When Sebastian Gorka, President Trump’s top counterterrorism adviser, met the British journalist Ruth Sherlock at the White House in late March, the deputy assistant to the president took her deep into the West Wing, proudly waving his blue “all-access” pass.
Then, in the Roosevelt Room, at the heart of the White House power center, opposite the Oval Office, Gorka gestured to where he usually sits at meetings.
“Just behind the president’s own chair,” Sherlock noted in her profile on Gorka for the British paper the Telegraph; she noted, too, though, that Gorka’s own office was in the Executive Office Building, an entirely different building just west of the White House.
Still, no one doubted that Gorka had access, and he brandished it to make a larger point. When Sherlock asked about his reported ties to far-right, anti-Semitic organizations in Hungary and about critics who characterized his policy views on Islam as fringe and ill-informed, Gorka told her: “They love to say a ‘fringe individual’ has entered the White House. Well, hey, guess what? If you’re in the White House, you’re not the fringe.”
On Sunday, reports that Gorka was being shifted out of the White House to some other, yet-to-be-defined position inevitably raised a broader question, by Gorka’s own criterion: To what extent are the views he represents and the background he carries with him now also being returned to the fringe?
Gorka, a native of Great Britain, came to the White House under the aegis of the president’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, head of the so-called “populist” or “nationalist” wing within the White House. It is a faction said to be increasingly losing out to a more internationalist group of pro-business, Wall Street oriented conservatives and traditionally hawkish but cautious national security officials.
Gorka’s fall from grace, coming hard on the heels of Bannon’s own banishment from a seat on the National Security Council in early April, appears to underline this trend. Moreover, as with Bannon, Gorka’s diminished influence means diminished lines into the White House for forces and factions even further to the right with whom both men maintained ties, even if they themselves were not directly espousing the extreme, often racist views of these outsiders.
Famously, Bannon came to the White House from his position as executive chair of Breitbart News, where Gorka worked as national security editor until he followed Bannon to the White House. Breitbart, a hard-edged, right-wing news website, is an outlet that Bannon himself boasted was “the platform of the ‘alt-right.’” The term encompasses white nationalists and ethnic separatists such as Richard Spencer, and anti-Islamic activists such as Pamela Geller. Both are among those for whom Breitbart has provided a platform, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Still, the ADL notes that Bannon himself is not known to have ever publicly made any anti-Semitic statements. And the same holds true for Gorka, even as investigative reports by the Forward and other outlets have revealed his ties to numerous anti-Semitic individuals and organizations.
Born to Hungarian émigré parents who had fought communism in their native country, Gorka himself left his native Britain for Hungary after the fall of communism in that country in 1989. There he sought to establish himself as a security expert and a politician on the right. In doing so, Gorka partnered with two prominent former members of Jobbik, an anti-Semitic and racist party on Hungary’s far right, to launch a new political faction known as the New Democratic Coalition.
Gorka also wrote numerous articles for Magyar Demokrata, a newspaper infamous for publishing the work of prominent anti-Semites and racists. Magyar Demokrata was condemned by the U.S. State Department in a 2004 report to Congress for, among other things, denying the Holocaust.
As the head of his party, Gorka supported the establishment of a far-right paramilitary militia known as the Hungarian Guard, which was headed by known anti-Semites. The government later banned the militia for threatening minorities.
Perhaps most damagingly, leaders of the Vitézi Rend, a far-right Hungarian nationalist order, claimed Gorka as a member of their group who had sworn an oath of lifelong loyalty to their organization and its ideals. The Vitézi Rend is included on a U.S. State Department “watch list” as having been “under the direction of the Nazi Government Of Germany” during World War II. Gorka was said to have sworn loyalty to a modern-day offshoot known as the Historical Vitézi Rend.
The White House aide denied any tie to the group in one interview, but said in another that he had “inherited” his status as one of its members via his father, adding, “but I never swore allegiance formally.” While a formal statement he issued through the White House press office in response to the Forward’s report said he strongly opposed anti-Semitism, it contained no denial of the affiliation.
According to the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual, Vitézi Rend members are “presumed to be inadmissible” to the United States. But Gorka has declined to respond to questions from the Forward and other news outlets about whether he disclosed his alleged affiliation with the Vitézi Rend to U.S. officials when he applied for a U.S. visa or for his U.S. citizenship in 2012, as he would have been required to do.
This led three U.S. senators to call on the Justice Department to investigate Gorka, and for 18 Democratic House members to call for his outright dismissal.
Meanwhile, as these reports came to light, Gorka’s claims as a counterterrorism expert were coming under increasing scrutiny. Critics in the field characterized his policy stand, which views Islam itself as predisposed to violence, as ill-informed. And though he claimed to have a doctorate from Corvinus University of Budapest, with a doctoral thesis on terrorism, two of his three dissertation reviewers had only bachelor degrees themselves — a flaw that would disqualify approval of the work in the United States.
“In sum, Gorka’s Ph.D. is about as legitimate as if he had been awarded it by Trump University,” wrote political scientist Andrew Reynolds of the University of North Carolina, who studied his thesis closely.
Any of these factors — or the fact that he was arrested last year at Reagan National Airport for attempting to board a plane with a handgun — may have played a role in what emerged as an increasingly visible problem for Gorka: As he worked to develop his role in White House meetings, the deputy assistant to the president lacked a security clearance.
As a result, one White House source told The Daily Beast, Gorka was excluded from day-to-day policymaking at the National Security Council. As a former Obama administration official in touch with staff still working there added, this “leaves him without much to do all day.”
Still, Trump saw Gorka as one of his most aggressive public surrogates in TV appearances and “really likes him,” another source said. But increasingly, as the personal and professional issues in Gorka’s background came to the fore, the Trump aide was relegated to speaking only to right-wing outlets, where questions about his personal past were rarely raised.
Gorka’s liability as a spokesman before broader audiences came on vivid display last Monday, at a panel on terrorism at Georgetown University. There, a coalition of Jewish and Muslim students plied him repeatedly with queries about his views and his personal background. Gorka attacked his questioners and then abruptly left the stage, though conference organizers said later that he had been scheduled to leave early.
How Gorka’s dismissal will now affect the fortunes of his far-right nationalist faction in the White House and others further to the right who strongly support Bannon and Gorka remains to be seen.
At stake for them, as Gorka noted, is whether they are once again banished to the fringe or remain, whether others like it or not, central to the nation’s policy debates where it matters most.
Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Cohler-Esses is the Forward’s senior investigative writer. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others. Larry Cohler-Esses can be reached at email@example.com.