WASHINGTON — 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 Christians and Jews.
He said the 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. 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.”
It was Spicer’s second apology in as many days, following an initial mea culpa 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.” The comment drew an instant rebuke from critics, who noted the remark ignored Hitler’s use of gas chambers to exterminate Jews during the Holocaust.
Reaction to Spicer’s initial comment continued Wednesday, with Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial inviting him to visit its website.
In the CNN interview, Spicer said his comments did not reflect Trump’s views but “were a distraction from him and frankly were misstated, insensitive and wrong.” He added, “Obviously it was my blunder.” Spicer reiterated that sentiment at Wednesday’s forum.
After making the initial comment, Spicer was asked about it again during the briefing but offered 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 said 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 reporters a statement that 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.”
Reaction from around the world continued Wednesday. A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said comparing Nazi war crimes to present-day situations “leads to nothing good.”
Robert Rozett, director of libraries at Yad Vashem, said Spicer’s comment implied a “profound lack of knowledge of the events of the second World War, including the Holocaust” and “are liable to strengthen the hands of those who seek to destroy history.”
In the U.S., 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 the comparison could be made “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. Earlier in the year, the White House generated criticism by issuing a statement on international Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not mention Jews.
Tuesday was the second consecutive day in which Trump’s principal spokesman appeared to struggle to articulate Trump’s foreign policy at a critical time.
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 missile strikes were in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its 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.
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Julie Bykowicz and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
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