The Most Powerful Briton in America on Donald Trump’s White House
Ruth Sherlock, Telegraph, March 31, 2017
Dr Sebastian Gorka waves his blue “all access” pass to bring me into the West Wing of the White House. Climbing a narrow staircase – past a blown-up photograph from Theresa May’s state visit – we are plunged into Trump World. Mike Pence, the vice president, walks by surrounded by vigilant men with earpieces. Staffers bustle down cramped hallways.
In the Roosevelt Room, opposite the Oval Office, Gorka points to where he usually sits – just behind the president’s own chair. Meet America’s most influential Briton. In the space of only a few months, Gorka, the London-born son of Hungarian parents, has gone from relative obscurity as deputy editor of Breitbart, the hard-Right-wing news website, to having the ear of the president of the United States.
His nonchalant display of status and power is interrupted by the thunder of helicopter blades. We walk outside to see Marine One landing in the White House garden, readying to whisk the president away. Gorka can’t hide his excitement. “I am going to stand out here for a bit because I have never seen this,” he says.
Gorka, who stands at 6ft 3in, has an outsize influence on the “special relationship”. When Trump won the US election, Gorka said, Downing Street reached out to him and the White House. He was suspicious at first, fearing that, after all those years of working with Barack Obama, Britain might have a “chip on the shoulder” about the new commander-in-chief. But all they wanted to do, he said, was maintain the special relationship or “even improve it”.
“It was as if I was meeting my long-lost cousins,” he says, adding: “I’m not trying to make nice to 10 Downing Street, because I have no need to do that.” (Speaking of which, I ask if Nigel Farage is more influential in the White House than Downing Street. He pauses. “Look, let’s give Nigel his due. You have to recognise the Brexit phenomenon is a kissing cousin to the Trump phenomenon.”)
Gorka is the deputy assistant to the president. A national-security academic, he has provided the ideological underpinning for some of Trump’s most controversial policies. “Jihad is my bag,” Gorka tells me. Former presidents Barack Obama and George W Bush were careful to define Isil, Al-Qaeda and other extremists as groups that violate the Muslim faith. But Gorka believes they exist because of it.
Extremism, he says, is rooted not in repression, wars or poverty, but in the tenets of the religion itself; in what he calls the “martial parts” of the Koran (which Gorka says he has read in translation).
Last year, Donald Trump took Gorka’s views on the campaign trail, declaring with relish that the country was combatting “radical Islamic terrorism”, even if Obama wouldn’t admit it. In Trump, Gorka said he has found a leader who understands that America is “at war”.
“Look, our struggle, our war – I’m going to use the word war,” the 46-year-old says, “is with what I call the global jihadi movement. It’s rooted in the politicised version of Islam.” Winning takes more than bombing the jihadists from the air: “Killing terrorists is great. If you can’t capture them, you kill them. But at the end of the day you have to stop people wanting to become terrorists.”
Instead, Gorka and Trump say, you launch a Cold War-style campaign to “delegitimise” the enemy. But it is a propaganda war that has human rights groups hyperventilating. Trump has called for surveillance of Muslim communities and mosques in the US, tests to weed out those who believe in Sharia law, even the creation of a “Muslim registry” (and he is still seeking to prohibit immigrants and refugees from six Muslim-majority countries).
“The Muslim registry, no, that’s hyperbole,” Gorka concedes. “With regards to the other approaches: I’m sorry, just because you go into a mosque does not mean you’re safe from the national security practitioners of America.”
One other, more unconventional, tactic, Gorka suggests, is to translate into Arabic The Federalist Papers – historic articles promoting the ratification of the US Constitution. “For the cost of one missile, we could probably translate the papers, put it in a leather-bound book and give every Muslim in the world a copy,” he says.
Gorka’s thinking is shared by few mainstream policy analysts. Two former security advisers to the Obama administration recently wrote in The New Yorker magazine that he had “established a reputation as an ill-informed Islamophobe” and called him a “huckster”.
