WASHINGTON — “So Sean, let’s start with yesterday,” MSNBC’s Greta Van Susteren began an interview with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
The occasion, a Newseum event on President Donald Trump’s relations with the news media, came at a sensitive moment. At the previous day’s White House briefing, Spicer compared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Hitler, “who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
“I know I screwed up,” Spicer told Van Susteren. He said the comment was “inexcusable and reprehensible” and he asked for “folks’ forgiveness.”
“There is no comparing atrocities,” he added. “I let the president down.”
At an earlier panel, Ari Fleischer, the White House Press Secretary under President George W. Bush, said that twice he had to apologize for and retract statements made during White House briefings. Fleischer understands the dance of contrition that must follow.
“He should show up here and explain it. That’s what you do when you make a mistake,” said Fleischer. “You just walk through it.”
Spicer followed that course at the Newseum, but his earlier attempts to backtrack the first misstatement backfired. When an ABC News reporter offered the press secretary an opportunity to clarify his remark at the Tuesday briefing, Spicer tried to differentiate between Hitler’s actions and the gas attack on Syrian civilians.
He said Hitler brought chemical weapons “into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent — into the middle of towns.”
Spicer’s use of the word “innocent” set off a firestorm on social media where critics also went after the spokesman’s insensitivity and lack of a sense of history.
“Sean Spicer must be fired, and the President must immediately disavow his spokesman’s statements,” demanded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who noted that the blunder occurred during the Jewish holiday of Passover.
The New York-based Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect also called on Trump to fire Spicer.
Politico reported that Spicer phoned the office of Las Vegas Sands Corp. chairman Sheldon Adelson to apologize. Adelson is one of the country’s largest Trump donors and his foundation finances Jewish youth trips to Israel.
Spicer denied that account. He told the Review-Journal that he phoned Adelson spokesman Andy Abboud because he was aware the office had received media inquiries and “I wanted to make sure they were aware of the actions I had taken.”
Abboud could not be reached for comment.
“I’m glad that he finally manned up and apologized even if it was after three fumbled attempts. But in his situation, you can’t apologize your way back to credibility,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.
Spicer “started his very first press briefing with a whopper of a lie about something as insignificant as inaugural crowd size,” she added. “When you are press secretary for the leader of the free world, your only currency that matters and is of value is your credibility. And right now he’s in the red.”
Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist who served as press secretary for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, attended the Newseum event and said Spicer had done what was necessary.
“He’s apologized profusely,” she said. “Clearly it was a mistake. He’s owned up to it.”
Fleischer, who told the Newseum he is a proud Jew, believes critics should spend their time going after actual Holocaust deniers. “Calling someone anti-Semitic or a Holocaust denier because you don’t like their politics diminishes the seriousness with which genuine acts of anti-semitism should be treated.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.