clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sean Spicer made not one but several gaffes about the Holocaust on Tuesday

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press House Briefing At White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In Tuesday’s briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said something astounding — that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad compared unfavorably, at least in one respect, to Adolf Hitler.

"Hitler didn't even sink to the level of using chemical weapons,” Spicer said.

You’re probably spotting at least one obvious problem here: The Nazis used poison gas as one of the principal means of exterminating the Jewish people. At one point, 6,000 Jews were gassed to death every day in Auschwitz alone, according to the US Holocaust Museum.

Surely, Sean Spicer knows this. He has to know this. Yet when a reporter asked Spicer to clarify his comments later in the briefing, he just dug himself a deeper hole:

I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no … he was not using the gas on his own people in the same way that Assad is doing. There was not … he brought them into the Holocaust centers, I understand that. But what I’m saying is the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them, the use of it — I appreciate the clarification, [denying that Hitler used gas] was not the intent.

So, according to Spicer, Hitler only gassed people in “Holocaust centers” — not a term used by anyone in the history of ever — but didn’t “drop” the gas on “his own people” in towns.

This is mostly false. Prior to the construction of gas chambers, SS soldiers would drive around so-called “gas vans” — vehicles with hermetically sealed compartments that could be flooded with poison gas — and used them to execute Jews in, yes, their towns.

So Spicer released a second clarification in a statement to press, saying that he was just trying to say that Hitler never airdropped chemical weapons on his victims:

This is, finally, true. But the error pales in comparison to the main issue, which is that Spicer said that Assad compared unfavorably to Hitler.

The thrust of his initial point was that Assad crossed some kind of moral line that Hitler did not. Saying that Hitler “didn’t sink to the level” of Assad is a form of whitewashing Hitler’s crimes against the Jews. Spicer’s second statement tries to sort of walk this back — but without admitting any error, which makes the whole thing seem shallow at best.

And he said this on the first day of Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays that happens to celebrate Jews’ freedom from oppression.

Eventually, several hours later, Spicer appeared on CNN and apologized:

This is not the first time that the White House has engaged in a kind of petty Holocaust denial — not a sentence I ever thought I’d type. On Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, the White House issued a statement that did not mention Jews once. When Spicer was asked about this omission, he slammed the media for engaging in “pathetic,” “ridiculous … nitpicking.”

Nor is it the first time that Spicer has screwed up massively when talking about Syria this week. In yesterday’s briefing, he invented a new Trump policy on Syria whole cloth, one that would require a prolonged US war against Assad — forcing the White House to walk it back (twice). Earlier in the week, he claimed that Trump’s cruise missiles had taken out 20 percent of Syria’s entire air force, when it had actually taken out 20 percent of one wing (something like 12 planes out of a total of several hundred).

Indeed, even while making his apology on CNN, he managed to make yet another gaffe, stating that he didn’t want to draw attention away from Trump’s attempts to “destabilize” the Middle East. Yes, he seriously said that.

All of this begs the question: If the press secretary can’t talk about what’s currently the biggest policy issue in the news without making massive errors and saying deeply offensive stuff about the Holocaust, how good of a press secretary is he?

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.