Sebastian Gorka and the White House's Questionable Vetting

A report in The Forward links Trump’s terrorism adviser to a Nazi-linked Hungarian fraternal group.

Alex Wong / Getty

Michael Flynn and Sebastian Gorka share a couple of things. Both men are rabidly anti-Islam, and both seem to have been insufficiently vetted by the Trump White House.

Flynn, of course, was the national security adviser pushed out after barely three weeks for lying to the vice president about his contacts with Russia. Last week, after Flynn filed papers acknowledging he had lobbied on behalf of the Turkish government between August 2016 and his appointment to the Trump administration, I wondered how Flynn could possibly have gotten appointed.

Gorka is a top terrorism adviser to Trump; like Flynn, he has a long record of militant attitudes toward Islam, and like Flynn, his foreign ties are now coming under serious scrutiny. The Forward reports Thursday that officers of Vitézi Rend, an anti-Semitic, quasi-Nazi Hungarian nationalist group, say Gorka is a sworn member. Gorka wore a medal typically worn by Vitézi Rend members to a January 20 inauguration ball, but said at the time that it was a gesture honoring his late father. He has also at times referred to himself as Sebastian L. v. Gorka, using a “v.” initial employed by Vitézi Rend members.

There are, of course, reasons to take quasi-Nazi group’s claims about their members with a grain of salt. Asked by The Forward and others about his affiliation with the group, Gorka declined to comment and referred questions to the White House, on what ought not be a particularly tough question. However, he has now told Tablet, “I have never been a member of the Vitez Rend. I have never taken an oath of loyalty to the Vitez Rend.”

The Forward, which had previously reported on connections between Gorka and Hungarian anti-Semites, speculated that Gorka could be jeopardizing his immigration status if he is a member of Vitézi Rend but did not declare it upon entering the country, as required by the State Department, which considers it a Nazi-linked group.

Setting aside the question of immigration status, the story does force the question of how Gorka made it through the vetting process.

One answer is that he had friends in high places. Gorka was previously national-security editor at Breitbart, whose former CEO Steve Bannon is now President Trump’s top strategist. His views on Islam also closely align with those of the president and many of his top aides. They are, however, far outside the mainstream of scholarship of terrorism and Islam, and experts in the field view his qualifications as questionable.

Another answer is that Gorka didn’t entirely make it through the vetting process. The Associated Press reported in February that he did not have appropriate security clearance for his work, and it’s not clear that he has any clearance at all.

Staffing remains a quandary for the Trump administration. First, many of the people who would typically staff a Republican administration have been ruled out. Some have ruled themselves out, saying they won’t work for Trump because of moral or policy differences; the White House has ruled others out on the basis of past statements they have made about Trump. (This includes, reportedly, multiple candidates for top jobs at the State and Defense departments who the respective secretaries have recommended, only to have the White House reject them.)

Second, there are no Trumpist think-tanks, nonprofits, and other organizations that the administration can draw on for staffing, because his brand of Republicanism is so new. Other strains of GOP thought could draw on that informal network—even libertarians, a sometimes marginalized portion of the party, have a set of nongovernmental organizations—but Trump does not.

That leaves the administration with a motley bunch of the people who are left. Some of those are opportunistic hangers-on who might never have made it to the White House before but spot an opening. Within that crew, many still can’t make it. In February, Politico noted that the administration had dismissed six executive-branch hires who failed to pass background checks. Others are true believers in Trumpism who are also flawed, like Flynn; Flynn aide Robin Townley, who was rejected for a National Security Council job because he failed to get security clearance; and now, perhaps, Gorka.

Despite the apparently loose standards of vetting in the White House, a huge number of executive-branch jobs remain unfilled. As they work to fill those jobs, officials in the Office of Presidential Personnel might want to make sure they ask prospective candidates whether they have any ties to Nazi-affiliated groups. You know, just in case.