Over the past three days, anonymous White House sources have been telling reporters that controversial presidential counterterrorism aide Sebastian Gorka may be on his way out. Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, has been under intense media scrutiny for at least two months, since the Forward first reported in late February that he is a sworn member of the far-right, anti-Semitic group Vitézi Rend in his native Hungary.
Gorka, who claims that the Koran promotes terrorism, is considered by counterterrorism experts to be a fringe figure with a thin resume. His simplistic and discredited views of Islam, along with a series of revelations in the Forward and elsewhere about his ties to Vitézi Rend, a group founded by the Nazi-aligned Hungarian ruler Miklos Horthy, and a racist, anti-Semitic militia in Hungary, have led both Muslim and Jewish groups to call for his dismissal from the White House.
If Gorka is forced to leave, it would be evidence of some semblance of normality in this administration. In any other White House, even a whiff of ties to a neo-Nazi group would have forced someone like Gorka out immediately.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the reports that Gorka may soon be pushed out. Despite the breathless reporting, it seems that Gorka is set to remain in the administration in some capacity. It’s stunning that even with these grave questions about his past, the worst case scenario for Gorka is that he might be moved out of the White House to an agency.
Let’s run through the reasons for skepticism.
First, anonymous White House sources are pushing back on them in Trump-friendly media, maintaining that Gorka’s job is secure. Second, the Gorka spectacle recalls the controversy around top Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who by all appearances remains ensconced in his job, after a weeks-long media obsession over whether he was the loser of an internal White House ideological war between right-wing nationalists and a center-right pro-Wall Street faction.
But the most critical reason for skepticism is the overwhelming evidence that White House leaks should simply be presumed to be not credible. As Politico reported last week in a deeply disturbing examination of Trump’s media wars, Trump aides routinely lie to the press “for sport,” and “will feed [reporters] things that are not true” because it is “like a game to them.”
Since White House leaks can’t be trusted, a better gauge of the White House’s intentions is probably its reaction to the string of embarrassing Gorka revelations. And that reaction has been, essentially, silence.
In a normal White House, the Forward’s February report on Gorka alone would have been sufficient for an immediate dismissal. According to the Forward, the State Department has deemed members of Vitézi Rend as “inadmissible” for immigration purposes. The Forward and other outlets have followed up with additional, detailed reporting on Gorka’s ties to it and other anti-Semitic figures in Hungary.
The revelations about Gorka’s Vitézi Rend membership prompted Congressional Democrats to demand that the Trump administration investigate and release documentation of Gorka’s application for U.S. citizenship, raising questions about whether he omitted his membership in the group from his immigration papers. Although Gorka has denied the Forward’s reporting to a reporter for another Jewish magazine, Tablet, the White House has done nothing to address the mounting questions.
While Gorka regularly warns Fox News audiences of the threat of ISIS, and the administration proceeds apace with its immigration crackdown, the White House hasn’t answered questions about Gorka’s membership in a group with Nazi origins, or about whether he concealed that fact when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. What’s more, it appears that the administration (ironically, given Trump’s obsession with “extreme vetting” of refugees) has retained as a top counterterrorism expert someone who was denied security clearance by the Hungarian government 15 years ago. It still isn’t clear whether Gorka has a security clearance to serve in his counterterrorism post at the White House.
Even without this troubling history, Gorka has a thin counterterrorism resume, and is apparently touchy about it. He was even recorded making an angry phone call to a terrorism expert who had questioned his credentials, threatening him with a lawsuit. Yet he is a frequent guest on Fox News on the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, and even penned an op-ed praising Trump’s “decisive action domestically to limit the mobility of jihadist terrorists” on the same weekend that rumors swirled about his “imminent” departure.
Despite a slew of headlines today that Gorka’s White House departure is “likely”and “imminent,” it’s important to note that those reports claim he’s being banished from the administration. But The Washington Examiner, citing a senior administration official, reports he is being considered for a a federal agency post in which he “will deal with the ‘war of ideas’ involved in countering radical Islamic extremism.”
All this signals that the White House isn’t actually concerned about Gorka’s past, or, for that matter, his credentials, demeanor, or overall suitability for serving in the administration. It’s reasonable to conclude from some of the leaking, at least, that some people in the White House don’t like him and might even want him out. But until he’s completely gone from any administration position, the president of the United States will be employing someone with reported neo-Nazi ties in some capacity without apparently investigating those ties or taking appropriate action.