Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, left a Georgetown International Project on Cyber Engagement panel on “fake news” and propaganda yesterday 20 minutes before it was scheduled to end after heated exchanges with a group of students protesting his invitation.
Gorka was scheduled to depart the panel before 1:30 p.m., according to event organizers who moved the question-and-answer session forward to accommodate audience questions.
Gorka’s invitation to the seventh annual summit on the challenges of cyberspace, held by the Cyber Project, a School of Foreign Service graduate program, came into question by a group of student demonstrators, many of them members of the Jewish and Muslim communities, due to Gorka’s alleged connections to Hungarian neo-Nazi group Vitézi Rend and his positions on the Muslim community and religious profiling.
Students met privately with SFS Senior Associate Dean Anthony Arend (SFS ’80) the previous night to voice their concerns about inviting Gorka to speak at campus, given his views toward Islam and Judaism.
The demonstrators, who were not part of a formal group, gathered in protest outside the Leavey Conference Center event room prior to the 12:30 p.m. panel and stood toward the back of the room during the panel. Some held posters with messages opposing Gorka’s invitation, including “Gorka’s gotta go” and “reject anti-Semitism.”
After tense and raised-voice responses to four of the demonstrators’ questions during a question-and-answer period, Gorka left the panel at 1:27 p.m. before it was scheduled to end at 1:45 p.m. Gorka did not say why he was leaving, but said he would let other panelists answer questions.
“I am going to allow my colleagues to actually get questions about the issues on the table,” Gorka said, just before gathering his things and leaving.
Several media outlets, including Talking Points Memo and The Hill, reported that Gorka left out of exasperation at the protests and questions. A university spokesperson disputed this account, saying organizers told the university that Gorka informed them he would be leaving early prior to the event.
Cyber Project Director Catherine Lotrionte, who organized the event, said Gorka informed her of his early departure prior to the event.
“Mr. Gorka told me prior to the panel that he would have to leave at 1:30 p.m,” Lotrionte wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I informed the moderator of the panel.”
Arend said he was also informed of Gorka’s schedule change 15 minutes before the start of the event.
“I was told about 15 minutes or so before the panel began that Mr. Gorka would have to leave at 1:30.” Arend wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Our moderator was also aware of this early departure, and she began Q&A early in order to make sure there was ample time to be able to ask questions of the entire panel before his departure.”
In an interview with The Hoya, SFS Dean Joel Hellman said he was unaware of any prior plans for Gorka to leave early.
“I have no idea why he personally left. We made it very clear that if he was going to be in the panel, that we insist as we do with all these events, that he take questions from students and that students be given access to the room,” Hellman said. “He didn’t give us any explanation for why he left. I was told by somebody that he had a plane to catch. He didn’t mention that publicly.”
Hellman said he would not have chosen to invite Gorka himself, but that his invitation allowed students to confront him with their views.
“I would not have invited him, because I do not believe he had the expertise that I think was needed for that conference. My own view is that he does have a reputation for bombastic comments and chauvinistic views, in particular with reference to Islam. I think he has a history of troubling statements,” Hellman said. “But I think once he was invited, this was an opportunity for students to tell him exactly how they interpreted his remarks, and they did that.”
Gorka, who was hired to work on foreign policy by Trump in January, was first tied to neo-Nazis by a March report in The Forward, after a photo surfaced of Gorka wearing a medal associated with neo-Nazi connected group Vitézi Rend. Gorka strongly rebuked the protesters’ allegations of his involvement with the group, saying at the event he wore the medal in honor of his parents, who were imprisoned and tortured by the Nazi and communist regimes they resisted.
He said that the medal was awarded to his father by the Order of the Vitéz, a western, anti-communist organization that shared its name with an older organization. He said this story was turned against him due to his connection to the Trump administration and said the protestors were victims of fake news.
“Today, because I work for somebody named Donald J. Trump, that fact is used as part of a fake propaganda campaign that brought those people at the back of the room sadly to a point where they are the victims of fake news,” Gorka said. “Every single person holding a placard to protest my parents and myself, I challenge you now, go away and look at everything that I’ve said and written in the last 46 years of my life and find one sentence that is anti-Semitic or that is anti-Israeli.”
Gorka echoed press criticism by Trump and other administration members, casting himself as a victim of biased reporting. Trump has frequently tweeted criticism of major news media, including The New York Times, and called for tightening libel laws to be able to sue newspapers for false reports.
Andrew Meshnick (COL ’17), a member of the Jewish community on campus and one of the demonstrators, questioned Gorka about false claims by the Trump administration. Gorka refused to answer and challenged the validity of the question. Meshnick said after the panel ended that he was disappointed by Gorka’s unwillingness to engage with the students constructively.
“I was shocked that Mr. Gorka was so combative with his questioners. He was so uncomfortable answering questions and having his views subjected to public scrutiny. He was so uncomfortable that he left halfway through it and the gap in the middle of the stage spoke volumes,” Meshnick said. “He couldn’t even stand up to a bunch of 20-year-olds with signs and facts.”
Director for Jewish Life Rabbi Rachel Gartner praised the students for uniting for a common cause and engaging with the speaker.
“I was impressed with our students’ strength and perseverance and bravery, because it’s hard to do what they did,” Gartner said.
Gartner also commended the SFS for giving the students the opportunity and the encouragement to question Gorka.
“I want to commend them for their responsiveness and their going above and beyond and making it very clear to GUPD and to the students themselves that they wanted them to have the space to ask them any questions. In fact, they encouraged them to do so,” Gartner said.
“I think that’s really important too. It was a beautiful moment to feel like every part of Georgetown — campus ministry and university administration and students — rose to this occasion and came together in a very mature and caring way for each other.”
Aly Panjwani (SFS ’19), a member of the Muslim community on campus and one of the demonstrators, said that the event showcased the strong relationship between Georgetown’s Jewish and Muslim students, who grew closer as a result of the political climate ushered in by Trump’s rhetoric.
“This was a very good example of us really coming together for our collective liberation,” Panjwani said. “The same racist and bigoted ideas that affect the Muslim community also affect the Jewish community, so they go hand-in-hand. It was really powerful to see us come together for the same cause.”
This post has been updated.