When I put this to him he replies with a dismissive flick of the wrist. “These professors sitting in their faculty lounges wouldn’t know Fort Bragg from a hole in the ground,” he says, referring to the US military base where he has lectured. His theories, as laid out in his bestselling book Defeating Jihad (he gave Trump one of the first copies), have their roots in the shadow the Iron Curtain cast over his childhood.
His Hungarian father, Paul Gorka, had been part of a group of students in Budapest sending coded messages to London against Hungary’s communist rulers. But he was captured in 1950 (Gorka believes it was British spy Kim Philby who may have betrayed him), and disappeared into the regime’s prisons.
Six years later he escaped and came to Britain with Gorka’s mother, Susan. Gorka grew up in Ealing, west London, and he went to St Benedict’s, a Roman Catholic school run by nuns. Gorka recalls learning during his childhood about the full horror of what happened to his father in those cells.
“He didn’t talk about it, except when stuff would trigger it,” he says. “I would find out, slowly over time, story by story, that he was tortured. Two years in solitary, hung by his wrists, backwards, upside down, wired up to the pipe of a cellar in the secret police headquarters.” One day he found his father laughing as he watched the TV news of the miners’ strike against Margaret Thatcher.
“I asked my dad, ‘What is so funny?’ He said the miners were complaining about having to bring up a ton of coal every day, adding, ‘I was in a prison mine without explosives and machinery, and we had to bring up 10 tons of coal per capita per day.’ All of this together drove me to where I am today,” Gorka tells me.
“Freedom and liberty are as fragile as they are precious. Sooner or later somebody will come along who says, ‘I’m taking freedom away from you’; whether it’s a fascist, whether it’s a Nazi, whether it’s Mosley’s brown shirts or black shirts, whether it’s the Communists, or whether it’s, today, the jihadists. This is in the marrow of my existence.”
Gorka studied philosophy and theology at the University of London. After graduating, he travelled to Budapest (where he acquired his doctorate) and found a job in Hungary’s ministry of defence. Marrying an American – Katharine – he moved to the US for a brief stint at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government, before lecturing on defence at other academic posts. He also became a deputy editor of Breitbart and in 2012 took American citizenship.
Then one day, in the summer of 2015, the phone rang. It was Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s election campaign manager. Soon Gorka found himself on a plane bound for New York, and in the golden elevator to Trump’s palatial apartment at the top of Trump Tower. “We talked about the Middle East, we talked about national-security issues,” he says.
Soon Gorka says he was assisting the real estate mogul in preparing for the presidential debates in the Republican primaries. Later, in the months before the November election, Gorka was appointed to the transition team, the group charged with helping to hire staff and set policies for the new administration. They worked in the same building as Hillary Clinton’s transition offices. “You had to keep your mouth shut in the lift,” Gorka says.
We are now sitting on plush brown leather armchairs in a grand gold-panelled room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Portraits of past presidents line the walls. Finished in 1888, this vast ornate palace used to house the “entire US government”. Today, Gorka claims that the state owns more than one million buildings. It’s a daily reminder of what he sees as chronic bloating of the system, which he says is something that “drives the president nuts”.
I ask about Trump’s routine in the White House. “The president sleeps three to four hours a night,” he tells me, marvelling that he can only hope to have such energy when he reaches 70. Behind closed doors, he says, he is “exactly the same” as the Trump the American public have come to know through his years on reality television. “There’s no artificiality. Donald Trump is Donald Trump.”
Gorka’s office in the Executive Office Building is on the same floor as the vice president’s ceremonial suite. And it’s a short walk along the polished hallway and across a car park past the presidential limousine to the White House – a route he takes so many times per day that he has lost 10lb.
The first trip comes at 7am, when he goes to the office of Steve Bannon, former chairman of Breitbart News and now Trump’s chief presidential strategist (“Every molecule of his body is strategic,” Gorka tells me), where he reads the US newspapers. The one lesson he has learnt from doing this, he says, is that the media reporting is “180 degrees” divorced from the truth of what goes on in this White House.
Gorka’s passionate defence of the administration has been undeterred by suggestions that the Trump campaign may havecolluded with Russia, prompting an FBI investigation that puts the prospect of treason at the White House door. For him, this is all part of the wider fake news plot to destroy Trump. This is an argument I have watched Gorka make several times.
