Trump Unleashes London Boy to Hit Liberal Media
The Briton who counts most in the eyes of President Donald Trump is not Theresa May, even if she was the first foreign leader he invited to the White House. It is not Nigel Farage, welcome though the former Ukip boss is whenever he passes through Washington or New York.
That accolade goes to Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president, whose booming baritone can often be heard not just in the West Wing, but on TV and radio as he gives no quarter to Trump’s media detractors, denouncing his critics as irredeemably biased purveyors of “fake news”.
A naturalised American, Gorka, 46, was born in west London and maintains his British citizenship as well as that of Hungary, where his father was once imprisoned and tortured by the Communists after a courier smuggling coded reports to the West was betrayed by the MI6 double agent Kim Philby and gave up his name under duress.
Gorka is often the public face of the Trump administration, arguing the president’s case with a bravado that has delighted the commander-in-chief, a connoisseur of cable television who consumes news more voraciously than perhaps any previous president, even as he condemns much of it.
An imposing 6ft 3in hulk of a man with a neatly trimmed beard, Gorka delights in being part of a new breed of “alpha males” who have grasped the reins of government after what he views as the effeteness of the Obama years.
All this has made Gorka increasingly influential in the White House, while painting a large target on his back. He has been assailed from all directions, accused of being everything from an anti-semite with Nazi links to mentally unstable and a fraud who conned his way into the US government by fabricating his academic credentials.
“If you look at what I’ve been hit with over the past week, it’s hard to know where to even begin,” says Gorka as he slumps into a leather armchair.
We are in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, in one of the rooms that make up, he points out approvingly, the Secretary of War suites. On the wall opposite is a portrait of George Washington. A Civil War cannonball rests on the mantelpiece.
“It’s a falsely generated media miasma, which is politically driven,” Gorka laments. “It’s lazy journalism. I’ve never worked at this rarefied strategic level before, and I tell you, the scales have fallen off my eyes.
“I come in every morning and I’m looking for stories of things where I was in the discussion the day before. And the representation in prestigious organs is at least 8 out of 10 times wholly not what actually happened.
“The fake news phenomenon is a problem, but not on the conservative side. It’s a problem in mainstream left-wing media.” This was the message he delivered forcefully to Newsnight’s Evan Davis, who was left spluttering when his thinly disguised contempt for Trump was met with a full Gorka broadside.
The Eisenhower building is about two minutes’ walk from the West Wing — a trip up and down the stone steps Gorka has made so frequently over the past month that he has lost 10lb.
He is a senior member of the new White House strategic initiatives group, a sort of internal think tank that focuses on long-range plans rather than immediate crises. He reports jointly to Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, and Jared Kushner, an adviser and the husband of Trump’s daughter Ivanka. It is this troika that controls the levers of power.
Having cut his teeth in more friendly environments like Fox News, Gorka is now the White House’s man of choice for interviews with liberal outlets. “I’ve been unleashed,” he grins. But his lasting legacy might be altogether more momentous than his media appearances, which have won him the same kind of respect from Secret Service officers in the White House that he enjoyed among the US marine corps officers and special forces troops he used to lecture to.
In his address to both houses of Congress last Tuesday, Trump vowed to protect America from “radical Islamic terrorism”. Gorka had long argued that this umbrella term needed to be applied to US enemies in the Middle East, and that to avoid characterising Isis and al-Qaeda, as well as Shi’ite groups such as Hezbollah, as Islamic was folly. He consulted closely with Bannon before the president’s speech and advised on the “threat language” Trump should use.
“We’re here to win this war,” Gorka says. “Isis can be crushed. I reject this meme that has been propagated for years now, that this is a generational war. We can not only destroy Isis; we can destroy the entire brand of jihad. Churchill was right — you never go to war unless you define your victory.
"For me, the victory conditions are very simple. The black flag of Jihad has be as repugnant as the swastika of the Nazis, as the white-peaked hood of the Ku Klux Klan, as Mosley’s blackshirts."
He adds: “When the enemy says, ‘I am a jihadi’, we don’t say, ‘No, you’re not a jihadi; you’re an unemployed guy who has grievances.’ You can’t win any war, whether it’s against the Nazis, whether it’s against the Soviets, whether it’s against jihadists, unless you are able to talk truthfully about who the enemy is.”
Gorka grew up in Ealing in west London and went to St Benedict’s, an independent Roman Catholic school, where he enjoyed cricket and played No 8 on the rugby team. But the backdrop of the Cold War made his an unusual childhood. His father, Paul, had been arrested in Hungary in 1950 after his activities as a student spy were exposed.
One of Gorka’s early memories is of being on a beach in France and asking his father what the marks on his wrist were. “He’d been in the basement of the secret police headquarters and had his hands tied behind his back with wire. He’d then been hung by his wrists from the ceiling of the torture chamber.”
