WASHINGTON (AP) — White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that his attempt to compare the Holocaust and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons was “inexcusable and reprehensible” and was made all the worse by this being a holy week for millions of Christians and Jews.
He said his comment, made Tuesday at the White House briefing, was personally and professionally disappointing, and he asked for “folks’ forgiveness.”
“To make a gaffe and a mistake like this is inexcusable and reprehensible,” Spicer said during a previously scheduled appearance at a forum on the presidency and the press sponsored by the Newseum. He noted that Christians are preparing for Easter on Sunday, and Jews are celebrating Passover.
“It really is painful to myself to know that I did something like that,” Spicer said. “That obviously was not my intention. To know when you screw up that you possibly offended a lot of people … I would ask obviously for folks’ forgiveness to understand that I should not have tried to make a comparison.”
Spicer apologized Tuesday during an interview with CNN.
Earlier Tuesday during the daily White House briefing, Spicer told reporters that Adolf Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Critics noted the remark ignored Hitler’s use of gas chambers to exterminate Jews during the Holocaust.
It was the second consecutive day in which President Donald Trump’s principal spokesman appeared to struggle to articulate Trump’s foreign policy at a critical time. The White House generated criticism at the start of the year when a statement on international Holocaust Remembrance Day did not make any reference to Jews.
In the CNN interview, Spicer said his comments did not reflect Trump’s views. “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.”
The interview capped several attempts by the White House to clarify Spicer’s statement.
Spicer was asked during the briefing about his initial statement but delivered a garbled defense in which he tried to differentiate between Hitler’s actions and the gas attack on Syrian civilians last week. The attack in northern Syria left nearly 90 people dead. Turkey’s health minister said tests show sarin gas was used.
“I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no, he (Hitler) was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” Spicer said. “There was clearly … I understand your point, thank you. There was not … He brought them into the Holocaust center I understand that.”
After the briefing, Spicer emailed a statement to reporters: “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.”
Democrats and Jewish organizations condemned the comments.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement that Spicer was “downplaying the horror of the Holocaust” and should be fired. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said on Twitter, “Someone get @PressSec a refresher history course on Hitler stat (hashtag)#Icantbelievehereallysaidthat.”
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.
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.”
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.
On Monday, the White House clarified remarks Spicer made from the podium that the use of barrel bombs by Assad’s government might lead to further military action by the United States.
Until Monday the administration had maintained that last week’s airstrikes were in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. A White House spokesman said later that “nothing has changed in our posture” and the president retains the option to act if it’s in the national interest.
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