For several weeks, the Forward has published a series of articles about Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Trump, chief adviser on counter-terrorism, and member of the administration’s newly formed Strategic Initiatives Group. The articles reported that Gorka had close ties to far-right politicians in Hungary and that the leaders of a group on the U.S. State Department watch list claim him as a sworn member.
Three U.S. senators judged the Forward’s revelations serious enough to have called for an investigation into whether Gorka lied about his ties to that Hungarian group, known as Vitézi Rend (which was allied with the Nazis during World War II), when he applied for U.S. citizenship.
The articles have also unleashed a torrent of criticism from Gorka supporters. On March 21, Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, told Breitbart News that the Forward should apologize for this “disgraceful phony attack” on Gorka, whom Klein lauded as an American patriot and a “great friend of Israel.”
No apology is forthcoming.
Gorka may indeed be a great patriot, though it should be noted that he’s been an American citizen since only 2012. He may be a great friend of Israel or, more precisely, the current Israeli government. He may be a great supporter of Jews everywhere — even if he publicly defended Trump’s omission of Jews from the White House’s official declaration on Holocaust Remembrance Day and called critics of the indefensible move “asinine.” (Klein, by the way, was one of those critics.)
He may be all those things, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the public has the right to ask whether a man with alarming associations, a checkered academic résumé, an extreme — some say radical — ideology, no confirmed security clearance and a questionable immigration status should be in the room when issues of national security are debated and decided.
Remember, in the end, Gorka doesn’t work for Trump, or for his patron, chief strategist Stephen Bannon. He works for me. And for you.
We have a right to ask the administration about the security clearance of one of Trump’s top aides. After all, Gorka has repeatedly defended and elaborated on the president’s foreign policy agenda, scoffing at critics who aren’t “inside the building when those decisions are being taken.”
But it is not clear that he has the necessary approval to be in that room. On March 21, the Forward again asked the White House whether Gorka has high-level security clearance and whether that clearance is necessary for his position in the new Strategic Initiatives Group, which The Daily Beast’s national security reporter, Kimberly Dozier, describes as “an internal White House think tank” created by Bannon and by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The administration’s answer to our question spoke volumes: “No comment.”
The public, and the press, has a right to receive a definitive answer as to whether Gorka joined Vitézi Rend; three separate leaders told the Forward on the record that Gorka swore allegiance to the group. He also signs his name with the Vitézi Rend special “v.,” and he wore the group’s medal to one of Trump’s inaugural balls.
But his answers about his past have been inconsistent and evasive. Gorka told Liel Leibovitz of Tablet magazine: “I have never been a member of the Vitézi Rend. I have never taken an oath of loyalty to the Vitézi Rend. Since childhood, I have occasionally worn my father’s medal and used the ‘v.’ initial to honor his struggle against totalitarianism.”
Gorka has repeated that assertion nowhere else. Not in the official White House statement released after Leibovitz’s interview, in which he said: “I’ve been a committed opponent of anti-Semitism, racism and totalitarianism all my life. Any suggestion otherwise is false and outrageous.” (Note that we didn’t call him a racist or an anti-Semite. And he said nothing about the Vitézi Rend.)
Nor did he repeat it as his story changed again on March 19, when he told The Telegraph: “By the bye (sic) laws I inherited the title of Vitéz through the merits of my father, but I never swore allegiance formally.” That conflicts with what the group’s leaders told the Forward — that even if the oldest son inherits eligibility, he must still take an official oath to become a member and use the “v.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, in an interview yesterday with Breitbart News, the Trump administration’s favorite media outlet, the issue of Gorka’s Hungarian alliances didn’t come up.
This is important because membership in Vitézi Rend is supposed to be disclosed on citizenship applications, given the group’s extremist ideology and controversial past. And if belonging to that group waves gigantic red flags for the ordinary would-be citizen, shouldn’t a high-level White House national security staffer merit more scrutiny?
We also have a right to question Gorka’s credentials. He presents himself as an expert on radical jihadist ideology, but he does not speak Arabic, has spent no time in the Middle East, has never published in peer-reviewed journals, and holds views about Islam that are outside the mainstream of both Democratic and Republican thought.
And that is why the refusal of Klein and others on the Jewish right to insist on answers to these important questions is so disturbing. Gorka’s belief that the West is engaged in a war with global jihadists, and that a virulent ideology sweeping through the Islamic world must be forcefully repulsed, so neatly dovetails with their worldview that they are willing to dismiss all these other reasonable concerns. Concerns that ought to worry us as Jews. Concerns that ought to worry us as Americans.
Some organizations, including the Anne Frank Center For Mutual Respect, have called for Gorka’s resignation from the administration. Others, like the Anti-Defamation League, have called on him to disavow his past ties.
We have a simple request that we repeat again: Answer the questions we have a right to ask.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.