By early May 2017, half of Washington D.C. wanted Sebastian Gorka fired.
Notably, no one was sure what exactly Gorka’s role in the White House was. At any rate, a lot of people wanted him to stop doing it, because Gorka had been linked to a Nazi-allied group in Hungary, and he was advising the president of the United States.
“As members of the U.S. Congress who care deeply about fighting anti-Semitism at home and abroad, we urge you to immediately dismiss senior White House counterterrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka,” a group of 55 Congresspeople wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump. “Based on recent revelations about Mr. Gorka’s public support for and membership in several anti-Semitic and racist groups in Hungary, he is clearly unfit to serve in any position of responsibility in your administration.”
Gorka has denied that he is a sworn member of the group, known as Vitézi Rend, but the group itself disputes that denial. Gorka wore a Vitézi Rend medal to Trump’s inaugural ball and his ties to the group reportedly stretch back decades.
Before the report came out, Gorka had been a frequent Trump defender on TV and radio, attacking the media and deftly ducking questions about Trump policies, and the accusations should have ended his career. Instead, in the wake of an increasingly chaotic Russia scandal that is consuming the White House, Gorka is back in the spotlight— and, remarkably, no one asks him about Nazis.
Gorka’s unlikely rise
Trump appointed Gorka a deputy assistant to the president in January. Before joining the Trump team, Gorka worked as national security editor at Breitbart, and last month, The Daily Beast reported that Gorka was working as a consultant for the FBI during the 2016 campaign until he was fired for anti-Muslim rants.
It’s unclear exactly what Gorka now does in the White House. Axios has reported that Gorka has virtually no influence over national security decisions, saying he is “functionally a strategist for [Steve] Bannon,” the current Chief White House Strategist and former executive chair of Breitbart. Gorka was reportedly denied security clearance, and his credentials are highly questionable.
“Several experts interviewed by POLITICO puzzled over the gap between the numerous military academic credentials listed by Gorka — a political science Ph.D. who unfailingly uses the title ‘Dr.’ — and their unfamiliarity with his work and views,” a POLITICO story from February said.
Gorka’s ascent is an example of the Trump White House forgoing traditional communications strategies. Trump’s communication director resigned in March and was not replaced until Friday, and Trump doesn’t seem to trust his actual communications staff to defend him.
Trump’s distrust of his own communications staff elevates characters like Gorka, with questionable skills and backgrounds, to the role of high-level surrogate.
In the early weeks of the Trump administration, Gorka was a frequent defender of the White House on television. He defended the controversial travel ban and sang the praises of the president. Gorka was frequently combative and condescending, and his style drew the ire of viewers, listeners, and the occasional ombudsman.
On March 1, Gorka appeared on PBS NewsHour to discuss the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owen who was killed during a January raid in Yemen.
“Well, my question is, Mr. Gorka, because we just — again, looking at that FOX interview, referring to the generals, the president said, ‘They lost Ryan,’” PBS’s Judy Woodruff said. “Does that mean he doesn’t accept responsibility?”
“Of course it doesn’t. And I find it quite churlish when the media focuses on half a sentence here, half a sentence there,” Gorka snapped back. “Why would you even posit that of the president? It’s really unbecoming.”
Two days later, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler wrote, “Personally, and as a viewer, I found Gorka to be aggressive and condescending, as some viewers also point out, and not to be a good spokesperson for the new administration.”
On the same day, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen addressed letters from listeners about Gorka’s appearances on the station.
“As those who have contacted NPR have pointed out, his interviews have been combative, condescending and seemingly deliberately rude (this listener would agree),” Jensen said. “In his most recent interview, Wednesday, on Morning Edition, he several times chastised the interviewer, Steve Inskeep. The interviews have been unpleasant or at least uncomfortable to listen to, at times, regardless of one’s political views.”
There had been rumors that Gorka was a Nazi sympathizer, but Gorka dismissed them during a softball interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity in February.
“Like Reince, like Bannon, like Jared, like Ivanka, like the president’s children, like Kellyanne, like Steve Miller, you, too, have come under fire,” Hannity said. “I just wanted to give you a chance to respond, because I know you’re being attacked unfairly… Even people suggesting you’re a Nazi sympathizer. What is your reaction?”
“I think we’re doing our job very well, don’t you, Sean? If this is the best they can do,” Gorka said. “I just find it amusing. My father was nine years old when World War II started. He lived through the siege of Budapest. He was put in prison by the communist dictators. And I’m the guy who’s some kind of extremist?”
