President Donald Trump’s decision to launch a missile attack against Syria last week rallied Republicans to his side, but has left the administration struggling to explain its volte-face. Trump campaigned against mission creep in Syria, and in 2013 criticized President Barack Obama for considering missile strikes under nearly identical circumstances. Just last week, the Trump administration balked at the notion of regime change in Syria, and his advisers have been struggling to articulate a coherent position ever since.
That confusion bled into the daily White House briefing on Tuesday, when press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was worse than Adolf Hitler. “[Hitler] didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” he said, blundering over the millions of Jews murdered with poison gas. Spicer attempted no fewer than four clarifications, starting with the conceit that the Jews killed in “Holocaust centers” weren’t citizens (italics below are mine).
First: “He was not using gas on his own people in the same way that Assad is doing.”
Second: “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people.”
Third: “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers.”
Fourth: “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. 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.”
In response, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has demanded that Trump fire Spicer. So has the Anne Frank Center:
Any right-thinking president would have fired Spicer a long time ago, as many are now calling on Trump to do. Spicer survives because he’s willing to toe any line Trump asks him to, and to improvisationally torch his own credibility in defense of the administration’s outrages.
That logic notwithstanding, this administration’s critics should be rooting for Spicer to stay. The White House press secretary plays the dual role of representing the U.S. and being an advocate for the press when reporters have grievances with this and other governments. Spicer may be the worst such press secretary in the history of the job, but he reflects the administration’s contempt for truth, decency, and the free press in both roles exquisitely, which is as it should be.
It is unlikely that Spicer would have gone down the Hitler cul-de-sac if Trump had provided a good explanation for his abrupt Syria reversal, or had a coherent Syria policy, or if he demanded any level of integrity out of his staff. But he has not.
Faced with substantive concerns about the use of force and existential concerns about Trump’s temperament, Spicer instinctually sought refuge in a comparison that was meant to kick those kinds of questions out of moral bounds—to place Trump’s actions beyond the reproach of the press corps. But this would have been a dead end for him even if he hadn’t rendered the comparison so ludicrously, because if Assad were anything like Hitler, it would raise the question of why Trump’s response was to cause a bit of damage to one of his airfields with a few dozen cruise missiles.
That Trump’s flip-flop can’t be easily explained, and that the policy he has landed on can’t actually be articulated, isn’t Spicer’s fault. But the way Spicer conducts himself when confronted with those challenges is entirely on him.
The point isn’t that Spicer set about Tuesday afternoon to say that Hitler didn’t gas Jews, or to erase the national heritage of Jews throughout Europe. It’s that his standards for justifying policy are subterranean, and they lead him to say stupid, impulsive, and contemptuous things. The upside for the rest of us is that he’s not particularly polished about it.
Sound like someone we know?
The question is whether he ought to lose his job. As a general karmic matter, perhaps. But in this specific case, calling for Spicer’s head is another way of saying Trump ought to have a less gaffe-prone, more analytically rigorous spokesman—someone who could put a nicer gloss on the indefensible. The Sean Spicer show is a train wreck, but it’s also a daily reminder that those of us who aren’t at war with truth, and don’t have contempt for the press, haven’t lost our minds. He’s the spokesman Trump deserves, but not the one he needs—and vice versa for the rest of us.