Sixth in a series of posts on the unimaginable missteps of White House press secretary Sean Spicer. This post has been updated.
There are lots of rules and common laws about invoking the name of Adolf Hitler as part of any political discussion, with the general thrust being this: Tread very, very carefully.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer doesn’t tread carefully. From the lectern in the White House briefing room, he throws around words and hopes to escape into his office after answering the same questions with the same — often baffling, sometimes mendacious — answers.
In reflecting on the U.S. airstrike against Syria last week, Spicer referenced the horror of the chemical-weapons attack that had triggered it — an attack whose images left a deep impression on President Trump. “You look — we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had a … someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” said Spicer in assessing the impact of last week’s events. Administration officials have offered varying visions of the future of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
WATCH: Sean Spicer: "You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons." pic.twitter.com/WdI6bu1wJj
— Yashar (@yashar) April 11, 2017
ABC News’s Cecilia Vega later asked Spicer if he wished to clarify the Hitler matter. He responded as follows:
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 —
Some crosstalk ensued, after which Spicer resumed:
Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not — he brought them into the Holocaust center — I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent — into the middle of towns. It was brought to it, so the use of it and I appreciate the clarification and that was not the intent.
Here's Spicer's answer about Hitler not using chemical weapons (he gassed millions), and his attempt at a clarification, which made it worse pic.twitter.com/gcJGhASVK2
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) April 11, 2017
As they always do, the facts brutalize Spicer. Poison gas was a staple of Nazi extermination methods starting in 1939, when it was used against mental patients, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Mobile gassing vans and gas chambers were among the instruments of Hitler’s genocide. As many as 6,000 Jews were gassed to death each day at Auschwitz, according to the Holocaust museum.
They, too, were “innocent,” to use Spicer’s term of distinction.
“Holocaust centers”? Apart from all the inarticulate and risible things that this fellow has said, this particular ahistorical eructation appears worthy of discipline or dismissal. As the transcription above indicates, Spicer stumbled through his response to Vega’s polite request that he clarify the point about Hitler, Assad and chemical weapons. “Where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent — into the middle of towns”: That’s a language known as Spicerian. It consists of spurts and blurts and polemical dead ends. The White House press secretary is forcing a run on dashes down at the transcription office.
Yet it’s not all just a verbal tic. The halting, hard-to-follow speech patterns reflect an unflattering truth about the top spokesperson at the White House: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A press secretary needs to have command of a vast topical landscape. Spicer has mastered bluster, and not much else.
After the session, Spicer issued a statement: “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.” In a subsequent CNN interview, Spicer apologized for the comparison and admitted his mistake.
Elsewhere, the press secretary said that he didn’t see a Syrian future with “Bassad al-Ashar as the leader of that government.” Well, who does?