The White House might have just stolen the mantle of worst public relations week from United Airlines, and it couldn’t come at a worse time for the administration.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer was forced to repeatedly clarify comments on Tuesday that initially came across as downplaying the atrocities of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Within hours, he was facing resignation demands from senior Democrats.
He made the remarks in an effort to underscore the horrific nature of the Syrian government's nerve gas attack against its own civilian population last week, an attack that U.S. officials on Tuesday accused the Russian government of attempting to cover up through obfuscation and propaganda.
Spicer’s comments, and his subsequent attempts to clarify them, only muddied that message, bringing a social media and public relations firestorm down on the White House as it attempted to clear up facts surrounding Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s role in the attack.
Spicer’s comments were an attempt to portray Assad as literally worse than Hitler.
“Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer told reporters, omitting mention of the use of poison gas to slaughter six million Jews during the Holocaust.
He quickly clarified the statement, but his comments only drew further criticism. Hitler, he said, “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing... the way Assad dropped the bombs into the middle of towns—so the use of it.”
In fact, the Nazis did target their own people. As many as 180,000 German Jews were killed in during the Holocaust.
Spicer clarified his comments once again in a written statement minutes after Tuesday’s press briefing ended.
"In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people," the statement explained.
But the damage was already done.
Early Tuesday evening, the calls for Spicer’s ouster began to roll in. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said he “must be fired, and the president must immediately disavow his spokesman’s statements.”
Pelosi accused Spicer of “downplaying the horror of the Holocaust.”
Other Trump critics made similar accusations and demands.
The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, a US-based organization frequently critical of the president also called for his firing. Founded by the father of its namesake, a German-born Jew killed in a Nazi concentration camp, the group accused Spicer of “engaging in Holocaust denial.”
While Spicer’s comments fell well short of actual Holocaust denial, they created a frantic public relations debacle for the White House as it sought to accuse others – chiefly the Russian government – of confusing international opinion on a defining foreign policy campaign for the new administration.
The quick condemnations from Pelosi and other high-profile also drew attention from military strikes against Syria that had elicited more bipartisanship than any other Trump administration initiative in his first three months in office.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, had called the strikes a "clear signal that the United States will stand up for internationally accepted norms and rules against the use of chemical weapons” even as he called for congressional authorization for them.
But on Tuesday, rather than addressing the White House’s position on Syria, Cardin was talking about the Holocaust. He took a shot on Twitter at Spicer’s reference to the Nazis’ use of “Holocaust centers.”
“Really? The term you were looking for was concentration camps,” Cardin wrote.
Other congressional Democrats more critical of Trump’s Syria policy also pounced on Spicer’s comments. Rep. Jerry Nadler called them “unbelievably inappropriate, uninformed, offensive [and] inexcusable.”
“I find nothing funny about the Press Secretary bungling holocaust history,” Sen. Brian Schatz wrote. “Because I'm not sure they should get the benefit of the doubt.”
That was an apparent reference to previous statements and actions by the White House cast by its critics as insensitive towards the Jewish community or downright anti-Semitic.
The timing of Spicer’s comments didn’t help. They came in the midst of the Passover celebration, and a day after the White House held its annual Passover Seder–in Trump’s absence–not in the White House proper, but in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door.
Both Trump's campaign and his administration have made considerable missteps when it comes to the Jewish community. It started in Dec. 2015, when Trump played on Jewish stereotypes at an annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
"I'm a negotiator like you folks, we are negotiators," said Trump at the time. "Is there anybody that doesn't renegotiate deals in this room? This room negotiates them -- perhaps more than any other room I've ever spoken in."
It continued through the campaign, when Trump drew the support of the alt-right movement. In July 2016, Trump tweeted out a photo of Hillary Clinton which called her the 'most corrupt candidate ever,' with an image of a red, six-pointed star which looked like the Jewish 'Star of David.' He later claimed that it was a "sheriff's star."
And during his presidency, the White House waited weeks as Jewish leaders raised the alarm rising growing anti-Semitism and a wave of bomb threats to Jewish community centers before finally issuing a statement condemning it.
When pressed on the issue of rising anti-Semitism and bomb threats during a press conference by a Hasidic Jewish White House correspondent Trump said it was "not a fair question" and told the reporter to sit down.
“So here’s the story, folks," Trump said. "No. 1, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. No. 2, racism, the least racist person.”
Within two weeks of his presidency, Trump issued a press statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, without mentioning the Holocaust's Jewish victims. An original statement, drawn up by the State Department, had mentioned Jewish victims, but the White House had blocked its release.
At the time, Spicer defended the decision to “acknowledge all the people,” not only Jews, killed in the Holocaust.
"It is pathetic that people are picking on a statement,” he said.