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White House Press Secretary Suggests Even Hitler Didn't Use Chemical Weapons


Once, the daily White House press briefing was a pretty pedestrian affair it has become more eventful under the Trump administration. And today it was kind of extraordinary. White House Spokesman Sean Spicer tried to warn Russia that its alliance with Syria puts that country on the wrong side of history, and that's where Spicer found himself a moment later when he suggested wrongly that Hitler never used chemical weapons.

Of course any argument that drags in Hitler is likely to be a bit dangerous, and this time was no exception. Spicer's attempts to clarify his comments only made the situation worse. NPR's Scott Horsley was there in the briefing room and joins us now to walk us through what happened. Hi, Scott.


SHAPIRO: So Spicer was supposed to be talking about the apparent sarin gas attack in Syria. What went wrong this afternoon?

HORSLEY: You know, Ari, that chemical weapons attack has really changed the administration's calculations in Syria, and Spicer says it ought to change Russia's calculations, too. He was trying to argue that Russia should rethink its alliance with Syria's Assad regime after that regime gassed its own people in such a horrific way last week. But in trying to underscore the severity of the attack, Spicer reached for a historical yardstick, and it wasn't a good one. Take a listen.


SEAN SPICER: We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a - someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to the - to using chemical weapons. So you have to, if you're Russia...

HORSLEY: ...Seen on television scratching their heads. Spicer seemed to be overlooking the millions who were gassed to death in Nazi concentration camps.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You could actually see in the briefing room these reporters looking a little bit shocked. And one of those reporters asked Spicer if he wanted to clarify his remarks. What happened then?

HORSLEY: Yeah. I mean in fairness, anybody can misspeak when they're up there speaking extemporaneously for an extended period, and that is certainly true of Sean Spicer. So a reporter tried to give him a chance for a do-over. He asked Spicer to clarify. And the flustered press secretary just made matters worse. Here is Spicer trying to explain why Hitler's murderous gas was somehow different than the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad's.


SPICER: I think when you come to sarin gas there was no - he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean there was clearly - I understand your point, thank you.


SPICER: Thank you. I appreciate that. That was not - in the - he brought them into the Holocaust center, and I understand that. But I'm saying in a way that Assad used them where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of towns - it was brought - so the use of it. And I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.

HORSLEY: You know, reporters try to give Spicer a lifeline, and he just used it to tie himself up in knots.

SHAPIRO: Right, referring to concentration camps there as the Holocaust center. What has the reaction been?

HORSLEY: Well, the Holocaust Museum here in Washington took Spicer to task on Twitter. They posted some video of what U.S. troops discovered when they liberated the death camp at Buchenwald. The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect went further, saying Spicer should be fired for engaging in what they called Holocaust denial. And Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed that this evening, saying, while Jewish families across America are celebrating Passover, the chief spokesman of the White House is downplaying the horror of the Holocaust. Either Spicer's speaking for the President, Pelosi said, or Trump should have known better than to hire him.

SHAPIRO: And remarkably, Scott, even though we're not yet at a hundred days, this is not the first time this White House has stumbled in talking about the Holocaust.

HORSLEY: No. Remember; in Trump's very first full week in office, the president put out a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and somehow forgot to mention any Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis. The Trump campaign was also criticized a time for trafficking images that were thought to be anti-Semitic.

Now, Sean Spicer did put out a written statement about his own comments today, saying he wasn't trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. But he did not offer an actual apology.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley speaking with us from the White House. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.