Before they became a Trump administration power couple, Sebastian and Katharine Gorka were prolific collaborators on research about the Islamic terrorist threat who built a fan base in far-right circles.
Business partners as well as published co-authors, the Gorkas made successful careers out of their shared passion. “Our pillow talk is the Islamic State and Al Qaeda,” Sebastian Gorka, now a senior White House aide, said during a talk in Florida last November.
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At times it can even be difficult to tell which Gorka is doing the talking. Several passages of Sebastian’s 2007 dissertation, on the rise of radical Islam, appeared almost verbatim two years earlier in an article for the conservative journal Human Events. The byline over an online version of the article, “ccornell,” links to an author page for Katharine Cornell — the maiden name of Katharine Gorka.
The dissertation, written for Sebastian’s doctorate in political science from Corvinus University of Budapest, does not credit either a Katharine Cornell or Katharine Gorka in its endnotes.
“We write together all the time,” Gorka said during an hourlong conversation with POLITICO. He brushed off the overlapping passages as “probably something I dictated or that we came up with together.” Much of his writing and that of his wife, he explained, is the result of a “collaborative effort,” even if that’s not clear to readers. “She’s my wife and she’s my closest collaborator,” he said.
In the decade since earning his doctorate, Sebastian has vaulted into the heart of the American national-security apparatus. At the White House, Gorka — who was born in Britain and became a U.S. citizen in 2012 — is a deputy assistant to the president. He reports to strategist Steve Bannon and includes the Strategic Initiatives Group, Bannon’s in-house think tank, in his email signature.
That appointment, which includes a portfolio focusing on terrorism and national security, has befuddled mainstream counterterrorism experts, who recognize Gorka from his Fox News appearances but not as an influential thinker.
“He is hard core,” said retired Army Col. Joseph Collins, a professor at National Defense University who worked with Sebastian Gorka when he taught there. “He came at the issue from the ideological route.”
Joining Sebastian in Trump’s orbit is his wife, Katharine, who served on the Trump transition’s Department of Homeland Security “landing team,” focusing on plans to shift its “Countering Violent Extremism” programs to concentrate on Islamist extremism, according to a former DHS official. Sebastian Gorka declined to comment on his wife’s current role within the department, and calls and emails seeking comment from DHS were not returned.
Trump first summoned Gorka to Trump Tower in the summer of 2015. At the time, Gorka was national-security editor at Breitbart News, the right-wing website Bannon ran before joining Trump’s campaign. Long before most people took Trump’s candidacy seriously, Gorka wrote him a series of position papers.
Gorka’s biography at the Institute of World Politics, a Washington-based program that offers master’s degrees and continuing education programs for military and other government officials, casts him as an “internationally recognized authority on issues of national security, irregular warfare, terrorism and democratization.” Gorka taught there as an adjunct before becoming a professor in 2016.
Several experts interviewed by POLITICO puzzled over the gap between the numerous military academic credentials listed by Gorka — a political science Ph.D. who unfailingly uses the title “Dr.” — and their unfamiliarity with his work and views.
“When I first encountered his name during the transition, I did a triple-take. I’ve been in counterterrorism since 1998, and I thought I knew everyone. But I’d never heard his name and couldn’t recall anything he’d written or said,” said Daniel Benjamin, who served as counterterrorism coordinator under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Retired Col. Peter Mansoor, a former top aide to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq who helped rewrite the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, also said he’s never crossed paths with Gorka. “What I’ve heard has not been complimentary,” added Mansoor, who now teaches at Ohio State University and remains active in military circles.
In a subsequent email to POLITICO, Gorka said the two participated together on a panel discussion. Mansoor responded that he had forgotten about the event but said he remains critical of Gorka’s recent views.
Gorka’s defenders dismiss such criticism. “Seb has never been in the traditional kind of academic world,” said James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “There is a certain demonization that goes on against these guys.”
Trump’s rhetoric and actions since taking office reflect the influence of the Gorkas, who call for a tougher response to Islamist radicalism. In his Florida speech days after Trump won the election, Gorka showed what he acknowledged was a controversial PowerPoint slide featuring a dead ISIS fighter face down in the sand framed by a black background featuring white text that read: “Now we can win.” The Trump administration, Gorka told POLITICO, is committed to “crushing” ISIS “with [its] partners in the region.”
