Translation of interview with Sebestyén Gorka published in the April 6th, 2017 edition of Hungarian print weekly Heti Válasz under the title “Trump’s Hungarian man” (pp. 22-24).
“I am merely an alternative target. President Trump and his staff are being attacked through me,” says Sebestyén Gorka, the counter-terrorism advisor to the American president, who speaks for the first time to the Hungarian press since his nomination.
You have worked as Donald Trump’s advisor at the Office of the President in Washington since January. What topics, areas belong to you?
I help the President and his associates in questions of strategy and national security. Primarily counter-terrorism belongs to me.
Obviously there are many security policy experts in Washington but not everyone joins the President’s staff. How did it come about that you were appointed?
My Hungarian years started under the MDF government [Hungarian Democratic Forum, 1990-94] where I worked in the field of defense. The 2001 New York terror attack was a decisive moment. After the attack they asked me to hold a counter-terrorism course in Germany for members of the American government. Following that, I resolved with my wife to move to the United States. I spent six and a half years as a professor at the Department of Defense. Before the election I was a member of Donald Trump’s “transition” staff tasked with preparing the new presidential administration.
Aside from your main responsibilities, do you allow yourself to deal with Hungarian matters, if not bilateral relations?
To be honest, since moving to the United States and becoming an American citizen, I have not followed Hungarian political developments that much. Nevertheless, I was honored to be invited by Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi to be present at the opening of the embassy’s wonderful new building in Washington. Any additional participation on my part in the Hungarian-American relations does not depend on any personal decision, but rather on the needs of President Trump and the White House.
Have you been in contact with any Hungarian governing party politicians since your appointment?
I had the opportunity to meet foreign minister Péter Szíjjártó at the opening of the embassy. In addition I maintain contact with my old friend, Hungarian EU commissioner Tibor Navracsics, who very kindly congratulated me on my appointment.
If you are not responsible for working on bilateral relations, you certainly have an opinion. How do you think Hungarian-American political relations will change during the period of the current administration, or in the near future?
That depends on the government of Budapest and on the prime minister. President Trump has very clearly defined the basis for his foreign policy: We are putting America and America’s interests first. This marks the end of Barack Obama’s philosophy of “leading from behind”. The United States is once again a leading power. You also witnessed what happened to the Pacific Ocean Partnership trade agreement, you see the war against the Islamic State, and the renewed commitment with NATO, and with our closer allies. We cooperate with everyone, we support every nation that shares our fundamental values and is willing to protect the principles of freedom and democracy.
For the first time since Trump’s swearing in, relations between Budapest and Washington have been adversely affected by the Central European University affair. Is this an exception or a bad omen? Has the Hungarian government gone too far?
I cannot answer this. This area does not belong to me.
Then let’s look at a topic that certainly does. Islamicists have infiltrated not only Western Europe but also the United States. Do you think international terrorism can destabilize western democracies?
Only if we let it. The international Jihadist movement, with which we are at war, presents primarily an ideological threat. Its roots resemble Naziism and Communism in that its basis is totalitarianism. Our enemies today are forces of evil resembling Hitler’s Third Reich or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Every nation on Earth that values individual freedom and democracy needs to come together to defeat the new enemy. Just as this happened with the Nazis, and how the Cold War turned out.
Your book “Defeating the Jihadists: a winnable war” is on the New York Times bestseller list. According to the title Islamicism will fail. What strategy do you recommend and why are you convinced that the war is winnable?
We need to speak honestly about the danger and about the terrorists’ convictions. We are putting people’s lives at risk if we allow political correctness to infect principles of national security. It is of strategic significance that we understand that victory does not depend on how many more terrorists we kill in Iraq, or how many we arrest in America before they commit anything.
In other words, you are saying that victory does not depend on tanks and handguns.
We need to isolate the global Jihadist movement’s ideology and push it outside the law with the help of allied Muslim countries. Just as American President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II did to communism ideology: they undermined the Soviet Union from without and caused its collapse.
Let’s look at Syria. America’s goal is for the situation to be resolved as quickly as possible, and more and more articles address how the Islamic State is not likely to survive the civil war. But what will happen afterwards? What guarantees that new monsters won’t be born in the Middle-East?
The American government has really committed itself to building an international coalition in Syria capable of destroying the Islamic State. In the interest of this the first international conference on this topic was held. Under the eight years of the Obama administration America lost the trust of the Sunni Muslim nations. For this reason we want to rebuild relations so that we can jointly destroy the “caliphate,” and jointly obstruct similar threats from coming about.
