Goodbye, Dr Gorka: will the White House's wacky rightwing headcount fall further?

Jonathan Freedland
Sebastian Gorka was brought in by Steve Bannon despite his questionable credentials in national security. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The imminent departure from the White House of Sebastian Gorka, the London-born Hungarian nationalist and Fox News “counter-terrorism expert” who surfaced as a presidential adviser, reduces by one the headcount of the wacky right-wing camp of the Trump administration.

It’s a loss that faction can ill afford, given a string of reverses. For this is the group headed by Steve Bannon, the ultra-nationalist chief strategist to the president, who is locked in a power struggle with the Manhattan group, whose most visible figures are Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, reinforced by chief economic adviser and former New York investment banker Gary Cohn.

It was Bannon who brought in Gorka, despite the latter’s questionable credentials in national security. His position became more perilous when The Forward published a series of articles, including video of a 2007 appearance on Hungarian TV, which they said showed Gorka had ties to the antisemitic Hungarian far right. He has also worn a medal awarded to the Hungarian group Vitezi Rend, which has been linked by some to Nazi collaborators. Gorka denies any extremist affiliations.

Bannonites will doubtless try to spin this as something less than a factional defeat. They’ll say it was about his “credibility” which was further compromised once allegations emerged that his “doctorate” – he styled himself “Dr Gorka” – was handed to him by a panel comprising a family friend and two people with no doctoral qualifications of their own.

Indeed, this is the second time the Trump administration has got into PhD trouble. Monica Crowley, appointed as a Trump aide, withdrew after she was accused of plagiarism over her doctorate, a later book and an article for the Wall Street Journal, even though the Trump administration deemed the accusations “politically motivated”. Crowley had been due to work for Michael Flynn, the National Security Adviser who lasted only three weeks before he was forced out, having lied to colleagues, including the vice president, over conversations he’d had with the Russian ambassador to Washington.

Remember, this is an administration that is only 102 days old. (The Obama administration went eight years with no comparable scandal.) But few would bet that Gorka’s departure will be the last.

The big one would be Bannon himself. Recently kicked off the National Security Council, Bannon was described by Trump the other day merely as “a guy who works for me”. The Manhattanites would love to see the back of him, blaming him for the botched travel ban and for much of the administration’s image problem.

Of course, believers in transparency and democratic accountability reckon the people who should be fired are Jared and Ivanka, that their presence as official advisers violates anti-nepotism rules.

But there is a trap here. Observers of authoritarian regimes note that a focus on aides and advisers can give the illusion of internal debate, usefully diverting attention from the real villain: the leader himself. In this case, like so many others, it is surely not the courtiers who should be fired – but the king.

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