Sean Spicer’s denial that Hitler used chemical weapons came across as either anti-Semitic or ill-informed. While the latter is the lesser offence, neither are acceptable traits for a White House press secretary.
Few would envy Spicer’s role, which after 82 days has included offering “alternative facts” regarding attendance numbers at the president’s inauguration – apparently the use of white covers on the grass highlighted empty space;defending Trump’s travel ban (it wasn’t a ban even though the president called it a ban); navigating a scandal surrounding national security adviser Michael Flynn over communications with Russia (plus an ongoing investigation into links between other Trump aides and Russia. And controversy over attorney general Jeff Sessions’ contact with the Russian ambassador); explaining EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s rejection of established climate change science; challenging Congressional Budget Office findings on the calamitous effects of repealing Obamacare . . . A breathless list for a breathless administration, one that has bulldozed its way through immigration, healthcare, environmental policy and a Supreme Court nomination with a distinct lack of grace or competence.
The ultimate cause of many of these stumbles was one D Trump, but Spicer has made plenty of gaffes all by himself. He called Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau ‘Joe’, replaced Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s surname with Trumble, and managed to cause a Twitter storm over whether the president had or had not ever owned or worn a bathrobe. Comedy gold for Saturday Night Live and co, but Tuesday’s comments open a horrifying new chapter.
Discussing last week’s chemical attack on civilians by President Bashar al-Assad, which resulted in US military action in Syria, Spicer said: “We didn’t use chemical weapons in the second world war. You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
When asked to clarify later in the briefing, he added: “I think when you come to sarin gas there was no, he was not using gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean, there’s clearly . . . He brought them into the Holocaust centres, I understand that.”
That clarification neither reassured reporters about his understanding of World War II history nor absolved him of any anti-Semitic implications from the phrase “own people”. (A common charge against the Jews was that they were somehow foreigners rather than true Germans.)
Jack Deschauer, a senior vice-president for public relations firm Levick, told the Boston Globe: “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.”
Speaking later on CNN, Spicer offered an equally clumsy apology, and managed to add that Trump was working to “destabilise”, rather than stabilise, the Middle East.
“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,” said Spicer. “Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison, and for that I apologise. It was a mistake to do that.”
Calls for his resignation swiftly followed. In an official statement, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said: “While Jewish families across America celebrate Passover, the chief spokesman of this White House is downplaying the horror of the Holocaust.
“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.”
Rhode Island congressman David Cicilline said Spicer made “despicable, ignorant remarks”, while several Democrats condemned Spicer’s words on Twitter.
The Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect, a national organisation addressing civil and human rights across the US, published a statement. Executive director Steven Goldstein said: “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. Spicer’s statement is the most evil slur upon a group of people we have ever heard from a White House press secretary. Sean Spicer now lacks the integrity to serve as White House press secretary, and President Trump must fire him at once.”
There have already been rumours that President Trump regrets appointing Spicer, and so it remains to be seen whether the press secretary will continue to receive his support – particularly given it is the not the first time this White House has courted controversy on the subject.
In an official statement released on International Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this year, there was no mention of the Jewish faith. The statement read: “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.
“Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest. As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.
“In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”
Hours later, Trump signed his executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.