Since your appointment the left-wing media has been attacking you by accusing you both of Islamophobia and antisemitism, and even fascism because you wore the Vitézi Rend (Knightly Order) medal you inherited from your father at numerous events. How do you answer these attacks?
Of the changes affecting myself and my family, this smear campaign is perhaps the only disappointment. As my father, Pál Gorka, wrote in his memoirs, as a child he protected his fellow Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War, and after the war the Jewish community regarded our family as one that came to its assistance. Whoever takes the time to read my writings knows that I admire Jewish people and unfailingly support Israel. So the attacks are not about facts. Meanwhile I had to realize that I am merely a “substitute” target. They want to attack President Trump and his staff, especially leading strategist Steve Bannon, through me. The goal of the discrediting campaign is to try and distract our attention from work. And those are attempting to discredit us who do not recognize the legitimacy of the President and his administration which was elected with a mandate. Unfortunately, often those people conspire with those who worked next to Obama in the White House.
So you accept your father’s legacy of deflecting attacks?
My family’s history gives me strength. I can describe the smear campaign with one expression: fake news. My boss also calls it this.
Last year you visited your country as an invited speaker at the Brain Bar Budapest event. Do you plan to visit Hungary this year?
It depends. If the Brain Bar organizer, Gergely Börszörményi-Nagy, who previously worked under me and who has had a noteworthy career since I left Hungary, calls, and the White House agrees, then I will return. If only because it is extremely difficult to find a good Somolói galuska (a kind of Hungarian dessert-tran.) in Washington.
From the cathedral to the White House
Sebestyén Gorka in the Anglo-Saxon world. He was born in 1970 in London. “My father, Pál Gorka, collaborated on the creation of an ‘underground’ anti-communist university organization for which he was arrested in the 1950s and tortured at 60 Andrássy street (current location of the so-called Terror House museum in Budapest-tran.) not long after the Soviet double-agent Kim Philby was exposed,” he tells our paper. The older Gorka was released by the revolutionaries in 1956. After that he escaped to Great Britain with his later wife.
Their son Sebestyén studied philosophy and theology at London University. After the system change he moved to Hungary. He worked for the MDF government and the Strategy and Defense Research Institution before leaving to spend a few years in the USA. After his return, he became even more active in public life, joining the leadership of the Hungarian Political Institution. He served on the parliamentary committee examining the past of (then Prime Minister) Péter Medgessy as the expert delegated by the opposition (i.e. Fidesz-KDNP). He obtained a doctorate at Corvinus University. In 2005 a number of his articles appeared in Heti Válasz on the subject of terrorism.
He turned against Viktor Orbán because of the events of 2006 and started organizing a right-wing party more radical than Fidesz called the New Democratic Coalition. He ran for mayor of Piliscsaba as an independent, coming in second. In 2008 he left Hungary to teach at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and other schools. He obtained his US citizenship in 2012. He became the editor of the Trump-supporting Breitbart news portal. He was sought out in 2015 by Trump’s future campaign manager. He has served as an advisor to the White House since January. His office is in the Presidential Office on the same floor as Vice-President Pence.
In the cross-fire of attacks
The American press has attacked Sebestyén from two directions. A characteristic example of one direction is Barack Obama national security advisor Colin Kohl, who accused Trump’s men of incompetency in Foreign Policy. The other direction is ideological. Gorka has worn his Bocskai medal and the Knightly Order one he inherited from his father during numerous television appearances. Accusations of being a fascist originated from the retired American-Hungarian historian Eva S. Balogh. Numerous newspapers have written that Gorka’s father was invited to join the so-called Nazi collaborationist Knightly Order by the so-called Nazi collaborator Horthy. This is a mistake: Pál Gorka was nine years old at the time the Second World War broke out. The Knightly Order was banned in 1945. Pál Gorka was awarded the order while an emigré. So this is not the title awarded by Horthy, but its surviving remnant that was primarily awarded to anti-communists.
“Obviously, it is not possible to call the entire Knightly Order fascist collaborators. The question is much more complicated. Before the German invasion of March 1944, the organization expressly condemned Naziism and the Arrow Cross movement. But it is not possible to contest that among its members were a number who collaborated with the invaders,” historian Róbert Kerepeszki, who is an expert on the subject, told our newspaper.