After Charlottesville, Trump still employs an adviser who has described Islam as the key driver of violent extremism.
WASHINGTON ― Sebastian Gorka, a controversial adviser to President Donald Trump who gained notoriety for harshly criticizing Islam and dismissing the threat of white nationalists, addressed students at the Marine Corps University as recently as June 29 — months after the FBI deemed his rhetoric unsuitable for trainings and promised to stop working with him.
Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president who has pushed the idea that Islam is an inherently violent religion that requires its adherents to engage in acts of terrorism, has spoken to Marine Corps University students about “global jihad” on three separate occasions this year, said Capt. Joshua Peña, a spokesman for the university. Gorka was not paid for these appearances because he is now a U.S. government employee, Peña added.
Gorka tweeted another picture of himself in April posing with several dozen Marines after he gave a talk on the Islamic State.
The FBI, which underwent an internal effort to purge Islamophobic training materials, ended its contract with Gorka last year after he told attendees at the bureau’s Joint Terrorism Operations Course that all Muslims adhere to Sharia law. Gorka taught law enforcement officials that all Muslims are either radicalized or on the path to becoming radicalized, the Daily Beast reported. A senior FBI official told colleagues that Gorka would not be invited back, according to documents reviewed by the Daily Beast.
But the Marine Corps University has continued to provide a platform for Gorka to advance his view of Islam to members of the military, who are tasked with fighting several wars in predominantly Muslim countries.
“Dr. Gorka is well-received by our students for his insights into international terrorism,” Peña said. “As an academic institution of higher learning, the ability of faculty, students, and staff within the University to pursue knowledge, speak, write, and explore complex, and often controversial, subjects without interference or fear of reprisal is essential to exposing students to diverse viewpoints.”
As Gorka sees it, radical Muslim terrorists are the primary threat facing the United States. He has repeatedly dismissed the terror threat from white supremacists, despite warnings from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security about them. Last week, days before the Charlottesville attack, he went on Breitbart’s radio show and bashed the media for writing that white supremacists contribute to the country’s terrorism threat (they do).
In addition to his extreme views on Islam, Gorka has attracted scrutiny for his past ties to far-right political groups in Hungary, the country where his parents were born. He co-founded a political party in Hungary in 2007 with politicians who were former members of Jobbik, a party with a reputation as anti-immigration, homophobic and anti-Semitic, the Forward reported. Though Jobbik has tried to cultivate a more mainstream image in recent years, it has run articles on its blog in the past with titles like, “The Roots of Jewish Terrorism” and “Where Were the Jews in 1956?”, referring to Hungary’s uprising against the Soviets. During a televised interview in August 2007, Gorka expressed support for the Magyar Garda, an anti-Semitic Hungarian militia later accused by the European Court of Human Rights of working to create an “‘essentially racist’ legal order,” the Forward found.
When Gorka attended Trump’s inaugural ball in January, he wore a medal signifying membership in the Vitezi Rend, a Hungarian group that collaborated with the Nazis in World War II, LobeLog reported. Members of the Vitezi Rend told the Forward that Gorka is a member of the group, but Gorka says the medal belonged to his father and that he wears it to honor his father’s fight against Communism in Hungary.
Gorka, who did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story, has denied that he is anti-Semitic. People who have known him for years, including his critics, say they cannot recall him saying anything negative about Jewish people.
Before joining the Trump administration, Gorka was a little-known far-right fringe character. His published work appeared mostly on Breitbart News, a website once described by its former executive chairman Steve Bannon — now the president’s chief strategist — as “the platform for the alt-right.” But since joining the administration, Gorka appears several times a week on television as a booster of Trump’s national security agenda, which is predicated on the idea that the U.S. must take drastic steps to secure itself from Muslims who wish to harm America. The main reason people join groups like ISIS and al Qaeda is Islam itself, Gorka argues.
The U.S. national security community has long eschewed the narrative Gorka sells. Counterterrorism researchers have found that ISIS and al Qaeda are able to attract recruits because of a range of complex factors including poverty, corrupt governance, job scarcity and the negative effects of U.S.-led intervention abroad ― not just religion. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, warned in March that demonizing Islam could alienate needed allies in the fight against terrorist groups. Bush, who launched the so-called “war on terror,” repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. was not at war with Islam.
People who have worked with Gorka in the past say they don’t know whether his views hardened over the years or if he has always held extremist positions but kept them quiet. They also question his credentials and say he is prone to overstating his own expertise, pointing to his inability to speak Arabic, the limited time he has spent in the Middle East, his lack of scholarly research, and what they say are overly simplistic assertions about the relationship between Islam and violent extremism.
Born in Britain to Hungarian parents, Gorka holds a Ph.D. in political science from Corvinus University of Budapest. He insists that people refer to him as Dr. Gorka, a habit that has attracted scorn from his colleagues. Georgetown University professor Daniel Nexon, who evaluated Gorka’s dissertation, said the work was sloppy and that it was below the standards applied to Georgetown undergraduates. Corvinus University did not respond to a request for comment.