Gorka was one of the few White House staffers consulted ahead of Trump’s controversial Jan. 27 executive order limiting arrivals into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries. He told POLITICO that he believes “it’s absolutely watertight when it comes to the legality and the president’s right to do this.” Although two federal courts have halted the order, Gorka hasn’t changed his opinion. “It’s a fundamentally preventative measure,” he added. “Counterterrorism isn’t about responding afterwards.”
Katharine Gorka wrote in 2013 that the Obama administration “seems to be allowing Islamists to dictate national security policy.” And she criticized President Barack Obama’s DHS for allegedly changing its training protocols to include an “emphasis on Islam as a religion of peace.”
The Gorkas are also strong believers in changing official U.S. government rhetoric to include the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” which Obama, and George W. Bush before him, shunned. “We are prepared to be honest about the threat. We’re not going to white it out, delete it as the Obama administration did,” Sebastian Gorka told NPR last month.
In November, the Council on American-Islamic Relations described the views of both Gorkas as “Islamophobic.”
Gorka disputes that characterization. He claims that half of the students he has instructed, including Jordanian Princess Aisha bin Al Hussein, King Abdullah’s sister, are from predominantly Muslim countries. “I’ve said again and again, the people who are most at peril in this world are our Muslim partners, because ISIS and Al Qaeda are killing them first,” he told POLITICO. “It’s not a war with Islam,” he continued. “It’s a war within Islam.”
Gorka was born in the United Kingdom to Hungarian parents who fled during the country’s failed 1956 anti-Soviet revolution. In the book “Defeating Jihad,” Gorka describes how his father was tortured and imprisoned for two years, searing in his mind what he calls the “evil” of Soviet totalitarianism and turning him, unlike many anti-jihadist hard-liners, against torture, which he calls “fundamentally wrong.”
The Gorkas met in Romania in 1994, when they both attended a symposium for young leaders. At the time, Gorka was working in Budapest, while Katharine was working for a small policy think tank in New York. Katharine, whose father was president of a major Pennsylvania iron works factory, earned her master’s degree from the London School of Economics and in the early 1990s focused on the post-Soviet transition to democracy.
They married in Hungary and remained in Europe. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they turned their attention, like many in the national-security world, to terrorism.
Gorka’s biography at the Institute of World Politics says he spent four years on the faculty of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center in Germany. Gorka said he worked for the program’s founder, retired Marine Corps Col. Andrew Nichols Pratt, who died in 2013. The program’s current director, James Howcroft, also a retired Marine colonel, said Gorka only “periodically delivered lectures or served as a seminar leader.”
The Gorkas returned to the U.S. nine years ago, Gorka said. On several of his personal biography pages, Gorka lists a two-year fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, though he said he left after less than a year to take a position at the Rand Corp., the Washington think tank.
Several military sources noted that Gorka’s teaching affiliations — including the Marine Corps University Foundation as well as the Joint Special Operations University — have been with part-time professional development seminars for midcareer military officers, rather than at premier war colleges such as the Naval Postgraduate School in California and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Carafano, who has known the Gorkas for 15 years, said Gorka is a serious scholar. Carafano said he’s filled in for Sebastian Gorka at the Institute of World Politics. “I struggled to keep up with his curriculum,” said Carafano, who also worked alongside Katharine Gorka on Trump’s transition team for DHS.
Earlier this month, Gorka was cleared of a weapons charge filed after he attempted to board a plane at Reagan National Airport with a gun; Gorka has said he was carrying a gun because he’d received death threats.
During his conversation with POLITICO, Gorka defended himself — unprompted — against recent reports, including one that he overstated his role as an expert witness for the Department of Justice during the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “I’ve got invoices claiming I wrote studies for [DOJ],” he said, but “they just never put me on the stand.”
The Gorkas have been clear about their desire to position themselves and their ideas in the public eye. During his Florida talk last November, for the right-wing Freedom Center, Sebastian Gorka described how his wife encouraged him to market “Defeating Jihad” — a how-to manual for fighting terrorism that fills 244 large-type pages, about a third of which consist of appendixes, recommended reading and an index.
“I’m going to write about what I do for our war fighters, what I teach them in the class, how to understand the enemy, the A-Z of national security and counterterrorism,” Gorka described telling Katharine.
“My wife, she said, ‘Are you crazy? I mean, don’t you want to sell books, or we just want to sell them to wonks?’” Gorka told the audience. “She gave me some very sage advice, and this is to all you budding authors out there: If you want the people to read your book, especially Americans, you must have a good story. You have to connect.”