [Hitler] was not using the gas on his people the same way that Ashad [sic] is doing.”
In a subsequent statement to reporters meant to clarify his remarks once again, he said, “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 airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.”
In his interview with Blitzer, Spicer was asked if he was familiar with the common Nazi practice of using gas chambers. “Yes, clearly I’m aware of that,” he said.
Despite Spicer’s repeated attempts to smooth over his impromptu remarks, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on US President Donald Trump to fire him over his suggestion that Nazi Germany “didn’t… sink to using chemical weapons.”
“While Jewish families across America celebrate Passover, the chief spokesman for this White House is downplaying the horrors of he Holocaust,” Pelosi said in a statement, adding that Spicer “must be fired” and Trump must “disavow” his statements.
“Either he is speaking for the President, or the President should have known better than to hire him,” she said.
Spicer’s comments and subsequent clarifications drew sharp responses across social media and reverberated in the American Jewish community.
Jewish Democrats quickly slammed Spicer’s comments, with Senator Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, saying on Twitter, “Someone get @PressSec a refresher history course on Hitler stat #Icantbelievehereallysaidthat.”
In one of his clarifications, Spicer also used the term “Holocaust centers” to mean concentration camps, also drawing outrage.
“Really? The term you were looking for was concentration camps,” tweeted Cardin.
Sean Spicer: Really? The term you were looking for was concentration camps.
— Senator Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) April 11, 2017
Florida Congressman Ted Deutch called for Trump to condemn the comments, tweeting, “Whether ignorant or cruel, Spicer’s comments must be condemned by @POTUS. He needs to visit @HolocaustMuseum for a powerful dose of reality.”
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said on Twitter he found “nothing funny about the Press Secretary bungling holocaust history. Because I’m not sure they should get the benefit of the doubt.”
I find nothing funny about the Press Secretary bungling holocaust history. Because I'm not sure they should get the benefit of the doubt.
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) April 11, 2017
Rep. 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.”
But Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that while “using the issue of the Holocaust or Hitler is problematic on many levels,” he believed Spicer had “genuinely and sincerely apologized.”
“He’s bent over backward to make clear those views are not his, not what he was trying to say,” Brooks said in a statement, adding, “We accept that and move on.”
American Jewish groups also expressed their shock and dismay, with the American Jewish Committee saying it was “astonished” by the remarks.
“What did the Nazis use to exterminate millions of Jews if not chemicals in their death camps?” asked AJC CEO David Harris.
“Any comparisons between Hitler and other dictators, or between the Holocaust and other tragedies, such as Syria, are tricky and not advisable,” said Harris. “The conflict in Syria is horrific, and Assad’s regular use of chemical weapons, decades after they were banned, is abominable. But the uniqueness of the Nazi killing machine’s targeting of one people, Jews, and use of chemical gases to kill them should never be forgotten.”
The New York-based Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect also called on Trump to fire Spicer, saying he denied that Hitler gassed Jews during the Holocaust. Steven Goldstein, the center’s executive director, said in a statement that “on Passover no less,” Spicer had “engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death. Spicer’s statement is the most evil slur upon a group of people we have ever heard from a White House press secretary.
“President Trump must fire him at once.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the liberal lobby group J Street, said Spicer’s comments were “unforgivable.”
“WH must address its issues recognizing Jewish suffering at Hitler’s hands in WWII,” he wrote on Twitter, adding, “For refresher course on Holocaust history @PressSec only needs to walk half a mile to Holocaust Museum.”
Quick note to @PressSec: By "holocaust centers," you must mean Concentration Camps – where my relatives died – many of them gassed.
— Jeremy Ben-Ami (@JeremyBenAmi) April 11, 2017
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’s not the first time the Trump administration has been criticized 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 slow speed with which Trump has condemned anti-Semitic attacks, including threats against Jewish community centers.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.