Paul Gorka, an architect by profession, had been subjected to manual labour for two years before being put to work as a prisoner-draftsman. He was freed during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, meeting his future wife and Gorka's mother - the daughter of a fellow prisoner - as they fled to Britain.
“With the price he paid because of the treachery of Kim Philby, it was inculcated in me at the earliest age I could understand these concepts that liberty and freedom are as fragile as they are precious,” Gorka says.
He took a degree in philosophy and theology from Heythrop College, run by the Jesuits as part of the University of London, graduating in 1991.
The Gorka family had been allowed to visit Hungary, being granted citizenship in 1988 as the Soviet empire was in terminal decline. His parents, who had thought they would live out their lives in exile, moved back and eventually died there.
Gorka spent three years - the Ministry of Defence confirmed that he served from March 1990 to November 1993 - as a part-time enlisted soldier with the Territorial Army. Part of 22 Intelligence Company, he used his language skills (he speaks fluent Hungarian as well as French and German) collecting information for the war crimes tribunal set up after the collapse of Yugoslavia.
He volunteered for duty during the Gulf war but did not deploy to the Middle East. He trained as an interrogator, honing his skills on soldiers undergoing a mock capture during the SAS selection test.
But Gorka’s long journey to the White House began in earnest in late 1993, when he packed up his old Range Rover and drove from London to Budapest to take up a post in Hungary’s ministry of defence. Hungary gave Gorka the opportunity to become immersed in politics and world affairs at the practical level. “It was incredibly exciting to be a little cog in the wheel in the renewal of democracy and self-determination in the land of my parents,” he recalls.
At the same time, he studied for a masters in international relations and then a PhD in terrorism after the end of the Cold War. He married an American, the former Katherine Cornell, and secured a fellowship at Harvard's Kennedy school of government.
Before completing his two-year degree at Harvard - he still hopes to return one day - he was offered a position at the RAND think tank.
This led to a series of defence -related academic posts before he bloomed as a fiercely conservative cable news commentators who celebrated the American
war fighter rather than the Foggy Bottom diplomat.
But Gorka didn't move permanently to the US until 2008 and became a citizen four years later. His rise to the pinnacle of American policymaking has been meteoric.
Gorka's determination to define America's principal enemies as Islamic radicals has led to him being called anti-Muslim, a charge he rejects as fatuous because at the core of his lectures and his book Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War has been the point that most of the jihadists' victims have been Muslims.
More wounding has been the left-wing smear that his father was somehow linked to the Nazis."My father was nine years old when World War Two broke out but somehow I come from a great Nazi family?
"The idea that the son of a guy who lived through the dictatorship of the fascists as a child and then was interrogated and tortured by people who had in many cases simply taken off the Hungarian Fascist party uniform and put on a Communist party secret police uniform - that he’s a fascist and I’m a fascist because he was persecuted by the totalitarians? You can’t even have a reasonable conversation."
Gorka has been on board with Trump since the summer of 2015, when most Republicans had written him off and Democrats scoffed at the prospect of his ever being president. Then, Gorka was regarded as a fringe figure - "nuts" as a former CIA officer was quoted as describing him in the Washington Post.
The fact that Gorka is now in the kind of job that many of his detractors considered to be the preserve of their ilk accounts in large part for the backlash against him. His wife Katherine, who also advised the Trump campaign, is now a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security.
Gorka believes that Trump will be a transformative president in the mould of Ronald Reagan. "There’s a magnetic quality to the man," he says. "What you see close up, is the man. There’s nothing artificial. I can tell you that because I’ve seen him in private when he doesn’t have to do things for the camera."
He recounts an anecdote about how Trump welcomed a course of Green Berets officers into the Oval Office and jettisoned his schedule to swap banter with them and pose for photographs with each one individually in the Oval Office.
It was the kind of rapport with the military that Trump showed in last week's congressional address when he saluted the widow of a US Navy Seal killed in Yemen - a moment that even his detractors conceded was electric.
Gorka still pinches himself that a west London boy could end up in the White House, where he has often found himself being the link man with Downing Street. He chuckles as he recalls that a friend once told him: “Seb, you’ve got to understand, you were always an American — you were just born in the wrong place.”
His presence at Trump's side, he ponders, says a lot about his adopted country. "The American dream is alive and well," he says. "It's truly based on meritocracy. If you know what you’re talking about, if you apply yourself, not only do you become a citizen but you can be a successful one."
He admits he has been taken aback by the “vituperation and the depths of the falsehoods” levelled against him. “It’s been tough on my family, tough on my children,” he says. “But I decided early on that it was utterly irrelevant, because I think of my father. I’m not hanging from the ceiling of a damp cellar in central Europe being physically tortured by my enemies. There are people using words against me.”