Spicer was asked later in the briefing to clarify his comments. In trying to do so, he made it worse
Spicer's Hitler comments virtually ensure another news cycle lost to an unforced error
White House press secretary Sean Spicer forgot the first rule of politics during a press briefing on Tuesday: Never, ever compare anyone or anything to Adolf Hitler.
Answering a question about Russia’s potential complicity in the Syrian chemical attack last week, Spicer stretched for a Nazi Germany comparison.
“You had someone who was as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” he said. “So you have to, if you are Russia, ask yourself is this a country that you and a regime that you want to align yourself with.”
Er, what? Hitler, of course, used lots and lots of chemical weapons – in the sense that he ordered the executions of millions of Jews in gas chambers during World War II.
Given that history, Spicer was asked later in the briefing to clarify his comments. In trying to do so, he made it worse.
Here’s Spicer’s second swing at the question: “I think when you come to sarin gas, [Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” he said, adding: “But in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns and dropped them down to innocents in the middle of towns.”
Spicer is arguing a technicality – that Hitler didn’t specifically “drop” chemical weapons on Germans – in an attempt to put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s action on the same level as what Hitler did. But, in over-generalizing he’s eliding some facts and getting others totally wrong.
This is a blatant violation of Godwin’s Law – the idea that by invoking Hitler comparisons in any way, shape or form you are immediately putting an end to any discussion. “Oh yeah, well this is like when Hitler did. …” is a sentence that you should never, ever say. If you, like Spicer, are trying to say something is “worse” than what Hitler did, you really, really just need to stop talking.
Spicer tried to get it right the third time around when he released this statement about 30 minutes after leaving the podium: “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.”
For Spicer, this is the second major slip-up in as many days. On Monday, when asked whether the Trump administration’s decision to launch strikes against the Syrian airfield where the chemical attacks are believed to have originated was the new policy of the United States, Spicer responded by saying: “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this President.”
Assad, of course, has been dropping barrel bombs onto civilians for some time now – raising questions about whether Spicer’s statement was an error or an actual change in policy. In a statement released after the briefing, Spicer made clear he had simply misspoken. “Nothing has changed in our posture,” Spicer said.
Spicer was already on somewhat thin ice with President Donald Trump, according to multiple published reports over the first 80 days of this White House. Early in his presidency, Trump was said to be bothered not only by Spicer’s less-than-vehement defense of the administration’s policies but also by Spicer’s wardrobe choices.
His performance over the last 48 hours will do little to assuage Trump’s doubts. For an administration still struggling to establish its positive message over the first 100 days, Spicer’s Hitler comments virtually ensure another news cycle lost to an unforced error.
And, make no mistake: This was an unforced error of the most basic variety.