WASHINGTON/HAGERSTOWN, Md. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday fired chief strategist Stephen Bannon in the latest White House shake-up, removing the far-right architect of his 2016 election victory and a driving force behind his anti-globalisation and pro-nationalist agenda.
Before the latest shakeup, Bannon, known for far-right political views, had fought with more moderate factions inside a White House riven with rivalries and back-stabbing.
White House officials said Trump had directed his recently appointed Chief of Staff John Kelly to crack down on the bickering and factional infighting and that Bannon’s comments this week to the American Prospect liberal magazine in which he talked openly of targeting his adversaries within the administration was the final straw that sealed his fate.
Trump, seven months into his term in office, has become increasingly isolated over his comments following white supremacist violence in the Virginia college town of Charlottesville last Saturday.
As Trump came under fire from prominent fellow Republicans, business leaders and U.S. allies abroad, he faced mounting calls for Bannon’s ouster.
“White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement on Friday. “We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.”
Bannon formerly headed the right-wing Breitbart News website and spearheaded its shift into a forum for the “alt-right,” a loose online confederation of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites.
He became the latest key figure to abruptly depart a White House that has been chaotic from its first days in power and already has lost a chief of staff, a national security advisor, two communications directors and a chief spokesman.
Trump’s presidency also has been dogged by ongoing investigations in Congress and a special counsel named by the Justice Department into potential collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia, something both Trump and Moscow deny.
Critics have accused Bannon of harbouring anti-Semitic and white nationalist sentiments.
A champion of economic nationalism and a political provocateur, Bannon, 63, is a former U.S. Navy officer, Goldman Sachs investment banker and Hollywood movie producer.
Democrats welcomed Bannon’s departure.
“There is one less white supremacist in the White House, but that doesn’t change the man sitting behind the Resolute desk,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Tyler said in a statement, referring to Trump’s Oval Office desk. “Donald Trump has spent decades fuelling hate in communities, including his recent attempts to divide our country and give a voice to white supremacists.”
Bannon felt a close ideological connection to Trump’s populist tendencies and pushed him to extract the United States from the Paris climate accord, tear up international trade agreements and crack down on illegal immigration. Like Trump, he has also expressed deep scepticism concerning ongoing American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bannon had been in a precarious position before but Trump opted to keep him, in part because his chief strategist played a major role in his 2016 election victory and was backed by many of the president’s most loyal rank-and-file supporters.
The decision to fire Bannon could undermine Trump’s support among far-right voters but might ease tensions within the White House and with party leaders. Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress but have been unable to pass major legislative goals including a healthcare legislation overhaul because of fierce intra-party divisions.
Trump fired Bannon from the White House post one year and one day after he hired the firebrand to head his presidential campaign.
Trump ran into trouble in recent days after saying anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville were as responsible for the violence as the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who instigated the protests.
Those remarks sparked rebukes from fellow Republicans, top corporate executives and some close allies even as some supporters, including Vice President Mike Pence, stood by Trump.
LATEST WHITE HOUSE DISARRAY
The first senior White House official to depart was national security adviser Michael Flynn, who Trump fired in February.
On July 28, Trump replaced his beleaguered White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, installing retired General John Kelly in his place in a major shake-up of his top team. Trump then ousted White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci on July 31 over an obscene tirade just 10 days after the president named him to the post. Scaramucci’s hiring had prompted Sean Spicer, a Priebus ally, to abruptly resign as press secretary.
In May, Trump also fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, who later said Trump was trying to undermine the agency’s Russia probe with his dismissal. Some of Trump’s critics have described Comey’s firing as obstruction of justice, an act that could play into any future efforts in the Republican-led Congress to impeach and remove the president from office.
Nancy Pelosi, the top House of Representatives Democrat, called Bannon’s firing “welcome news” but added “The Trump Administration must not only purge itself of the remaining white supremacists on staff, but abandon the bigoted ideology that clearly governs its decisions.”
Republicans were largely quiet on the firing, but moderate Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said on Twitter she was glad Bannon was out but that the administration “must work to build bridges, not destroy them.”
Under pressure from moderate Republicans to fire Bannon, Trump declined to publicly back him on Tuesday, although he left his options open. “We’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon,” he told reporters in New York.
By the time Trump had hired Bannon as campaign manager, the real estate magnate had already vanquished his Republican opponents for the party’s White House nomination but he was instrumental in his election victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in November.
Trump on Tuesday called Bannon “a friend of mine” but downplayed his contribution to his victory.
“Mr. Bannon came on very late. You know that. I went through 17 senators, governors and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that. And I like him. He is a good man. He is not a racist. I can tell you that. He is a good person. He actually gets a very unfair press in that regard,” Trump said.
Bannon’s departure cast a cloud over the future of the group of allies he had brought into the White House, such as Sebastian Gorka, who presents himself on frequent cable TV appearances as a national security expert but is not part of the National Security Council team.
Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, said Bannon’s departure was a sign of Kelly’s strength.
“What it means is there is a strong chief of staff and that’s good,” Bennett said. “It’s not only good. It’s needed.”
A White House official said it was hoped Bannon’s departure would help ease some of the drama that has seized the Trump White House.
A source familiar with the decision, which had been under consideration for a while, said Bannon had been given an opportunity to depart on his own terms. “The president made up his mind on it over the past couple of weeks,” the source said.
Kelly had been evaluating Bannon’s role within the White House. “They gave him an opportunity to step down knowing that he was going to be forced to,” the source said.
Bannon damaged his standing by giving an interview to the liberal American Prospect this week in which he was seen to be undercutting Trump’s position on North Korea. Bannon told associates he thought he was talking to an academic and thought he was off the record.
For Trump, the interview, in which Bannon talked openly about trying to oust opponents in the administration and said his adversaries were “wetting themselves,” was another sign of the type of infighting that the president has sought to restrain and that he had directed Kelly to crack down upon, aides said.
Bannon had told friends he could go back to Breitbart News if he were to leave the White House.
Under Bannon’s leadership, the Breitbart site presented a number of conspiracy theories about former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, as well as Republicans deemed to be lacking in conservative bona fides.
In recent weeks, Breitbart published articles making a case for Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster’s ouster as national security advisor on the basis that he is not a strong ally of Israel and that he has staffed the National Security Council with holdovers from the Obama administration.
Breitbart News senior editor Joel Pollak tweeted a one-word response to Bannon’s firing: “#WAR”
Reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Richard Cowan, Caroline Valetkevitch, Deena Beasley and Gina Cherelus; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry and James Dalgleish