The Forward’s editor for special projects.
Is President Donald Trump’s top counterterrorism adviser, Sebastian Gorka, a member of a Hungarian far-right, Nazi-allied group? We speak with reporter Larry Cohler-Esses, who first reported the allegations in The Forward, a leading Jewish American newspaper. The outlet reports members of the Vitézi Rend elite order confirmed Gorka took a lifelong oath of loyalty to the Hungarian far-right group, which is listed by the U.S. State Department as having been “under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany” during World War II. Questions first emerged about Gorka’s ties to the group after the website LobeLog published photographs of Gorka wearing a Vitézi Rend medal on his lapel at a presidential inauguration ball on January 20. Gorka has denied reports of his involvement with the group, but if he is found to have failed to disclose this in his immigration application, it could make him inadmissible to the country under the Immigration and Nationality Act. The revelation comes as Jewish community centers and synagogues around the U.S. reported another wave of bomb threats over the weekend.
AMY GOODMAN: Is President Donald Trump’s top counterterrorism adviser, Sebastian Gorka, a member of a Hungarian far-right, Nazi-allied group? That’s what leaders of the group have told The Forward, a leading Jewish American newspaper. On Thursday, The Forward reported members of the Vitézi Rend elite order confirmed Gorka took a lifelong oath of loyalty to their group, which is listed by the U.S. State Department as having been under the direction of Nazi Germany during World War II. Vitézi Rend was established in 1920 by self-confessed anti-Semite and Hitler collaborator Admiral Miklos Horthy.
Questions first emerged about Gorka’s ties to the group after the website LobeLog published photographs of Gorka wearing a Vitézi Rend medal on his lapel at a presidential inauguration ball January 20th. Like many members of the Vitézi Rend, Gorka has also listed his name with a lower-case "v" in the middle—Sebastian L.v. Gorka—including during his 2011 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. Gorka has denied reports of his involvement with the Nazi-allied group, telling Tablet magazine, quote, "I have never been a member of the Vitez Rend. I have never taken an oath of loyalty to the Vitez Rend. Since childhood, I have occasionally worn my father’s medal and used the 'v.' initial to honor his struggle against totalitarianism," he said.
If Gorka is a member of the group but did not disclose this in his immigration application, it could make him inadmissible to the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act. The Anne Frank Center is calling for Gorka’s resignation and says he represents a broader problem of anti-Semitism within the Trump administration. It released a statement that reads, in part, quote, "How many ducks in the Trump White House must walk, talk and quack Antisemitically before our country wakes up and sees the greater problem? This administration has staff with shockingly Antisemitic pasts, and it is hard to imagine they have nothing to do with the horrifically weak reactions to Antisemitic hate crimes that we see coming from this Administration," the quote read from the Anne Frank Center.
This revelation comes as Jewish community centers and synagogues around the country reported another wave of bomb threats over the weekend. The Jewish Community Center Association of North America says it’s documented 128 incidents at 87 community centers so far this year.
For more, we go to Chicago, where we’re joined by the reporter who broke the story for The Forward, Larry Cohler-Esses, The Forward’s editor for special projects, his report headlined "EXCLUSIVE: Nazi-Allied Group Claims Top Trump Aide Sebastian Gorka as Sworn Member."
Larry, explain what you found.
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: Well, I worked together with my colleague in Budapest, Lili Bayer, and we were going off of some of the work that was done at LobeLog and with others, where people noticed that Sebastian Gorka wore the medal of the Vitézi Rend, and asked him why, and he said, "Well, it’s a way to honor my father, who spent years fighting fascism and spent years fighting communism." His father was born in Hungary. His parents fled Hungary after the 1956 revolution. And Sebastian Gorka, himself, was born in London. He wore these medals. He told the press that it was just about his father. And Lili, my colleague in Budapest, was able to find three senior members of the Vitézi Rend in Budapest who said, "No, he’s actually a member"—excuse me, in Hungary somewhere, not in Budapest—"He’s actually a member." And this began to seem very notable, because I found that the organization, because of its history, was listed by the State Department in its current Foreign Affairs Manual as a group under the direction—historically, during World War II, under the direction of Nazi Germany. Because of this, the Foreign Affairs Manual listed that there was a presumption of inadmissibility to immigrants who are affiliated with this organization.
