White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Wednesday that he had let down the US president but gave no hint he would quit over his false claim that Adolf Hitler“didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” against his own people.
The press secretary drew criticism from Israel and Germany, and demands from Democrats that he should be fired, after comparing the atrocities of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad unfavourably with those of Hitler, who gassed millions of Jews at extermination camps during the Holocaust.
“I made a mistake,” a contrite Spicer said during an onstage interview at the Newseum in Washington. “There’s no other way to say it. I’d gotten into a topic that I shouldn’t have and I screwed up. I hope people understand that we all make mistakes.
“I hope I showed I understand that I did that, and I saw people’s forgiveness because I screwed up, and I hope each person can understand that part of existing is understanding when you do something wrong, if you own up to it, you do it, you let people know, and I did.”
Spicer’s misstep at Tuesday’s White House press briefing came during the Jewish festival of Passover. He issued a number of apologies in a series of awkward emails and uncomfortable TV interviews.
“It’s a very holy week for the Jewish people and the Christian people and to make a gaffe and a mistake like this is inexcusable and reprehensible and so, of all weeks, this compounds that kind of mistake,” he said during a symposium discussing the relationship between the president and the press.
“It really is painful to myself to know that I something did like that because that obviously was not my intention, and to know when you screw up you’ve possibly offended a lot of people, and so I would ask obviously for folks’ forgiveness, to understand that I should not have tried to make a comparison.
“There’s no comparing atrocities and it is a very solemn time for so many folks that’s part of that, so that’s obviously a very difficult thing personally to deal with, because you know a lot of people that don’t know you wonder why you would do that.”
Spicer said his comments were also upsetting because Donald Trump had “an unbelievabl y successful couple of weeks” and it was his task to amplify that message of accomplishment. “I think I’ve let the president down and so on both a personal level and a professional level that will definitely go down as not a very good day in my history.”
The spokesman defected questions from interviewer Greta Van Susteren about whether Trump or his aides has talked to him about the controversy. “This was my mistake, my bad, that I needed to fix, so I’m not going to get into any additional conversations that I may or may not have had. This was mine to own, mine to apologise for and mine to ask forgiveness for.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader in the House, has demanded that Spicer be fired over his remarks, while the activist group MoveOn.org started an online petition demanding his immediate resignation or removal. But Spicer, much lampooned by Saturday Night Live and other comedians, insisted he was still enjoying the role. “I love it,” he said. “I truly do believe it’s an honour to have this job. It is a privilege and if you don’t believe it’s so, you shouldn’t be here.”
International criticism has been mounting. The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Israel expressed “deep concern regarding the inaccurate and insensitive use of terms related to the Holocaust by the White House press secretary”. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said: “Any comparison of current situations with the crimes of National Socialism leads to nothing good.”
Even Trump’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told CNN: “It’s unfortunate, and we should never have comparisons with Hitler, ever. That was a terrible time in history and it’s just not something people want to hear about or think about or think there’s another comparison to it.”
At the Newseum event in Washington, CNN correspondent Jim Acosta said he was unsurprised by the incident. “I can understand why yesterday happened,” he told the audience. “The level of exhaustion he must be feeling right now with this president who is unyielding.”
Spicer, in relatively subdued form, defended the decision by Trump and his team to boycott this year’s White House Correspondents Association dinner. “I think the relationship and the coverage that we’ve gotten, I don’t think that we should fake it, going to a dinner where we sit around and pretend that everything’s all hunky-dory is probably not an appropriate year to be doing this,” he said.
“I think they should go have their dinner and I know they’ve put a lot of time into it and that’s great, but I don’t think that just sitting there and watching a bunch of celebrities walk by is somehow an indication of how much you care about or respect the press or the first amendment. I think they should have their dinner, but we I think have a right, in the same first amendment gives us a right, to say this is inappropriate to go and it sends the wrong signal and, if things get better, maybe we’ll attend next year, but this is not the year to do it.”
Also at the event, journalist Michael Wolff asked Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump, about the Washington Post’s front-page motto “Democracy dies in darkness.” He said: “I’m going to tell you, when they say democracy dies in darkness, you’re the darkness.”
There was applause from the audience, but Conway shrugged off the charge. “It’s what I tell small children: just because somebody says something, doesn’t make it true,” she said. “It’s a great lesson for everyone. Just because they say the darkness or democracy doesn’t make it true.”
She added: “If you’re talking about the way the president is covered, I think there is something that I call presumptive negativity. You can look at something and see it as a positive or as a negative, and for this president it’s often seen through the negative lens, which is not just unfair, it’s actually inaccurate and it really robs the larger viewership or readership or the American people of the opportunity to hear what’s really happening.”
Conway, who became notorious for her defence of “alternative facts”, took several swipes at journalists for their reporting on Trump. “Some in the media want to prove they’ve been right about him all along and you have a couple of people in the media openly questioning whether they should refer to him as ‘President Trump’. When have you ever seen that before? I just wasn’t raised that way. You respect the office of the presidency and it’s current occupant.”
Her main grievance is “incomplete coverage”, Conway added, citing the lack of attention given to attorney general Jeff Sessions’ visit to the US-Mexico border on Tuesday or other issues she said faced ordinary Americans. She claimed that Neil Gorsuch’s Senate confirmation to the supreme court last Friday will be remembered long after palace intrigue in the Trump administration is forgotten.
“I just think a lot of the right questions are not being asked. This comfort in sameness has this effect where people are afraid to go first … If you’re all looking out of this pane of glass, you only have to tilt your head that much, 20 to 30 degrees that way, and you can still see what everyone else is seeing but you end up seeing someone through an entirely different light, literally.”
Wolff asked her about the administration and media hating each other. She replied: “I don’t really hate anyone. I have four kids; you can’t scare me … I think these are over-generalisations and I don’t want to over-generalise the relationship with the media and the media writ large.”