The Nazi connection
But in mid-March, Forward, a Jewish-American publication, reported that Gorka was indeed some kind of extremist, a sworn member of a Nazi-allied group known as Vitézi Rend. According to the State Department, the group was “under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany” during World War II.
Leaders of Vitézi Rend told Forward of Gorka’s ties, and the revelation created a firestorm of controversy for a White House that had already, on multiple occasions, been accused of harboring and pandering to white supremacists.
Members of Congress called for Gorka to be suspended and investigated, and a number of activist groups quickly called for Trump to fire Gorka. Trump did neither of those things, but then Gorka, who had so often graced cable news and radio, went dark.
Gorka reappeared in early April, when he made an appearance on Fox News to discuss missile strikes in Syria. He was not asked about his ties to Vitézi Rend.
A few days later, he appeared on Hannity’s show, where Hannity treated Gorka with kid gloves. Hannity praised Trump’s decision to to attack Syria saying, “He did draw a line and said, ‘We cannot allow this moral boundary to be crossed.’ To me, that’s the right thing to do. Your answer.”
“You’re absolutely right, Sean,” Gorka said.
The two chatted for several minutes. Hannity did not ask about Vitézi Rend.
“Dr. Gorka, good to see you,” Hannity said. “Thank you.”
The next weekend, Gorka made another appearance on Fox, on Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo. The pair discussed North Korea. Other than occasional appearances on the very friendly network, Gorka kept quiet.
He was thrust back in the news cycle when, on April 30, The Washington Examiner reported that Gorka would accept a position outside the White House. CNN confirmed the report the next day, but later that week Gorka called the reports “very fake news.”
Around the same time, Gorka was spotted at the White House by some reporters, who asked if he was being forced out.
“Do I look like I’m going?” he responded.
As of Monday, Gorka remains in the White House — and he’s seemingly everywhere else again, too.
Don’t call it a comeback
After weeks of relative quiet, a twist in the Russia-Trump collusion controversy thrust Gorka back onto the airwaves.
The New York Times first reported Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer on Saturday, July 8. Trump Jr.’s conduct was difficult to defend, but Gorka, with his proven ability to turn any Trump misstep back on the media, was perfect for the job.
On Monday, Gorka was on Hannity (the pair, unsurprisingly, agreed the story was a hoax).
On Tuesday, Gorka was on MSNBC saying Trump Jr.’s meeting was a “nothing burger.” He was on CNN’s New Day saying getting dirt was “what political campaigns do,” and assuring viewers that Trump “sent a very clear message” to Putin during their meeting at the G-20 summit.
Gorka was back.
“The amount of time you spend in desperation on a topic that has plummeted you to 13th place in viewership ranking across America,” Gorka told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. “More people watch Nick at Night cartoons than CNN today.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Gorka wasn’t just doing Russia anymore. He addressed reports that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed, saying he could not confirm the news.
“We take any report of this nature with a large dose of salt,” Gorka said on Fox. “We will verify it. We will look at the intelligence available … and we will give a statement when we have the requisite facts.”
On Wednesday, Gorka was mocking Anderson Cooper, saying his questions were “laughable.”
“I’m sad to see CNN fall to this,” Gorka said to Cooper. “I know you want salacious, sensationalist coverage for your ratings so your corporate sponsors and owners have more money but that’s not media. That’s not reportage. It’s just fake news.”
Cooper, whose eye rolls have practically become a rallying cry, said he was “just going to ignore the insults.”
A Nexis search of interviews by Gorka shows that, between July 11 and July 18, Gorka did at least 11 interviews on Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and NBC. No one asked him about his association with Vitézi Rend.
Meanwhile, at the White House, Trump had fallen in love with seeing Gorka on his television. Axios reported that, before he left for his trip to Paris, Trump asked his West Wing team, “Did you see Gorka? So great, I mean really, truly great.”
Trump, who loves turning any skeptical question into an attack on the media, reportedly loves that Gorka does the same.
“Trump gets highly agitated when anyone representing him on TV says anything that reeks of ‘weakness,’” Axios reporter Jonathan Swan wrote. “People who’ve spoken to him say he views Kellyanne and Gorka as people willing to go ‘into lions’ dens’ where others are more particular and want to play it safe.”
Last Thursday, Gorka took to the web to sing the praises of the president, writing an op-ed in the Hill headlined “America is back with the first 6 months of Trump.”
“America is back. And under President Trump, so is American leadership,” Gorka wrote. “American influence is a global good and this recognition is a first step toward advancing our leadership, which in turn can help set the conditions for the security and prosperity of the United States and its allies.”
What’s not debatable, though: Gorka is back. And, apparently, under President Trump, there’s just too much other news to take a minute ask Gorka about his ties to Vitézi Rend.