Now, to be clear, there’s a couple of nuances here, and I should be very clear about this. After World War II, under the terms of the treaty with Hungary and the Allies, the Vitézi Rend was forcibly disbanded. But it reconstituted itself outside of Hungary among exiles who were loyalists to Admiral Horthy, the wartime ruler of Hungary, with the same ideals, with the same leadership and the same ideology. And after the fall of communism in 1989, the Vitézi Rend came back to Hungary and reconstituted itself there. It split into two factions based on personal leadership. And Sebastian Gorka, we were told by the members of the group, is affiliated with the faction called the Historical Vitézi Rend. We looked a lot at what Gorka himself has written. He has often written in publications. He’s written in publications that are notably anti-Semitic. He’s partnered, to start a political party in Hungary, with known anti-Semites from the far-right Jobbik party. But we have not found that he, himself, has ever said or written anything anti-Semitic. But the question is one about his partners and who he works with and whether he actually is a staunch opponent of anti-Semitism, when he works closely with groups like this.
AMY GOODMAN: After the website LobeLog published photographs of Sebastian Gorka wearing the medal of the Nazi collaborators, Gorka responded in a video posted on Breitbart News.
SEBASTIAN GORKA: I’m Sebastian Gorka, and I’d like to tell you a story about my father and my family’s history and why I wore a medal that reminds me of what they suffered under the Nazis and under the communists. In 1979, my father was awarded a decoration for his resistance to dictatorship. And although he passed away 14 years ago, I wear that medal in remembrance of what my family went through and what it represents today to me as an American.
AMY GOODMAN: Larry Cohler-Esses, if you could respond to what he is saying? This was posted at Breitbart News. He used to work for Breitbart under Steve Bannon, top aide to—
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —President Trump.
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: Right. Well, the Vitézi Rend has some pretty firm rules. You do not get to wear the medal and use the "v" initial unless you join. And joining involves taking a lifelong oath, a oath of fealty to the organization and its principles and to Hungarian nationalism, which the organization is steeped in. We spoke with a senior member of the group, who took note of the "v" that he used both on his doctoral dissertation in Hungary and when he testified before Congress. And he said, "Of course. No 'v' without the oath." So, under these terms of the organization, if he was trying to honor his father, he was dishonoring the rules of the organization that his father was honored by. And I cannot read his mind. I was not in Hungary. But we then found three separate sources in the organization who said he did take the oath, he was initiated in the formal initiation ceremony into the organization.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Larry, if Gorka was a part of this organization and he didn’t disclose it when he came to this country—he wasn’t born in the United States—what does that mean?
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: It means that his status as an American citizen and as a legal immigrant could be undermined. I’m not an expert in immigration law, but in our reporting we spoke to Bruce Einhorn, who was an immigration judge for 17 years. He now teaches immigration and nationality law at Pepperdine University. And perhaps most importantly for this unique situation, before that, he was deputy director of the Justice Department’s Office on Special Investigations. This is the—this was the unit in the Justice Department charged with finding and deporting Nazis and members of other extremist groups who got into the United States by lying about or hiding their background. And he told us that someone who is asked, as you are asked in these applications for immigration and citizenship, about the organizations you joined, and you don’t write it down, is vulnerable to a reversal of their legal immigration status or their citizenship status. He told us that there would be defenses for Gorka if he was prosecuted, but as a prosecutor with OSI for that many years, he said, "This is a case that I would take up. It’s a legitimate case. And it would be a challenging one, but it’s a winnable one." So, that is the state of the technical legal arguments involved, but they all spring from the fact that he was obligated, if he was a member, to disclose it at the time of his immigration and citizenship application.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, David Duke has defended Sebastian Gorka on Twitter, writing, quote, "How is Sebastian Gorka a 'Nazi'? The man is not only pro-[Israel], he is also pro-Jewish. Strange time to be alive–(((they’ve))) truly lost it," David Duke wrote.
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: Yes. Well, there is a phenomenon, that we have commented on in The Forward, where you have people who, because of the role Israel plays in the Middle East and because of their bias against Muslims, they like Israel. And yet, domestically, they can be anti-Jewish. It is possible to be anti-Semitic and pro-Israel. It’s a phenomenon that’s emerged. I don’t know if Gorka is that. As I said, we have never found that Gorka wrote anything anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. What we found are these troubling associations. He said in his White House official statement that it was absurd and outrageous for anybody to say that he was anything other than opposed to anti-Semitism. I don’t know how you define opposition to anti-Semitism, but partnering with a group like Vitézi Rend and with former members of the far-right, anti-Semitic Jobbik party would exclude many definitions of being opposed to anti-Semitism.
AMY GOODMAN: Larry Cohler-Esses, I want to thank you for being with us. Larry is The Forward's editor for special projects. We'll link to your piece, "EXCLUSIVE: Nazi-Allied Group Claims Top Trump Aide Sebastian Gorka as Sworn Member."
And that does it for our show. A very happy birthday to Ariel Boone.