Sean Spicer faces backlash after claim: 'Even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons'

David Smith and Ben Jacobs in Washington

The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, was widely condemned on Tuesday after claiming that Adolf Hitler, who gassed millions of Jews during the Holocaust, did not not use chemical weapons.

Comparing the Nazi leader with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Spicer told journalists during his regular press briefing at the White House: “We didn’t use chemical weapons in world war two. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Asked to clarify the remarks, he added: “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”

A reporter in the room shouted that Jews had been targeted. Stuttering and gesticulating, Spicer stumbled on: “Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not in the – he brought them into the Holocaust centres – I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down into the middle of towns.

“So, the use of it, I appreciate the clarification. That was not the intent.”

More than six million Jews were murdered, along with large numbers of Gypsies, gay people, political dissidents and others, during the Holocaust. Many were killed in gas chambers with the use of chemical gas agents such as Zyklon B. It is unclear if Spicer’s reference to “Holocaust centres” was to the gas chambers or to concentration camps or something else.

The statement came on the first day of Passover, the Jewish holiday which commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is one of the holiest days in Judaism and has been used a metaphor for the oppression that Jews faced throughout history, including under Nazi Germany.

Spicer’s misstep came after controversy in January when the White House issued a statement to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, that did not mention Jews, Judaism or antisemitism. Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is the former head of Breitbart News, which has been accused of whipping up antisemitism. Further, Seb Gorka, a top White House foreign policy official, has been tied to the Hungarian group Vitez Rand, which allegedly has historical links to Nazi Germany.

Spicer later tried to clarify his comments. “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust,” he said in an emailed statement. “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.”

But condemnation of his remarks was swift. Ben Cardin, top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, tweeted: “Someone get @PressSec a refresher history course on Hitler stat #Icantbelievehereallysaidthat.”

Brian Schatz, a Democratic senator from Hawaii, tweeted: “I find nothing funny about the Press Secretary bungling holocaust history. Because I’m not sure they should get the benefit of the doubt.” Both Cardin and Schatz are Jewish.

The strongest condemnation came from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who said in a statement: “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.”

Democratic congressman John Yarmuth, from Kentucky, tweeted: “There’s no excuse for Holocaust denial from the White House. It’s an insult to all Americans, Jewish or not, as well as the Nazis’ victims.”

A chemical weapons attack on 4 April in northern Syria left nearly 90 people dead, and the US has blamed Assad. Turkey’s health minister said on Tuesday that test results confirmed sarin gas was used.

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