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Trump Assistant On President's Foreign Policy


President Trump's administration made a much-noted statement on Israel this week. His spokesman said Israel should stop expanding its settlements in Palestinian areas in the West Bank. Expanding settlements may not be helpful in achieving peace, according to the spokesman. That puts the president on record on one of the most contentious issues in the Middle East where the United States' words can mean a lot. So let's talk about this and more with Dr. Sebastian Gorka, who is a deputy assistant to President Trump, also author of a book on terrorism. He's on the line. Good morning, sir.

SEBASTIAN GORKA: Good morning to you.

INSKEEP: I want to understand this statement. So the president doesn't believe that existing settlements are an impediment to peace and yet new settlements could be harmful. How can both of those things be true?

GORKA: Well because there's a moment in time where you're not building more settlements and you have to deal with the issue. So let's just take a inventory of what's going on in the region, talk to the people involved and try and find the best way to stabilize things for the future. So it's taking a snapshot of the situation and then getting back to business in a far more fair-minded way than we've seen in the last eight years.

INSKEEP: Are you asking Israel then to freeze or pause settlement building?

GORKA: I'm going to leave that up to the president himself. But we have to go back to the basics. We have to get people back to the negotiating table, and we have to really admit that what happened in the last eight years was unsatisfactory and didn't bring resolution for anybody involved.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what's happening now, though, because just since the president's inauguration, Israel has approved the building of thousands more units of settlements. Is that a counterproductive move?

GORKA: It all depends. It all depends how that factors into negotiations with the Palestinians and with the various actors in the region. So I'm not going to qualify the actions of Israel right now when it comes to those settlements. You can read the president's word, and we know this is a very, very thorny issue, one that will have to be discussed. But it's time to take a re-assessed view of the situation, get everybody back to talking and understand that there has to be more collaboration than there's been in the past.

INSKEEP: Sounds like the president is giving some polite advice here but not drawing a red line. I don't hear you saying that something will happen to Israel if they keep building settlements.

GORKA: I think your interpretation is a wise one.

INSKEEP: OK. Can you give me an idea of how you're working to support Israel as all U.S. presidents have done while not alienating Muslim allies?

GORKA: Well, the key to all of this is what does the individual interlocutor wish to achieve? If there's no overlap between the interests of the people you sit down with, then the negotiations really can't be driven anywhere. If some of them - and we saw this with the JCPOA, the Iran deal - if people are negotiating in bad faith, whatever we try to do reasonably will not bring fruition and the wanted stability. So if you have partners who simply say one thing and then the next day do the opposite, that's not good for anybody.

INSKEEP: But I'm trying to - what I'm trying to figure out is how are you supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying things like current settlements at least are not an independent - impediment to peace without alienating majority-Muslim nations that are allies of the United States whose help you want?

GORKA: I think you have to go beyond the settlements. I mean, this is the trouble with prior relationships we've had there. It's not about one issue. It's about a holistic issue. If you obsess about one thing, you're just going to miss the broader picture. We have our strongest ally in Israel, closely followed by Jordan. And the fact is the new president is going to deal with the problems, whether they're settlements or larger issues, completely differently from President Obama. That's all you need to know.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about the president's view of Islam, Mr. Gorka, because we've had so much discussion of that on the program here, and there's been so much discussion in the country. I'm thinking of the national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who gave a speech last year in which he said Islam is a cancer that, quote, "hides behind this notion of being a religion" - sounds like he didn't even think it is a religion. Does President Trump believe that Islam is a religion?

GORKA: The fact is we are concentrating - if you look at his speeches - and it's really important - there's one speech that most people didn't pay adequate attention to and that's the Youngstown speech from the president - also his Gettysburg Address. They tell you everything you need to know. And what is the phrase he uses again and again and again? It's not Islam. It's not a discussion about Islam as a religion or not a religion. It's about radical Islamic terrorism. We are prepared to be honest about the threat. We're not going to white it out, delete it as the Obama administration did. We understand that groups like ISIS have a religious verbiage.

INSKEEP: Does - did...

GORKA: Their justification for violence is always...

INSKEEP: I understand what you - forgive me. I understand what you're saying, but does the president believe Islam is a religion?

GORKA: I think you should ask him that question. I'm not a spokesperson for the president. I'm a deputy assistant to him, but I would say that's really a misreading of everything he's said in the last 18 months, Steven.

INSKEEP: We'll be pleased to ask him when he agrees to our invitation for an interview for sure.

GORKA: Good.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about a related issue here because, of course, you are dealing with the aftermath of temporarily banning travel from seven majority-Muslim nations. And we've heard from counterterrorism specialists on this program, like Hank Crumpton who used to run the Counterterrorism Center at the CIA, who warned that potential and real U.S. allies in the region are not going to be as willing to risk their lives in cooperation with the United States if the U.S. is disrespecting them, which is one way to look at this - look at that order.

GORKA: Well, it's a fallacious one. Hank's been out of office for a long time. I've been speaking to our Muslim allies. I've worked very closely with them for the last 10 years. Even Iraqis were telling me just two days ago how very thankful they are for this order because they know how many bad guys there are and that we have to have...

INSKEEP: Iraqis have been telling you that really?

GORKA: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

INSKEEP: How about the Iraqis who've worked and fought and risked their lives for the United States who were denied entry to the United States initially? Did they tell you that?

GORKA: Them included because they know the system is broken. The fact that sometimes we have interviews that last 60 seconds on the border is absolutely absurd, the idea that you can (ph), through the federal agent, look at somebody's social media postings when you're adjudicating their visa. This is asinine. This is absurd. We have to fix the system and make sure only those people who comport with our values and with our human rights standards here and are not a threat to other Americans come into this nation. It's really quite that simple.

INSKEEP: Dr. Gorka, we just got about 10 seconds left, but could you extend this ban in time or to other countries in coming weeks?

GORKA: The 1950s law puts the prerogative in the hands of the commander in chief as to how immigration is handled and what standards are met. So it is wholly within the purview of the president to lessen the number of nations or increase them as he sees fit.

INSKEEP: Dr. Gorka, thanks very much.

GORKA: Thank you, kind of you.

INSKEEP: Sebastian Gorka, assistant to the president. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.