WASHINGTON >> Steve Bannon, the blunt-spoken and divisive strategist who rose from Donald Trump’s conservative campaign to a top White House post, was pushed out by the president today, capping a turbulent seven months marked by the departure of much of Trump’s original senior staff.
The former leader of conservative Breitbart News and a favorite in the farther-right portions of the Republican Party, Bannon has pushed Trump to follow through on some of his most contentious campaign promises including his travel ban for some foreigners and his decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement.
Barely more than a half-year in, Trump now has forced out his hardline national security adviser, his chief of staff, his press secretary (whose last day will be Aug. 31) and two communications directors — in addition to the FBI director he inherited from Barack Obama.
Bannon’s departure is especially significant since he was viewed by many as Trump’s connection to his base of most-committed voters and the protector of the disruptive, conservative agenda that propelled the celebrity businessman to the White House.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow if Steve is gone because you have a Republican West Wing that’s filled with generals and Democrats,” said former campaign strategist Sam Nunberg, shortly before the news of Bannon’s departure broke. “It would feel like the twilight zone.”
From Breitbart, there was a dramatic one-word warning.
“#WAR,” tweeted Joel B. Pollak, a senior editor at large at the news site.
Indeed, Bannon’s nationalistic, outsider conservatism served as a guiding force for Trump’s rise to office. He injected a dark populism into the campaign and sharpened its attacks on Democrat Hillary Clinton, encouraging Trump’s instinct to fight and counter-punch at every turn. When the release of a 2005 tape, in which Trump can be heard boasting about groping women, threatened to capsize the Republican’s campaign, Bannon attempted to turn the tables by gathering a group of women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and trying to ambush the Democratic nominee at a general election debate.
Without him, Trump’s agenda is left in the hands of more moderate advisers, including his son-in-law, his daughter and his economic adviser whom Bannon has slammed as “globalist.”
But Bannon was also accused by many of his critics of leaking to reporters in a bid for self-promotion, and egging on Trump’s most damaging impulses.
Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Bannon and Chief of Staff John Kelly, only recently installed himself, had agreed that Friday would be Bannon’s last day.
“We are grateful for his service and wish him the best,” she said in the only statement from the White House.
A combative and unorthodox Republican, Bannon was a key adviser in Trump’s general election campaign, but he has been a contentious presence in a White House divided by warring staff loyalties. He repeatedly clashed with other top advisers, most notably Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. His puppet-master image also drew the ire of the president, who at times bristled at the perception that Bannon was the mastermind of his winning campaign and the force behind White House policies.
One person close to Bannon said he had offered his resignation to Trump on Aug. 7. It was to go into effect a week later, the one-year anniversary of when he officially joined Trump’s presidential campaign. But the departure was delayed after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, said the person, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
In fact, Bannon has been on shaky ground for weeks, and his job appeared in jeopardy when Kelly announced that he’d be embarking on a personnel review of West Wing staff.
Though Bannon had adopted a lower profile in recent weeks, he again became a flashpoint following criticism from the right of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, which some blamed on him, and Trump’s refusal to blame white nationalists for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Earlier this week, The American Prospect posted an interview in which he contradicted Trump by saying there was no military solution to the threat posed by North Korea and its nuclear ambitions. Just last week, Trump pledged to answer North Korean aggression with “fire and fury.”
Bannon also talked about purging his rivals from the Defense and State departments, as though he were in charge.
In recent remarks, the president has downplayed Bannon’s role in his campaign and passed up an opportunity to express confidence in him publicly.
“He’s a good person. He actually gets very unfair press in that regard,” Trump said earlier this week. “But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon.”
Trump had recently signaled to confidants that he was going to dismiss Bannon but had not settled on a timeframe, according to another person who had discussed the matter with the president but was not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions and insisted on anonymity. Still, Bannon had been telling people as recently as this week that he believed his job was safe and he would leave only if fired.
Several sources said Bannon has been hinting for weeks that he might soon return to the helm of Breitbart News. At one point he was casually discussing the matter as though it was a certainty, according to a Bannon associate who demanded anonymity to share private conversations. Bannon has long wanted to expand his media empire to compete with Fox News.
Another person who interacts with Bannon regularly suggested a different possible landing spot: running a conservative advocacy project set up by Trump donors Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah. A third person, who would also only speak about Bannon’s deliberations on condition of anonymity, said Bannon was likely to do both.
Bannon is likely to use any new footing to take on familiar foes both outside the White House — like recalcitrant Capitol Hill Republicans — and inside the administration, including the “globalist” forces he believes are standing in the way of Trump’s economic nationalism. Though Bannon is telling allies he has no plans to personally target Trump, he also intends to hold the administration accountable if it falters on campaign promises.