Press Secretary Sean Spicer put himself and the Trump administration at the center of yet another self-inflicted controversy on Tuesday afternoon, this time for making comments about the Holocaust that were criticized as both dismissive and ignorant.
When justifying President Donald Trump's strike on the air base in Syria suspected of launching a chemical weapon attack against civilians, Spicer claimed that "we didn't use chemical weapons in World War II. You [had] someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons.”
When challenged on the statement by a reporter who pointed out that the Nazi regime indeed used poison gas on millions of people in the Holocaust, Spicer attempted to "clarify" his remarks, claiming that "he was not using his gas on his own people the same way [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad was."
Again, the statement was ridiculed, given that, as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum writes, "the Germans and their collaborators killed between 160,000 and 180,000 German Jews in the Holocaust" — and an unknown number by gas.
While Spicer continued to roil through the cycle of clarification and ridicule, many in the media noticed that the remarks fit a pattern within the Trump administration, and in his campaign before that: a lack of understanding Jewish history and culture bordering on anti-Semitism.
In July, during the thick of the campaign, Trump tweeted a meme of Hillary Clinton's face laid over a pile of money, with a red six-pointed star declaring "most corrupt candidate ever!" When combined with Trump's habit of retweeting known white supremacist accounts, many media outlets speculated that Trump had an ugly streak of anti-Semitism that was coming out.
His response was to delete the tweet and send it out again a few hours later, with a red circle superimposed over the red star. He then responded on Twitter to the accusations by claiming the image was a "Sheriff's Star [sic], or plain star!" He then released a statement claiming that the Clinton campaign was attempting to distort a "basic star, often used by sheriffs who deal with criminals and criminal behavior," into a Jewish symbol.
More recently, Trump was criticized for taking nearly two months to issue a response to the waves of bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers around the country, with the first threat issued in early January, and Trump not responding until the end of February.
Trump was also called out for issuing a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that didn't mention Jews, and for naming Sebastian Gorka, a scholar with alleged ties to a Hungarian far-right group that collaborated with the Nazis, as a senior advisor.
While this pattern of omission can certainly be seen as anti-Semitic — indeed, this is the interpretation of a number of outlets, including the Anne Frank Center — that doesn't necessarily mean Trump or his inner circle are anti-Semitic, or Holocaust deniers.
"Certainly there are anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers among Trump’s supporters, and certainly there’s a horrifying strain of fascism and bigotry within his administration," wrote Angus Johnston, a history professor at City University of New York, in an email to ATTN:. "But I don’t think Spicer was engaging in Holocaust denial. I think he was being morally obtuse, historically ignorant, and politically craven."
Politifact also found that "it seems unlikely that the Trump campaign intended to put out a Star of David image. In fact, the campaign moved to replace the star with a circle when the image gained attention."
What's more likely is that this is the result of a campaign with little consistent messaging and an administration with almost no curiosity about history, Johnston told ATTN:.
"It’s not that [Spicer] committed to a wrong version of history," he said. "It’s that he doesn’t care enough—about what happened to the Jews of Europe in the 1940s, or about what’s happening to the people of Syria right now—to get it right."
Update, 3:20 PM PST
According to multiple news outlets, Spicer apologized for his comments on Tuesday afternoon.