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Sean Spicer takes his questionable claims to a new level in Hitler-Assad comparison

White House press secretary Sean Spicer says Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons during World War II. Hitler exterminated millions of Jews in gas chambers. (Video: Reuters)

White House press secretary Sean Spicer sought to emphasize the depravity of Syria's use of chemical weapons on civilians during Tuesday's briefing. But the way he did it — by crediting Adolf Hitler with a measure of restraint — struck many journalists as confusing and insensitive.

“We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II,” Spicer said. “You know, you had a — someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Spicer seemed to be suggesting that chemical weapons are so bad that even Hitler wasn't willing to use them. It was a bizarre argument, however, given Hitler's extensive use of poison gas to kill millions of Jews and others in gas chambers.

"He was not using his gas on his own people the same way [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad was,” Spicer clarified later when a reporter noted his comments were causing an uproar on social media. This was ostensibly an attempt to clarify his original remark, yet it was baffling in its own right, since Hitler did indeed gas his own people.

Spicer then clarified again, saying he was referring to battlefield uses of chemical weapons. Even in that case, however, his version of history is questionable. According to some accounts, the Nazis used poison gas against Russians who failed to surrender after the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula in the Crimean peninsula.

According to the book “Ivan’s War” by Catherine Merridale, the Nazis in 1942 deployed poison gas into a cave city in which as many as 3,000 Russians were living for months:

The Germans planted explosives around the exits from the site. Rocks and splinters rained down on the fugitives below. Then poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the Soviet defenders.

But the Nazis did not use chemical weapons against Western foes — if at all. Depending upon the account, this may have been because their program wasn’t sophisticated enough, they were worried about its impact on their horses, or because they feared the Allies had much more deadly chemical weapons.

One other theory was explained in a 2001 BBC report: "As a sergeant in the Kaiser's army, Adolf Hitler was gassed by British troops in 1918, and the experience may have caused him to refrain from using it as a tactical weapon himself.” Again, there is no consensus on this point.

Finally, Spicer appeared on CNN (a concession in its own right) later in the day to issue an apology: "I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad made against his own people last week, using chemical weapons and gas. And, frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no — there is no comparison. And for that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that."

But Spicer is hardly the first to make this argument. Fred Schwarz suggested in the National Review in 2013 that "not even Hitler …" could be a strong argument against Assad. That same year, MSNBC's Chris Matthews also compared Assad's use of chemical weapons to Hitler having avoided them — and drew criticism from conservative media outlets.

CNN's Brian Stelter wondered Tuesday whether the idea originated on Fox Business Network, where a survivor of a 2013 chemical attack in Syria said in an interview Monday that Assad is "worse than Hitler.” (Trump does have a habit of internalizing what he sees on TV, particularly on Fox networks.)

And some suggested the media were being too tough on Spicer. Josh Marshall, the editor of the left-leaning website Talking Points Memo, said Spicer's point was sound, if poorly delivered.

And in a vacuum, perhaps Spicer would be forgiven for a misstatement and a clumsy point. But minimizing Hitler's actions — even a little — is completely unhelpful for a White House that the press previously has scrutinized for being slow to address bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers and for failing to mention Jews, specifically, in a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

During the campaign, President Trump failed in a memorable CNN interview to disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a notorious anti-Semite. Trump condemned Duke soon after and claimed he could not hear the interviewer's questions clearly because of a defective earpiece.

At another point, Trump retweeted an image that depicted Hillary Clinton next to a red Star of David shape, with $100 bills in the background. The image originated on a Twitter account that routinely posted racist messages. The Trump campaign said it was unaware of the origin and considered the star reminiscent of a sheriff's badge.

Aaron Blake contributed to this report.