White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer drew fire on social media on Tuesday for saying during his daily press briefing to reporters that not even Hitler used chemical weapons during the Second World War, when discussing last week’s alleged chemical attack by Syrian forces and Russia’s support for the Syrian regime.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II … You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons. So you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself is this a country and a regime that you want to align yourself with,” he said.
Spicer was responding to a question on what makes the White House think Russia would consider stepping back its support for the regime of Bashar Assad in the wake of the attack on civilians in rebel-held territory in which over 80 people were killed, many of them children.
According to US assessments, sarin gas was used in the assault on Khan Sheikhoun, a town in the province of Idlib, on April 4.
Spicer later clarified that he knows 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.”
As journalists shouted “what about the Holocaust?” Spicer continued, “I think there is clearly… I understand the point, thank you, thank you I appreciate that.”
He went on: Hitler “brought them into the Holocaust centers, I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down, to innocent — into the middle of towns, it was brought… so the use of it, I appreciate the clarification, that was not the intent.”
"We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II … Hitler didn't even sink to using chemical weapons," Spicer claims when discussing Syria pic.twitter.com/MjfNgyN0ew
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 11, 2017
In a statement sent out to the press later Tuesday, in what was the press secretary’s fourth clarification of his initial remarks, Spicer 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.”
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. President Donald Trump did not attend.
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.
Spicer’s use of the term “Holocaust centers” also elicited the ire of many, including Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, one of the more prominent Jewish members of Congress, who tweeted to the White House spokesman: “Really? The term you were looking for was concentration camps.”
Sean Spicer: Really? The term you were looking for was concentration camps.
— Senator Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) April 11, 2017
The Syrian government and its staunch ally, Russia, have denied that gas was used in the deadly attack, which drew US airstrikes on an airfield which the Pentagon said Assad’s jets had used to launch it. The US response drew condemnation from Russia and Iran.
Russia, said Spicer, “put their name on the line” in a 2013 agreement that would have ensured the destruction of all chemical weapons in Syria, “so it’s not a question of how long that alliance has lasted but at what point they are getting on the wrong side of history in a really bad way and really quickly.”
The US and others have said that Russia bears responsibility for the deaths of civilians at the hands of Assad given Moscow’s role in guaranteeing the 2013 deal in which Assad was supposed to have given up his chemical weapons arsenal.
An unnamed US official accused Russia on Monday of being complicit in the April 4 attack and knowing about it well in advance.
Earlier Tuesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued an ultimatum to Russia: Side with the US and likeminded countries on Syria, or embrace Iran, Hezbollah and the embattled Assad.
Tillerson, who landed in Moscow on Tuesday afternoon following urgent meetings in Italy with top diplomats, said it was unclear whether Russia had failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had merely been incompetent. But he said the distinction “doesn’t much matter to the dead.”
Russia has failed to uphold the agreements that have been entered into under multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Tillerson said. “These agreements stipulated Russia as the guarantor of a Syria free of chemical weapons.”
Syria’s stockpiling and continued use of chemical weapons show that “Russia failed in its responsibility to deliver on this 2013 commitment,” he went. “It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been incompetent, but this distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead. We cannot let this happen again.”
In response, Russia took a swipe at the US, with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying Russia knew about planned “provocations” to blame Syria’s government for using chemical weapons. He said the UN should first investigate the attack.
“It reminds me of the events in 2003 when US envoys to the Security Council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq,” Putin told reporters on Tuesday. “We have seen it all already.”
Tillerson’s is the first official trip to Russia by a member of Trump’s Cabinet.