White House press secretary Sean Spicer has apologised for making an ‘insensitive’ reference to the Holocaust in comments about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Mr Spicer said during a White House briefing on Tuesday that Adolf Hitler ‘didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons’.
The remark drew strong criticism from Jewish groups and critics who noted it ignored Hitler’s use of gas chambers to exterminate Jews during the Holocaust.
Mr Spicer said during an interview with CNN he had been trying to make a point about President Assad’s use of chemical weapons and gas against his people.
But he ‘mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison,’ he said.
‘And for that I apologise. It was a mistake to do that.’
It was the second day in a row in which Mr Spicer, Donald Trump’s main spokesman, appeared to struggle to articulate the president’s foreign policy at a critical time.
The White House generated criticism at the start of the year when a statement on international Holocaust Remembrance Day did not make any reference to Jews.
In the CNN interview, Mr Spicer said: ‘My comments today did not reflect the president’s, were a distraction from him and frankly were misstated, insensitive and wrong.’
He added: ‘Obviously it was my blunder.’
Mr Spicer had earlier delivered a garbled defence of his remarks in which he tried to differentiate between Hitler’s actions and the gas attack on Syrian civilians last week.
The attack in northern Syria left nearly 90 people dead, and Turkey’s health minister said tests show sarin gas was used.
‘I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no, he (Hitler) was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,’ Mr Spicer said.
‘There was clearly … I understand your point, thank you. There was not … He brought them into the Holocaust centre I understand that.
‘I appreciate the clarification. That was not the intent.’
The comparison to the Second World War appeared to be part of a message the administration was trying to deliver as it explains its tactics in Syria.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis noted in a separate briefing that ‘the intent was to stop the cycle of violence into an area that even in World War II chemical weapons were not used on battlefields’.
Democrats and Jewish organisations condemned Mr Spicer’s comments.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said he was ‘downplaying the horror of the Holocaust’ and should be fired.
The New York-based Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect called on Mr Trump to sack Mr Spicer, saying he had denied that Hitler gassed Jews during the Holocaust.
Mr Spicer’s comments came on the first day of Passover and a day after the White House held a Seder dinner marking the emancipation of the Jewish people, a tradition started during the Obama administration.
According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazis experimented with poison gas in late 1939 with the killing of mental patients, which was termed ‘euthanasia’.
Both mobile and stationary gas chambers were later used, with up to 6,000 Jews gassed each day at Auschwitz alone.
On Monday, the White House clarified remarks by Mr Spicer that the use of barrel bombs by the Assad regime might lead to further military action by the US.