BUDAPEST, Hungary — A group with alleged historical links to Nazi Germany has told NBC News it was “proud” when President Donald Trump’s deputy assistant wore its medal.
Controversy has swirled around Sebastian Gorka, one of Trump’s top counterterrorism advisers, ever since he attended the president’s Jan. 20 Inaugural Ball wearing the honorary medal of Hungarian nationalist organization Vitezi Rend.
NBC News traveled to Hungary to dig deeper into Gorka’s ties with the group, speaking with members of the organization as well as with locals who knew him when he lived there.
“When he appeared on U.S. television … with the medal of the Vitez Order … it made me really proud,” Vitezi Rend spokesman Andras Horvath said in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Vitezi Rend is also known as the Order of Vitez.
Three people, including one of Gorka’s former political allies, said he was a well-known member of Vitezi Rend back in Hungary, a charge he strongly denies.
Gorka’s decision to wear the medal — which he said was awarded to his Hungarian-born father — has provoked outrage among Jewish groups.
While in Budapest, NBC News also spoke with Andras Heisler, the Hungarian vice-president of the New York-based World Jewish Congress, who said that wearing the medal “isn’t a good message for a democratic society.”
Under the Direction of Nazis
Vitezi Rend was founded in 1920 by Hungarian ruler Miklos Horthy to award medals to Hungarian veterans of World War I. But the group’s history became murky after the country allied with Nazi Germany in 1938.
Heisler told NBC News that members of the organization were likely complicit in the murder of some of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews toward the end of World War II.
During the war, the State Department listed Vitezi Rend among a group of “organizations under the direction of the Nazi government of Germany.” And Horthy, its founder, once said that “I have always been an anti-Semite throughout my life,” according to “The Jews of Hungary,” a 1995 book by Hungarian-Jewish historian Raphael Patai.
The Soviet-allied communist government outlawed Vitezi Rend when they took control of the country after the war. But since then, several private organizations have emerged claiming to be the true successors of the group and its ideals.
Horvath, the spokesman interviewed by NBC News, represents the most prominent modern-day faction. He vehemently denied his organization of 5,000 members is anti-Semitic or extremist, although he conceded that his group has no Jewish members.
According to its followers, Vitezi Rend is merely “a politically independent organization with Christian-conservative values that keeps its military traditions,” said Vitez John Molar-Gazso, the captain of another modern-day faction of the group. “It has never been radical or a fascist group. Its members have always defended the nation’s interests and fought for the Hungarian communities,” he said.
Similarly, Gorka has denied he has ever been a sworn-in member of Vitezi Rend — whose name translates to “valiant order.”
In several statements to the media, he has explained that he wore the medal to honor his late father, Paul Gorka, who was awarded it for his fight against communism during Hungary’s period of communist rule. He has given a similar reasoning for occasionally using the initial “v.” in his name — a mark used by Vitezi Rend members to show the order has been bestowed upon them. He said it was in remembrance of his dad.
Last month, three Vitezi Rend officials told American-Jewish newspaper The Forward that Sebastian Gorka was one of their order.
The reports about Gorka prompted the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, an American civil-rights group, to call for Sebastian Gorka’s resignation, or at least an investigation into his alleged links with the far-right.
“How many ducks in the Trump White House must walk, talk and quack Anti-Semitically before our country wakes up and sees the greater problem?” it told NBC News in a statement. “Who among us wears a medal of a Nazi-sympathetic organization to remember loved ones?”
When asked about the allegations in NBC News’ investigation, Sebastian Gorka dismissed them as “fake news” and pointed to a statement he gave to online Jewish magazine Tablet last month.
“I have never been a member of the Vitez Rend. I have never taken an oath of loyalty to the Vitez Rend,” he told the publication. “Since childhood, I have occasionally worn my father’s medal and used the ‘v.’ initial to honor his struggle against totalitarianism.”
He told NBC News he “completely distanced myself” from any white-supremacist or Nazi ideology. He declined to answer specific questions about NBC News’ reporting.
Horvath, the Vitezi Rend spokesman, said Paul Gorka was a senior Vitezi Rend lieutenant for the western Hungarian city of Sopron and its surroundings.
“This is, in the various ranks of the order, an advanced level,” he said, his own Vitezi Rend medal on proud display.
The 69-year-old was speaking on the banks of the Danube river in Hungary’s storied post-Soviet capital, where some buildings still bear bullet-holes from a failed anti-Soviet revolution in 1956.
Paul Gorka “was more than an average Vitezi member … I had good experiences and conversations with [him],” the spokesman said, his grey hair and trimmed moustache matching his relaxed yet matter-of-fact demeanor.
Although Horvath was unable to confirm that Sebastian Gorka was a member himself, he said it was possible. There are many chapters all over the world, he said, any of which could have conducted the inauguration ceremony.
He explained that the first sons of Vitezi Rend members can either choose hereditary membership or to apply in their own names.
“The membership can be inherited by the children and this membership enters into force when they participate in an inauguration ceremony,” said Molár-Gazsó, the captain of the other Vitezi Rend group.
The Road to Piliscsaba
Sebastian Gorka, 47, was born in London in 1970 to Hungarian parents and gained American citizenship in 2012. Before finding his seat in the president’s inner-circle, he spent years in his parents’ former homeland in the 1990s and 2000s.
After interviewing Horvath and Heisler in Budapest, NBC News drove 14 miles north to the small, sleepy town of Piliscsaba, where several prominent locals alleged that Sebastian Gorka was a member of Vitezi Rend.
The future White House aide ran for mayor here in 2006, but was unable to persuade its population of 7,500 that he was the right man for the job. He came third out of three candidates but only lost by a margin of 39 votes.
“Everybody knew that he was member of the Order of Vitez,” according to Csaba Gáspár, who came in second that day but later became mayor between 2010 and 2014.
This was corroborated by one of Sebastian Gorka’s political allies during that campaign.
”I knew that Sebastian Gorka was a member of Vitezi Rend, even then,” said Dr. Gabor Solti, a respected Hungarian geologist who ran for the town council on Sebastian Gorka’s ticket in 2006. Solti, who served as mayor between 2009 and 2010, is not known to be a member of the group.
Although the three people NBC News interviewed in the town said emphatically that Sebastian Gorka made no effort to hide his membership while he campaigned in the town, they did not provide any evidence of their claims.
Picturesque Piliscsaba couldn’t contrast more with Sebastian Gorka’s current environs of Washington, D.C.
A regular line of cars run along the two-lane road that cuts the town in half, but most are just passing through, stopping for little more than a bathroom break.
A large Catholic church next to a cake shop marks the center of the town, which is surrounded by rolling green hills.
Erika Laszlo also knew Sebastian Gorka during his failed mayoral bid. Back then, she was the chairwoman of a local environmentalist group called For Piliscsaba, and as part of the group’s activities she wrote leaflets about the campaign.