'The President Went Out of His Way to Recognize the Holocaust'

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended the omission of Jews from Trump’s statement with a double act of historical revisionism.

Donald Trump speaks on the phone as Jared Kushner looks on.
Donald Trump speaks on the phone as Jared Kushner looks on. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

On Friday, the same day that he ordered a halt in the entry of persecuted refugees into the United States, President Trump issued a statement on the Holocaust. In a crisp three paragraphs, Trump said, “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.” He added that “in the name of the perished,” he would work to prevent such a tragedy again.

Pointedly missing from the statement, as was immediately noticed, was any mention of the Jewish people, of whom roughly 6 million were murdered during the Holocaust. The omission was roundly criticized by Jewish groups, and not just mainstream groups like the Anti-Defamation League, though they were also critical.  The Republican Jewish Coalition weighed in, too, saying that “The lack of a direct statement about the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust was an unfortunate omission” and adding, “We hope, going forward, he conveys those feelings when speaking about the Holocaust.” The head of the very conservative Zionist Organization of America, which is funded in part by the Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, was blunter. “Especially as a child of Holocaust survivors, I and ZOA are compelled to express our chagrin and deep pain at President Trump, in his Holocaust Remembrance Day Message, omitting any mention of anti-Semitism and the six million Jews who were targeted and murdered by the German Nazi regime and others,” Mort Klein said in a statement. (The ZOA kicked up a controversy when it announced that Steve Bannon would attend a dinner it was throwing in November. Bannon then never showed.)

But the White House wants credit anyway. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was quizzed on the omission during a briefing on Monday. As to criticism, Spicer said, “He’s aware of what people have been saying, but I think by and large he’s been praised for it.”

Spicer added:

I gotta be honest, the president went out of his way to recognize the Holocaust and the suffering that went through and the people that were affected by it and the loss of life, and to make sure that American never forgets what so many people went through, whether they were Jews or gypsies, gays, disability [sic] … I mean priests…

This is a double act of revisionism. For most mainstream scholars, the Holocaust refers specifically to the extermination of Jews. While the Nazis killed others en masse, the Holocaust itself refers to the killing of Jews, and the other murders were contemporary but different.

The Holocaust Museum on Monday issued a statement that did not mention Trump by name but sharply criticized his approach. The museum notes that “The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators,” the statement said. “Millions of other innocent civilians were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, but the elimination of Jews was central to Nazi policy. As Elie Wiesel said, ‘Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.’”

Historian Deborah Lipstadt writes that the “de-Judaization” represented by Trump’s statement is historically inaccurate. “Had the Germans won they probably would have eliminated millions of other peoples, including the Roma, homosexuals, dissidents of any kind, and other ‘useless eaters,’” Lipstadt writes in a piece accusing the White House of “softcore” Holocaust denial. “But it was only the Jews whose destruction could not wait until after the war. Only in the case of the Jews could war priorities be overridden.”

Yet despite the warnings and complaints of advocates and historians alike, Spicer again on Monday once again trotted out the parade of other victims of the Holocaust to excuse the omission.

The other act of revisionism in Spicer’s defense is the even more audacious one of claiming that Trump should be lauded for going “out of his way to recognize the Holocaust.” There was a reason that Trump’s statement came out, rather uncomfortably, on the same day as the immigration executive order targeting travelers from several mostly Muslim countries: Friday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the great effort Trump made was to issue a three-paragraph statement.

Spicer tried to deflect attention away from the Holocaust on two separate matters, by changing the subject away from the substance of the statement and toward Trump’s policies toward Israel as well as toward the aides who helped draft it.

Spicer first conflated support for Israel with recognition of Jewish deaths. “With regard to Israel and the Jewish people generally there’s been no better friend that Donald Trump,” Spicer said. He argued that the Obama administration’s differences with the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu had received too little scrutiny from the press compared to the current president’s statement. There’s no obvious reason, however, why Trump’s steadfast support for the Israeli right ought to excuse him from recognizing the centrality of Jewish genocide in the Holocaust.

Later in the briefing, Spicer got increasingly agitated after another question on the topic. “The statement was written with the help of an individual who’s both Jewish and the descendant of Holocaust survivors,” he said. (Spicer appeared to be referring to Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, though he would not directly acknowledge that.) “To suggest that remembering the Holocaust and acknowledging all of the people, Jewish, gypsies, priests, disabled, gays, and lesbians—it is pathetic that people are picking on a statement.”

The question is not, however, whether some of Trump’s best advisers are Jewish, so to speak, but whether the president will emphasize the Jewish deaths at Nazi hands. This makes for bizarre politics, too. Why would Trump’s spokesman pick a fight with the Republican Jewish Coalition and the ZOA, groups that have been solidly in Trump’s corner even as he comes under harsh attacks for flirtations with white supremacists from other parties?

Trump and his aides have taken a stance of never admitting error or backtracking. In this case, the White House could say that the omission was an inadvertent one, apologize, and declare the matter closed. Instead, the administration is choosing to insist they did nothing wrong, adopt a discredited historical revisionism, and call its own political allies “pathetic” instead. So far, it must be said, this statement has left Trump in good stead: He continues to notch political victories, and many of his supporters praise him for not backing down. But logic dictates that such an approach must eventually bring peril.

The broader implications of the Trump strategy aside, the pushback with regards to Friday’s statement represents a dramatic case of setting expectations low. If President Trump demands congratulations simply for recognizing the Holocaust, then surely it must be too much to ask that he recognize the Jewish character of the catastrophe.