A fierce public defender of his boss, he can often be found verbally mauling opponents live on cable news television. With the booming eloquence of his plummy British accent, he dismisses them as peddlers of “fake news”. It’s a favourite strategy of the president’s, too.
I had thought this was a cynical ploy to deflect criticism, and take the bite out of the controversies that have buffeted Trump’s early presidency. Anything the administration doesn’t like is fake news. But to listen to Gorka speak is to realise this line goes beyond political tricks. This is a White House that truly believes itself the victim of a coordinated conspiracy to “take down a duly elected administration”.
It’s a “blood sport” according to Gorka. “There are people in the former administration… who really do not believe President Trump won the election. Mentally they can’t absorb it. So they do everything to attack us every day.
“I have a shelf of conspiracy theory books at home,” he goes on. “I love them as entertainment, OK? But there are certain things that are demonstrable about the development of Western politics, and American politics in particular, in the last 40 years,” he says, which, he believes, lend his theory credence.
In Gorka’s world view, Democrats, the country’s wealthy elite and many media outlets are working together to destroy Trump. “You just map it,” he tells me. “When they say something, a few hours later the Huffington Post, Politico publish it. This is an orchestrated and a well organised campaign.”
Gorka doesn’t go so far as conservative conspiracy websites who like to scream that Obama is pulling the strings of this grand master plan. “He’s not Blofeld in a cave somewhere,” he says, referring to the James Bond villain, “orchestrating Spectre against the Trump administration.” But these forces, Gorka tells me, have been systematically trying to take down top administration officials.
“One week it’s Kellyanne [Conway],” he says, referring to the counsellor to the president. “Another time it’s Bannon, and this week it’s me in the firing line. First I am an Islamophobe, then I’m an anti-Semite, then I am a fascist. Next I am going to be a Martian, you know, subversive.” Gorka is referring to the allegation that he is a member of the Vitézi Rend, a Hungarian organisation that the US government designated as “under Nazi control” during the Second World War.
The group is for some a symbol of the revolution against the Hungarian and other Soviet regimes. Gorka’s father was given a medal for his battle against communism. I suggest that, given the organisation’s controversial history, Gorka may want to disavow the group. He bristles slightly. He’s genuinely offended by the insinuation that he could be anti-Semitic.
“It’s disgusting. It’s all bogus,” he tells me. “But this is a hatchet job… And I am proud of my father’s legacy. They,” he says, referring to the forces he believes to be conspiring against Trump, are “trying to build parallels” between him and Hungary’s nationalist leader Admiral Miklós Horthy, who established Vitézi Rend.
But it’s more complicated than it seems, in Gorka’s view. “Does anybody know what happened to Horthy’s son? He was kidnapped by the Nazi SS.” But before Horthy turned against Hitler (later in the Second World War, when an Allied victory had become more likely), he collaborated with Germany’s Nazi leader. Horthy’s legacy is still a matter of furious debate among historians.
Gorka’s alleged affiliation to Vitézi Rend would cause palpitations for a press officer in any normal White House administration. But this is not a normal one. Gorka rejects the idea that Trump’s White House is populist. “Populism has come to have negative references,” he says. “This is actually democracy.”
Gorka recalls the first day he walked into the White House. It was the Saturday morning after the inauguration, and “everyone was either still asleep or hungover”, so its usually busy hallways were empty and quiet. Spotting a security guard, Gorka showed his blue pass, asking what areas he could access. “That means you can go anywhere,” he was told.
So he began to stroll. Beneath the colonnades, close to the East Wing, he heard Barron, Trump’s youngest son, running around. “A little girl runs up to me, playing hide and seek. It was the most surreal day. One moment I am Joe Shmoe on the transition team and the next I am bumping into the friends of the president’s son.”
All of this is sweet vindication for Sebastian Gorka. “They love to say a ‘fringe individual’ has entered the White House. Well, hey, guess what?” He sits up higher in his brown leather armchair. “If you’re in the White House, you’re not the fringe.”