When Gorka taught at the National Defense University between 2008 and 2014, professors typically used shared syllabuses that emphasized how social, political and economic factors could make people susceptible to extremism. Classes were filled with Muslim international students from Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan.
“If he harbored Islamophobic views, he wouldn’t have been able to do his job ― and yet many of the students appreciated him,” said David Ucko, an associate professor at NDU who overlapped with Gorka at the university for three years. “I don’t know if he was, in a sense, radicalized during those years, or if he kept quiet during his six years at NDU and taught a syllabus that goes against many of the views he espouses.”
But there were hints that Gorka had a dark view of Islam even then. Shortly after Ucko joined NDU, Gorka told him that because Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was a warrior, devout Muslims are more inclined to celebrate violence than Christians. Ucko didn’t agree with his colleague but said he didn’t press the matter because he was new to the university.
Gorka has a mixed reputation among his former colleagues at NDU. There is widespread agreement that he is a smart and talented orator who held students’ attention with his theatrical presentation style. But some of the school’s Muslim students were uncomfortable with his rhetoric around Islam and were annoyed to hear such strong opinions from someone who didn’t speak Arabic and had spent little time in the region, recalled one person who worked with Gorka at NDU and requested anonymity to speak candidly about his former colleague.
“Put him on stage, he’s in his element … He may be frequently wrong, but he’s never in doubt. Seb, he knows what he knows, he’s convinced that what he knows is right, and he’s going to tell you about it. And he’s articulate about it, eloquent and forceful,” Gorka’s former colleague said. “He’s a bit larger than life sort of personality.”
Standing at well over 6 feet tall, with a booming voice and a fondness for red neckties, Gorka has a large physical presence as well. While at NDU, he had a hard time finding a cap large enough to fit his head at graduation ceremonies, the former colleague recalled. “I mean, his head was huge ― it was a standing joke among the faculty about how big his head was.”
Joseph DeSutter, who headed the college at NDU where Gorka taught, says current criticism directed at Gorka is politically motivated. He heard “nothing but positive feedback” from both students and faculty during the three years he overlapped with Gorka, he said. “I think he’s terrific and I’d hire him again in a heartbeat,” said DeSutter, who has retired from NDU.
NDU has no record of complaints about Gorka filed while he worked there, Mark Phillips, an NDU spokesman, wrote in an email.
Gorka left NDU in 2014 and became the chair of military theory at the Marine Corps University Foundation, a private organization that provides funding and support to the Marine Corps University. Thomas Saunders, an investment banker and prominent Republican donor, bankrolled Gorka’s position. Because he was not employed directly by the university, a government-funded institution, Gorka had considerable freedom to express his personal opinions.
Gorka’s lectures at Marine Corps University weren’t “overtly racist,” recalled one professor who overlapped with him at Marine Corps University. “It was more subtle than that. But it was clearly anti-Islam in a broad sense.”
Around the same time he joined Marine Corps University Foundation, Gorka started writing for Breitbart News, appearing on Fox News, and writing a book about the fight against global jihad. His simplistic description of the threat facing Americans was attractive to many of the mid-career Marines he taught, the professor who overlapped with him recalled.
“It’s a combination of his Ph.D., his polished delivery style ― he certainly has a command of factoids about Islamic history,” the professor said. “When the university puts a guy in front of you and says, ‘This is Dr. So-and-so, he’s an expert,’ and his delivery style is so convincing, it certainly comes across as very credible.”
Some Marine Corps University faculty members worried about the way Gorka spoke about Islam, but they figured there were enough other opinions to counterbalance him, and they didn’t want to be accused of violating academic freedom by complaining.
Gorka’s description of the threat of radical Islam caught the attention of the Trump campaign, and he was brought on as a paid adviser in 2015. He left the Marine Corps University Foundation last fall, but has continued to appear as a guest lecturer.
Gorka followed Trump into the White House in January, but has reportedly been unable to get a security clearance. (Ties to groups like the Vitezi Rend and the far-right political organizations Gorka consorted with in Hungary could compromise his ability to get a clearance.) Without a security clearance, Gorka can’t sit in on most high-level national-security related meetings or access classified information. That has left him plenty of time to do television and radio hits, where he praises Trump and bashes perceived adversaries ― including those who are a part of the administration.
When there was talk of kicking Gorka out of the White House in May, Trump and Bannon personally intervened to save Gorka’s job, the Daily Beast reported. Gorka is now one of the last Bannon allies who has survived a purge by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has recently dismissed aides perceived as more loyal to his predecessor Michael Flynn.
People who have watched Gorka move from a professor at a reputable university to a talking head for a White House in disarray can’t say with certainty what is motivating him. But they agree that he seems to have finally found his calling.
“He’s a better fit on Fox News, Breitbart or the Trump administration than at a university,” the former NDU colleague said. “Seb is a very capable, self-promoting person. No one else is going to do that for you. You gotta do that yourself. Arguably, that’s why he’s a deputy assistant to the president and none of his colleagues are.”