by Eli Clifton
Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, might be on his way out of the White House. Following LobeLog’s February article on the White House staffer wearing a medallion from a Hungarian nationalist organization with a history of anti-Semitism and collaborating with the Nazis during World War II, a steady drumbeat of investigative reporting, particularly in-depth reports from The Forward’s Lili Bayer, established Gorka’s ties to the organization and to anti-Semitic politicians and organizations within Hungary.
If he is being pushed out, Gorka’s departure from the White House may be the result of months of negative media scrutiny about his controversial ties to the Hungarian far right and questions about the truthfulness of his military service claims. Startlingly absent from this process, however, has been a rush to Gorka’s defense by his hard-right allies in Washington thinktanks. After all, right-wing and neoconservative institutions inside the Beltway—specifically the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the Heritage Foundation—helped clear Gorka’s path to the Trump administration.
Indeed, his career has been a textbook example of an opportunistic individual navigating the Beltway establishment with remarkable ease. Yet, those institutions have been largely silent as their former colleague faces his fourth month of media scrutiny of his credentials and political affiliations in Hungary.
Step Down or Step Aside?
The Daily Beast first reported on Friday that “The Trump administration is actively exploring options to remove controversial national security aide Sebastian Gorka from the White House and place him at another federal agency.” According to The Washington Examiner, Gorka had been unable to get the security clearance required for performing his job as a national security adviser. “[A White House] source,” The Examiner noted, “said Gorka’s only known duties included speaking on television about counterterrorism, as well as ‘giving White House tours and peeling out in his Mustang,’ but added that he had few notable responsibilities.”
But Gorka seems to have clung on his to White House perch, for now, and, according to a now deleted Tweet by Jake Turx of the Haredi publication Ami Magazine, “[Gorka says] he personally met with @POTUS on Monday and got assurances that he’s not being asked to step down.”
Gorka’s background received plenty of attention over the past three months. His gun charge last year for bringing a handgun through security at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, his questionable academic credentials, and his ties to Vitezi Rend, a group whose members can be banned from entry into the U.S. if they participated in the group’s activities during World War II, have all added to the storm of controversy around one of the White House’s most reliably outspoken defenders.
Before these storm clouds appeared on the horizon, his path over the past decade was marked by the reliable resume-building exercise of publishing a book, speaking at mainstream think tanks, and accepting a fellowship at one of Washington’s neoconservative think tanks, FDD.
Gorka’s institutional ties to FDD began shortly after receiving his PhD from Corvinus University of Budapest in 2008. In 2009, according to Gorka’s LinkedIn profile, he joined FDD. An archived version of FDD’s website from 2011 lists him as the “Military Affairs Fellow and Director, FDD’s National Security Fellows Program.” The last archived version of FDD’s list of articles published by Gorka, shows 13 articles authored by him during his five-year affiliation with the organization.
FDD’s leadership and staff were almost entirely absent from what appeared to be an all-hands-on-deck effort to defend Gorka in right-wing publications like Breitbart, PJ Media, and RedState over the past three months. Gorka’s LinkedIn profile shows him leaving FDD in June 2014, shortly after becoming national security and foreign affairs editor at Breitbart that April. But joining the alt-right publication didn’t mark Gorka’s departure from the Beltway culture that the Trump administration belittles as “the swamp.”
Between July 2015 and June 2016, Gorka spoke at least three times at the right-wing Heritage Foundation and held a position as “Vice President of National Security Support & Professor of Strategy and Irregular Warfare” at the Institute for World Politics (IWP) from August 2016 to January 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Some of Gorka’s access to Beltway institutions seems to have occurred alongside the philanthropy of Thomas A. Saunders III, a relative of Gorka’s wife, Katharine Cornell Gorka.
In March, The Forward’s Lili Bayer wrote:
In the mid-2000s, Sebastian and Katharine Gorka were living in Budapest, running a small think tank that listed only the two Gorkas as employees. Sebastian Gorka was a student at the time, working on his doctorate. And yet, in 2005, the same year Saunders became a trustee of the Heritage Foundation’s board, the Gorkas’ small think tank—which has almost no record of any significant activity or research—co-sponsored an event with the Heritage Foundation, one of Washington’s most influential conservative institutions.
Similarly, as The Washington Post noted, in 2014 Gorka took a job at the Marine Corps University, but he was not a government employee—his chair was funded by Saunders. Saunders, however, denied exerting any influence over the school’s selection of Gorka for its two-year position.
Saunders donated $100,000 to a pro-Ted Cruz PAC, coinciding with Katharine Gorka’s work as a foreign policy adviser for the presidential candidate. Sebastian Gorka publicly criticized Trump as “full of bluster” in April 2016, even after doing consulting work for Trump in 2015. But the Gorkas’ alliances shifted over the course of the summer, and FEC disclosures show that in August Saunders contributed $50,000 to the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee’s joint fundraising committee, Trump Make America Great Again Committee.
Katharine Gorka served on Trump’s Department of Homeland Security “landing team” and Sebastian was appointed deputy assistant to the president.
Indeed, none of Gorka’s ties to anti-Semitic factions of the Hungarian far right was reported or investigated during his tenure at FDD, Breitbart, IWP, or his appearances at Heritage. But his rise as a counter-terrorism expert, credentials that peers have challenged since he joined the administration, were burnished with the help of some of the Beltways well known institutions and think tanks, frequently in parallel with Saunders’ philanthropy and influence.