On Tuesday, the first day of Passover, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made a series of statements about Hitler that parallel conspiracy theories common among anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.
It’s hardly the first time that Trump officials have sent veiled signals to neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and white supremacists.
Spicer began on Tuesday by comparing Hitler favorably to the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad — alleging that Hitler, who used poisonous gas to kill millions of Jews, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
When given a chance to clarify, Spicer said that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” and that Assad, unlike Hitler, was dropping chemical weapons “down to innocents in the middle of town.”
In a subsequent clarification, Spicer repeated that Assad used chemical weapons on “innocent people,” before the statement was changed to read “population centers” in yet another attempt to walk back his statement.
— Hallie Jackson (@HallieJackson) April 11, 2017
Spicer’s statements echo some of the most common talking points of Holocaust deniers.
By suggesting that Hitler did not use chemical weapons, even though Hitler used gas chambers to kill millions, Spicer essentially called into question whether the Holocaust even happened at all. By saying that Assad is different than Hitler because he killed his own people, Spicer tacitly accepted the Nazi definition of German — implying, like they did, that German Jews were not actually German. And by defining Assad’s victims as innocent in apparent contrast to Hitler’s victims, Spicer’s comments play into the anti-Semitic notion that Hitler’s victims deserved their deaths.
In a final statement, the White House added a line saying that “any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.” This represented the third written statement after Spicer’s comments.
It’s unclear that Spicer actually intended to deny that the Holocaust occurred. It’s possible to chalk his statements up to a series of verbal bungles — stupid, maybe, but not intentionally malevolent. But by echoing the statements of Holocaust deniers in multiple ways, he sent a clear dog-whistle of approval to anti-Semites; regardless of what he meant, what he said was a validation of Holocaust denial.
Steven Goldstein, Executive Director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, immediately called Spicer out on Twitter.
“Sean Spicer has engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death,” he said in a statement calling for Spicer’s resignation.
Making matters worse, this represents only the latest in a long list of anti-Semitic signals propagated by the Trump team.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, for example, the White House issued a statement that did not mention the Jewish people, an erasure that is also a common tactic of Holocaust deniers. The statement was met with celebration on anti-Semitic websites.
“This is the first time in history the President of the United States has made no mention of Jews, anti-Semitism, or the science fiction Zionist folklore about ovens and gas chambers so prominent in (((Hollywood))) narratives,” the Daily Stormer, which is named after a Nazi propaganda tabloid, wrote. The three parentheses around “Hollywood” are a white supremacist designation for people or institutions they consider to be Jewish.
The White House was heavily criticized for the statement. Spicer, however, defended it in his press conference the next day and confirmed that the omission was intentional.
After Spicer’s statement, the Daily Stormer rejoiced even more, and took it as a confirmation that the statement had been an intentional veiled nod.
“We previously reported that the White House released a statement on holohoax remembrance day that failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism. This was in no way accidental, but all in all it was basically a subtle nod to us,” site founder Andrew Anglin wrote in a post subtitle “We’ve got trolls in the White House.”
“Holohoax” is a derogatory styling of Holocaust popular among Holocaust deniers.
President Trump also, echoing former KKK leader David Duke, once suggested that Jews were the ones behind the wave of threats to Jewish schools and centers that followed his election.
“He just said, ‘Sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad,’ and he used the word ‘reverse’ I would say two or three times in his comments,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said about a conversation he had with Trump, according to BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner.
In general, Trump’s administration was largely silent on the wave of threats against Jewish centers. When he finally acknowledged them, Trump claimed that he denounces anti-Semitism “wherever I get a chance.”
The week before, however, Trump had accused a reporter who asked about the wave of threats of asking “not a fair question” and refused to answer. He was also asked about the threats two other times —but continued to decline to condemn them, often instead attacking the reporters who asked.
“It is honestly mind-boggling why President Trump prefers to shout down a reporter or brush this off as a political distraction,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s national director, said in a statement at the time.
This problematic approach to the Jewish community was evident during Trump’s presidential campaign, too.
As a candidate, Trump had a persistent habit of retweeting openly racist and anti-Semitic Twitter users. He adopted white supremacist rhetoric, referring to his opponent Hillary Clinton as America’s “Angela Merkel,” a line that can be found verbatim on white supremacist forums like the neo-Nazi site Stormfront. He also notoriously borrowed an anti-Semitic meme, overlaying a picture of Clinton with a star of David emblazoned with “most corrupt candidate ever,” which appeared on white supremacist forums before the Trump campaign adopted it.
Trump also repeatedly declined to condemn his white supremacist and neo-Nazi supporters during his campaign. He took days to “disavow” David Duke, claiming not to be familiar with him despite an on-the-record trail of comments demonstrating that he was. He also declined to condemn the wave of anti-Semitic attacks against reporters who covered him.
During his campaign, Trump paired a refusal to condemn clear instances of anti-Semitism with endorsements of people with white supremacist views, such as his appointment of Steve Bannon to top positions in his administration. The result was an emboldening of hate groups, as well as their related attacks and rhetoric.
“We interpret that as an endorsement,” the Daily Stormer’s Anglin told the Huffington Post regarding the Trump’s campaign persistent refusal to condemn anti-Semitic attacks.
And now that he’s been elected, the Trump White House has only continued the trend.