Washington: White House press secretary Sean Spicer apologized on Tuesday for his remarks that were seen as downplaying the atrocities of the Holocaust.
While criticizing Syrian President Bashar Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons during a Tuesday briefing, Spicer said that even Adolf Hitler did not sink to that level of warfare and "was not using the gas on his own people in the same way that Assad is doing," despite Hitler's use of gas chambers to kill millions of Jews and others.
His remarks caused huge uproar and after hours of sharp criticism, Spicer walked back his remarks late in the day.
"Frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no comparison," Spicer said in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday evening. "And for that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that."
Blitzer, who happens to be the son of Holocaust survivors, asked Spicer if he knew that the Nazis took Jews, gays, gypsies and others to death camps "to slaughter them in these poison-gas chambers."
"Yes, clearly I am aware of that," Spicer said, adding that his original comments were meant to focus just on Assad's use of chemical weapons dropped from aircraft. "It was a mistake to do that and, again, that's why I should have just stayed on topic, stayed focused on the actions that Assad had taken and the horrible atrocities that he had committed against his own people."
Spicer brought up Hitler during Tuesday's White House briefing when asked about the alliance between Assad and Russia.
"We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II," Spicer said. "You had . . . someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to the using chemical weapons."
Later in the briefing, a reporter asked Spicer to explain what he meant.
"I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no -- he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing," Spicer said.
Spicer's comments drew stunned looks from reporters, and the mouth of one White House press aide seemed to fall open in a half gasp as he spoke. Reporters tried to correct Spicer, to remind him of the millions gassed in concentration camps, with one person shouting out: "He gassed the Jews!"
"I understand your point, thank you," Spicer said. "He brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But what I am saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of towns . . . so the use of it. And I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent."
Before the briefing was even over, White House press aides realized the magnitude of Spicer's mistake. Shortly after he stepped away from the lectern, Spicer put out a statement again trying to explain what he meant.
"In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust," he said. "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."