Donald Trump has given his press secretary a lot of difficult assignments over the first 81 days of his presidency. But on Tuesday, Sean Spicer’s chief task was fairly simple: Defend the merits of an air strike on Syria that enjoys broad, bipartisan support.
So, naturally, Spicer ended up defending Adolf Hitler’s stance on the use of weaponized gas — and then spending the rest of the day and evening awkwardly apologizing for it.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II,” Spicer began, suggesting that even in a conflict with enormous moral stakes, the United States refrained from using the inhuman weapons favored by Bashar al-Assad.
So far, so good. Sure, this argument implies that it is somehow morally preferable to kill civilians with atomic bombs than it is to choke them with sarin gas — but, hey, this is America! Papering over our government’s acts of mass murder is what we do.
But then Spicer decided that comparing Assad unfavorably to Roosevelt and Truman didn’t really hammer his point home.
“You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer observed.
Okay. This is bad. Everyone knows that the first rule of public relations is: When in doubt, don’t start talking about all the things that Hitler doesn’t get enough credit for.
Still, Spicer’s point isn’t as bizarre as one might think. Many historians claim that Hitler had an aversion to the use of battlefield chemical weapons. This observation has been made by Washington Post headlines and MSNBC pundits. Sure, it’s hard to understand what we’re supposed to take from this point; the fact that Hitler preferred to kill soldiers with bullets and save the poison gas for his defenseless captives doesn’t seem to have any moral significance. Nonetheless, at least Spicer was just recycling an awkward, but common, bit of rhetoric.
But then, Spicer decided to clarify his remark.
“He was not using the gas on his own people, the same way that Assad was doing,” the press secretary said. “There was not — he brought them into the Holocaust centers, I understand that. But I’m saying, in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down, to innocents — in the middle of town.”
Say what you want about Hitler, but at least he never gassed his own people — or anyone innocent! (Apparently, what happens in the “Holocaust center” stays in the “Holocaust center.”)
Spicer then tried to clarify his statement a second time, explaining that what he meant to say was that there’s an important difference between dropping chemical weapons on “population centers” and, ya know, whatever Hitler did.
On Tuesday evening, Spicer apologized in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the son of Holocaust survivors. “Frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no comparison,” Spicer said. “And for that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”
He also mixed up a word during the interview, saying he doesn’t want to distract from Trump’s actions in Syria and his efforts to “destabilize the region.”
This is the man who handles PR for the most powerful country on Earth.
This post was updated to include Spicer’s apology.