Katie Gorka, a Trump administration political appointee in the Department of Homeland Security, suggested in a July 2017 email that the agency, which had just canceled funding for a group dedicated to deradicalizing white supremacists, redirect its efforts to focus on the real threat: anti-fascists.
Gorka, a senior policy adviser at the DHS, made the suggestion in response to a request from then–Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, who was apparently unhappy about critical media coverage of the agency’s revamped Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program. Kelly wanted staffers to come up with examples of organizations “that counter-hate groups,” an aide wrote in an email, which HuffPost obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Gorka couldn’t think of any specific groups, she wrote in response. But “it would also be important to get the data on the actual threats right now,” she added, “because my understanding is that the far-left groups (Antifa, or anti-fascist) are currently on the rise.”
Her claim, which is not backed by any data, is the most obvious example of a trend that pervades a tranche of DHS emails obtained by HuffPost: Trump administration officials came into office with very specific — and mistaken — ideas about what violent extremism in the U.S. looked like, then went searching for evidence to back up those ideas.
The emails, which date from February to August 2017, show Gorka and other Trump administration officials working diligently to find reasons to strip government funding from two organizations selected as CVE grant recipients under the Obama administration: the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which was planning to use its $393,800 grant to expand mental health and counseling services in Muslim communities, and Life After Hate, which was going to use its $400,000 to help white supremacists leave the movement.
Gorka’s name may sound familiar because she is married to prominent vest wearer Sebastian Gorka, who is definitely not a Nazi. “Our pillow talk is the Islamic State and al-Qaeda,” he once said of their relationship. Although less recognizable than her husband, Katie Gorka has her own history of anti-Muslim fearmongering. As a Breitbart columnist, she warned of Muslim Brotherhood influence in U.S. politics and “sharia finance” in London. She took issue with the idea that Islam is a religion of peace. And she claimed that the Obama administration was “supporting Islamist groups abroad” and “allowing Islamists to dictate national security policy.”
After President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Kelly ordered a full review of the CVE program. At the time, Trump loyalists were pushing for the program to focus exclusively — instead of just primarily — on Muslims. In May, then–acting DHS General Counsel Joseph Maher laid out the legal standards for rescinding grant money.
Kelly “has broad discretion in making award decisions,” Maher explained in an email that was eventually sent to Gorka. If a group challenged the DHS in court, the secretary would have to prove that he was not acting “arbitrarily or capriciously,” the lawyer continued.
So DHS aides got to work finding reasons to justify revoking the grants for MPAC and Life After Hate. “We have enough material on Life After hate [sic] but are coming up short on MPAC,” Gorka wrote in an email to then–DHS official John Barsa, who tweets things like “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” “I thought the Congressional letter might be helpful. Do you have an electronic copy you can send me?” The emails released through FOIA do not indicate which congressional letter she is referring to.
On June 1, Gorka and Barsa received a memo from a redacted sender with “recommended language” to justify revoking funding to the two groups. The memo claimed, without evidence, that “MPAC, and individuals affiliated with the organization, have been publicly accused of sanitizing terrorism, being affiliated with groups that some claim have ties to terrorism, and making anti-Semitic statements.”
“While DHS takes no position on the accuracy or merit of the public accusations against MPAC, the existence of those accusation does make MPAC a controversial applicant,” the memo continued.
The DHS declined to provide HuffPost with examples of the supposed controversy surrounding MPAC. The group’s president, Salam al-Marayati, has testified before Congress, advised the Los Angeles Police Department on its relations with the city’s Muslim community and served on a DHS advisory committee.
The claims in the DHS email are “just cut and paste from the Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes,” he said in an interview, referring to far-right conspiracy theorists who have accused him — and most other Muslims — of being terrorist sympathizers.
The June 1 memo went on to say that DHS would not work with Life After Hate because Christian Picciolini, one of the group’s co-founders, used profanity in a tweet critical of Trump. The memo appears to borrow extensively from Gorka’s research, summarized in a May 26 email to Barsa, Maher and a redacted recipient.
Picciolini, who is no longer affiliated with Life After Hate, declined to comment. He and Life After Hate are currently suing each other, primarily over a trademark dispute.
The DHS unveiled its revised list of grant recipients on June 23, 2017. The agency canceled grants for seven organizations, and five additional groups pulled out of the program voluntarily. The department reallocated much of the money initially intended for community-based nonprofits to law enforcement agencies.
Organizations that lost their funding didn’t receive much of an explanation. For small nonprofits such as Life After Hate, which didn’t have enough money to pay employees full salaries at the time, losing their government grants could have been a major blow to their work. But seven weeks after DHS canceled Life After Hate’s grant, neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, casting a spotlight on the threat of far-right extremism. By the end of 2017, Life After Hate had raised about $1 million, said its executive director, Sammy Rangel.
When the DHS welcomed CVE grants recipients in late July, it mistakenly sent invitations for a webinar to groups whose funding had been revoked. “God I hate this program,” an official whose name was redacted wrote in an email to Gorka and Barsa on a thread about the webinar snafu.
“Don’t despair!” Gorka wrote back. “You can’t believe all the good things that are happening right now! Just think of the Wicked Witch of the East dissolving into a puddle, crying ‘I’m melting! I’m melting!’” she continued. “Trust me, it’s melting!”
The Trump administration is expected to end the CVE grant program, NBC reported last year.
The DHS declined to respond to a detailed list of questions. “The Department is committed to both preventing violent extremists and countering terrorism,” a DHS official who requested anonymity wrote in an email. “Following Secretary Kelly’s review, some previously announced grantees were determined to be more effective through partnership with local law enforcement and/or were capable of securing non-federal funding and thus did not receive additional funds at that time.”
“Regarding Life After Hate, the Department, including Katie Gorka, has a productive relationship with the organization and has recently met and participated in events with its new leadership,” the official added.
The watchdog group Democracy Forward is suing the DHS for failing to comply with a FOIA request related to Gorka’s role at the agency.
It appears that Gorka was unsuccessful in her 2017 bid to get government funding to fight anti-fascists. But she’s not the only one at the DHS who hyped the threat of antifa. Months later, a DHS agent emailed intelligence centers requesting information about an antifa plot to overthrow the government after apparently falling for a satirical antifa supersoldier meme, according to emails obtained through a separate FOIA request by the transparency nonprofit Property of the People.
Although violent attacks by white supremacists are in the rise in the U.S., there is no similar trend with antifa, a loosely organized group of people known for exposing the identities of neo-Nazis, protesting white supremacist rallies and occasionally punching people like white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face.
Read the emails obtained through FOIA here: