Despite lengthy exposes about his past associations with right-wing extremists in Hungary, Sebastian Gorka, President Trump’s increasingly embattled counter-terrorism advisor, is no Nazi, an in-depth new profile of the White House aide concludes.
He is, instead, according to Buzzfeed, an émigré opportunist whose efforts to parlay a skimpy resume and limited expertise into political success came to nothing when he moved from Britain to Budapest—but blossomed in America in Trump’s White House.
Written from Budapest by Buzzfeed staff reporter Mitch Prothero, the article’s dive into Gorka’s life focuses on his time in Hungary—a country he moved to from his native Britain some time in the early 1990’s, after the fall of Communism. The son of a Hungarian anti-Communist, Gorka moved back to the land where his father had suffered imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Communist government in the early 1950’s.
As Gabor Horvath, editor of a newspaper called Népszava, explained it to Buzzfeed, “Anyone coming from the West during this time could get a government job based on this idea that Hungarians who’d grown up in the West were somehow more intelligent and better educated.”
Geza Jeszenszky, a former foreign minister of Hungary and a former ambassador to the United States, thinks it was he who gave Gorka his first job with the Hungarian government. “I had known his father briefly, and if someone finds evidence it was on my recommendation, I wouldn’t dispute it,” he told Buzzfeed. “A young man born in Britain, born to a Hungarian nationalist, who wants to return home and serve Hungary? This all would have sounded very well to me at the time.”
But he added, regretfully, “Some people turned out not to be usable.”
Gorka, who graduated from Heythrop College at the University of London with a degree in philosophy, initially worked in a low-level defense ministry position. But after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon, he rebranded himself as an expert on “Islamic terrorism.”
To support his credentials as a security expert, Gorka boasted at the time of having served in a British military intelligence unit and bragged about being an agent for MI6 — the British Secret Intelligence Service — according to multiple sources Buzzfeed spoke with who knew him at the time.
But this claim ultimately boomeranged against Gorka when he was rejected for a sensitive job requiring security clearance. The intelligence community concluded, according to one Hungarian agent, that he was exaggerating the extent of his ties to the British intelligence services.
“By this point we understood that Gorka and many like him didn’t return to Hungary because of patriotism or skills but rather because they couldn’t be successful in the West, where they were born or raised, and thus wanted to come to Hungary,” the agent told Buzzfeed. “So do we believe that he was an MI6 agent like he claimed? No, he’s not smart enough or well-trained enough.”
Gorka instead turned to electoral politics but was soundly beaten in a local election race to become mayor of a small Hungarian town in 2006.
Then, together with two prominent former members of the extreme right-wing, anti-Semitic party Jobbik, Gorka tlaunched a new political party, known as the New Democratic Coalition. As the party’s head, he publicly supported the formation by Jobbik of a paramilitary militia headed by known anti-Semites. The militia, whose men wore uniforms that reminded many of the garb worn by the dreaded pro-Nazi Arrow Cross militias during World War II, was eventually banned for threatening minorities.
But Horvath, the newspaper editor, told Buzzfeed that it remained too simple to label Gorka a far-right extremist: “Within the context of historical Hungarian fascism, Gorka never appeared to be particularly interested in these [extreme, Nazi-linked] movements, having always been a supporter of the pro-Western Atlantic alliances and an advocate for Hungarian integration into the West,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s fair to characterize him as a Nazi, when he’s more of a self-promoter.”
Gorka’s party failed to take off, and he moved to Washington in 2008, where he worked at several jobs, including as security editor for the far-right news site Breitbart News. When Breitbart’s chief, Steve Bannon, became chief White House strategist after Trump’s election, Gorka was appointed deputy assistant to the president, advising Trump on counter-terorism.
Critics have questioned both his policy stands and his credentials in this field. In response, Gorka, who insists on being called “doctor,” has cited his PhD in security studies from Corvinus University in Budapest. But his 2007 dissertation on terrorism theory has been widely criticized by experts in international terrorism for its vagueness and superficiality. As recently as March, he reportedly had yet to receive a security clearance. The White House did not respond to Buzzfeed’s request for comment on whether Gorka had received his clearance.
“Without that clearance he’s not allowed to sit in the real meetings or review intelligence,” one former Obama defense official said. “I am told he basically sits in the White House canteen drinking coffee between Fox News live hits.”
According to Horvath, “Some Hungarians are asking questions about how someone who failed here could end up in the White House. It doesn’t look good for America.”
Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at email@example.com
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.