I’d like you to listen to a phone call. There’s a ton of background information here, and it’s vastly entertaining and horrifying by turns, like so much of the backstory of anything that happens in Trump’s White House, but for now you need to know just two things:
- Sebastian Gorka, a member of Trump’s security advisory team, is an Islamic terrorism “expert” whose credentials have been extensively and publicly savaged by actual experts like a squeaky toy in a roomful of playful Rottweilers.
- Michael S. Smith II is an actual expert on Islamic terrorism who has advised Congressional counterterrorism groups, gives regular lectures and presentations, and appears frequently on the news. He thinks Gorka amounts to a squeaky toy covered in Rottweiler spit, and has devoted part of his twitter feed to saying so.
On the evening of February 22, 2017, Gorka called Smith to object. Vociferously. When Gorka brought up legal threats, Smith started taping. Gorka is the one with the plummy British accent, and Smith is the American. Have a listen:
A few things to note:
- Interrupting. Gorka refuses to let Smith finish a sentence, over and over, even when he demands that Smith answer him.
- Taking center stage. In a conversation supposedly devoted to getting answers from Smith, Gorka not only steps on Smith’s answers, he draws his own words out and insists that Smith listen to every last clause of his multi-sentence orations before allowing Smith to answer. He’s not actually interested in hearing Smith out. He wants to impress his own arguments on Smith so strongly that Smith stops doing whatever incomprehensible thing he’s doing.
- Controlling the direction of the conversation. Gorka uses every trick in the book to prevent Smith from developing the conversation, including interrupting him with a high-speed, high-pressure invitation to visit Gorka at the White House.
- Repetition. Gorka quickly runs out of things to say, but that doesn’t stop him from talking.
- Ad hominem attacks.
- Goalpost-shifting. First he attacks Smith for Smith’s supposedly lousy presence in the media. Then, when Smith produces his media credentials, Gorka loses all interest.
- Insisting upon meeting face to face. When Smith brings up the obvious–that Gorka is maneuvering him onto his home ground and doesn’t seem remotely interested in a talk between equals–Gorka acts like Smith is being ridiculous, what sane man could think that was a reasonable deduction? Meanwhile, Gorka refuses to talk reasonably on the phone because clearly he and Smith will be so much more reasonable in person.
But what’s really interesting is Gorka’s insistence that Smith has an ulterior motive for “attacking” him. It’s woven throughout the call, but here are a couple of points where it stands out:
Gorka: Look. I wanted to ask you, on the phone, why you’re doing what you’re doing. I didn’t get an answer that seemed to clarify–
Smith: Because you did not allow me to answer.
Gorka: Let me finish. I didn’t get any kind of simple answer or hidden agenda, I, I somehow crossed you in the past or we’d met, therefore I said, ‘Look, before I do anything and show these materials to legal counsel, tell me why you’re doing it.’ Then I thought, okay, well, this is pointless because you’re just repeating the stuff you say on Twitter, so we’re not going to get to any resolution there, so then I thought, wow, let’s talk in person!
Smith: Well, you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t allow me to answer your questions.
Gorka: But I’m not going to listen to you berating my qualifications again, okay? I don’t need that over a phone when you’ve done it daily for the last three weeks. No, that’s not gonna convince me any more of an explanation as to why you’re doing what you’re doing. So don’t waste either of our times just rehashing what you’ve already done on social media. Let’s go to the next plane, which is a person-to-person meeting.
Gorka: I don’t know you from Adam. That’s why your attacks against me are hard to fathom. There are a lot of people you could say you don’t think are qualified, okay? But why you chose me of all people to attack, that’s what I don’t understand.
Smith has done a good job thus far of resisting Gorka’s attempts to command the conversation, but at this point he pulls off a tour de force and manages to engage Gorka in a few minutes of substantive discussion of Gorka’s credentials. Then Gorka withdraws and returns to his broken-record act: This is pointless, let’s meet in person, let’s meet in person. “And you can tell me everything, that is, the real reason, or, or whatever you wish, the, the, the, unbare your soul, and I’ll listen to it.”
It’s the classic plea of, “Why won’t our estranged children tell us why?”, reduced to snowglobe size so it can be studied from all angles.
Smith has explained why he thinks Gorka is unfit for office. Gorka isn’t interested in why Smith thinks Gorka is unfit, only in why Smith has devoted time to saying Gorka is unfit. The obvious response, which Smith states obliquely, is that as an expert in the field, Smith is alarmed at the damage a dangerously ignorant bigot like Gorka can do from his perch in the White House. Gorka responds, “Who made you the arbiter of counterterrorism proficiency and policy in the United States? Can you tell me who did that?”–logic so bad that it has to be a conscious deflection.
So Gorka doesn’t allow Smith to have a rational objection to Gorka’s position in the government. Nor does he want to hear why Smith objects, since he’s followed Smith’s Twitter feed for weeks and hearing more of the same is too painful for him. The only thing he wants to hear is a personal, emotional reason, one that washes away all Smith’s rational objections: Gorka can ignore everything Smith said about his incompetence because Smith didn’t mean it, he was only angry because Gorka didn’t call him back fast enough.
What’s striking is how little insight Gorka has into his own emotional logic. He feels that Smith’s attack is personal, therefore it’s personal. He doesn’t feel that Smith’s criticism is legitimate, therefore it’s illegitimate. And nothing can budge him from it, even 22 minutes of Smith telling him there is no deeper reason. It’s not what Gorka wants to hear. Gorka wants to hear a reason, the real reason. And until Smith tells him that reason, he’s given Gorka no reason at all.