President Trump on Friday dismissed his embattled chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, an architect of his 2016 general election victory, in a major White House shake-up that follows a week of racial unrest, according to multiple administration officials.
Trump had been under mounting pressure to dispense with Bannon, who many officials view as a political Svengali but who has drawn scorn as a leading internal force encouraging and amplifying the president’s most controversial nationalist impulses.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a Friday afternoon statement to reporters: “White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day. We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.”
Some White House officials also said Friday they expect some of Bannon’s allies inside the administration to exit with him. Bannon works closely with a number of White House officials, including national security aide Sebastian Gorka and assistant Julia Hahn.
Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News — a fiery, hard-right news site that has gone to war with the Republican establishment — had been expecting to be cut loose from the White House, people close to him said. One of them explained that Bannon was resigned to that fate and is determined to continue to advocate for Trump’s agenda on the outside.
“No matter what happens, Steve is a honey badger,” said this person, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “Steve’s in a good place. He doesn’t care. He’s going to support the president and push the agenda, whether he’s on the inside or the outside.”
Bannon has told associates in recent days that if he were to leave the White House, the conservative populist movement that lifted Trump in last year’s campaign would be at risk. One person close to him said the coalition would amount to “Democrats, bankers, and hawks.” Bannon also has predicted that Trump would eventually turn back to him and others who share the president’s nationalist instincts, especially on trade.
John F. Kelly, the retired four-star Marine Corps general brought in late last month as White House chief of staff, has been contemplating dramatic changes to West Wing staffing that included firing Bannon, a right-wing populist who helped guide the president to victory in the final months of last year’s campaign.
The decision to fire Bannon was made by Kelly, officials said. It came after almost exactly three weeks on the job as chief of staff, a position in which he was given unilateral power to overhaul the West Wing staff in an effort to staunch warring factions, aides and advisers going rogue, and repeated leaks to the news media.
“This was without question one man’s decision: Kelly. One hundred percent,” one senior White House official said. “It’s been building for a while.”
This past week, as mainstream Republicans lambasted Trump for his handling of last week’s deadly white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., many on the White House staff led a drum beat for the president to dismiss Bannon and any other aides who have connections of any kind to the white nationalist movement, this official said.
“The fevered pitch was basically outrage from dozens on the staff that anybody who’s ever had a part of that has to be purged immediately,” this official said.
Kelly has no personal animus toward Bannon, said people familiar with his thinking, but was especially frustrated with Bannon’s tendency to try to influence policy and personal matters not in his portfolio, as well as a negative media campaign he and his allies waged against national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
The president, meanwhile, had been upset about Bannon’s participation in a book by a Bloomberg News reporter Joshua Green, “Devil’s Bargain” — particularly the shared photo billing on the cover between Trump and his chief strategist.
This week, at a moment when even his allies and confidants agreed his job security was as precarious as it has ever been, Bannon further imperiled his own standing by giving an interview to the liberal American Prospect magazine, in which he sniped by name at his enemies within the White House including Gary Cohn, the National Economic Council director, and publicly contradicted the administration’s stance on North Korea.
Bannon confidants said he believed his conversation with the magazine was off the record, but the damage was done. Kelly, said two people familiar with his thinking, was most frustrated by his comments on North Korea, explaining that, as a general, he understands the human toll and the prospect of war with a hostile nation is not merely an intellectual exercise for him.
As Bannon waited to hear his fate in recent days, he was keeping in close touch with billionaire ally Robert Mercer and other longtime friends and benefactors in conservative politics and the right-wing media community, expressing a desire to stay in the White House while also musing about what his future could be outside of the federal government.
Associates said Bannon may partner on a new venture with the Mercer family, conservative mega-donors who served as his patrons in an array of enterprises before he joined the Trump campaign. One strong possibility: a new media entity.
“They have a very strong working relationship together and I would be shocked if we don’t hear of a major initiative involving Steve and the Mercers in the next 30 and 60 days,” said a person familiar with the family’s views, who requested anonymity to describe the thinking of the Mercers. “They don’t walk in lockstep in terms of their views, but they like the fact that Steve gets results and they think money put into ventures he’s involved in is money well spent.”
Hedge fund executive Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah collaborated with Bannon on at least five ventures between 2011 and 2016, including Breitbart, which Bannon ran. He also served as vice president and secretary of the Mercer-funded Cambridge Analytica, a data science company that worked for Trump’s campaign.
Bannon earned at least $917,000 in 2016, drawing at least $545,000 of that from four Mercer-backed ventures, according to a personal financial disclosure he filed in late March. At the time, he estimated that his assets were worth between $11.8 million and $53.8 million. Among his holdings: three rental properties and a strategic consulting firm he said was worth between $5 million and $25 million. The filing also showed that Bannon had significant cash reserves, reporting at least $1.1 million in three different U.S. bank accounts.
Much of Bannon’s time in recent days was spent in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, as the West Wing is under renovation, where he has a spacious corner office on the first floor that is piled with books he is reading and files on trade policy and immigration policy.
Bannon closely monitored media coverage of both him and Trump on television, thumbing his phone associates text or email him new articles. Whenever he read articles about rivals such as Cohn reportedly being critical of the president’s conduct, he fumed that they were undermining him as he was trying to enact what Trump promised his base voters.
Bannon has told people that he called The American Prospect simply to talk China policy, an example of how he has often acted as an in-house professor of sorts for Trumpism inside the White House. But when coverage of the candid interview exploded, he began to say that it was partly strategic, and most people close to him aren’t exactly sure what to believe about why and how that phone call unfolded.
Inside Trump’s circle, there have been two camps: those who argued he should fight to stay and be a political warrior for Trump’s nationalist instincts and those who believe his battles with the “globalists,” as he calls the more moderate wing of the White House, had reached their nadir. Bannon seemed to veer between those two sides in conversations with friends and allies,
As Bannon has come under scrutiny, so have his allies inside. Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller has a large footprint already and is seen as safe, but Bannon’s close allies Gorka and Hahn — both of whom worked at Breitbart — are seen as more vulnerable to changes. They have asserted themselves in talks with colleagues as Trump allies first, Bannon allies second.
Bannon has been under fire before, most prominently in early April, when Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was pushing for his ouster; the president himself dinged him in the New York Post, and a Bannon friend likened him to a terminally ill patient who had been moved to hospice care.
“The guy is a survivor, and there’s no way he could be at the center of this for so long, and as controversial as he’s been and as outspoken as he’s been on every major debate — win, lose or draw — without being a savvy operator,” said one person familiar with the situation. “I certainly don’t think that he is just totally done.”
The potential for Bannon to wreak havoc and mischief on the White House from the outside is among the reasons Trump had been skittish about firing his chief strategist. And Bannon himself had used wartime metaphors to signal to friends and confidants that he would continue to pursue his nationalist, populist agenda if he leaves his government perch.
“I think the thing the president will need to get used to is Steve may from time to time call the president to account to his fealty or lack of fealty to the president’s agenda and that could get complicated politically,” said one outside White House adviser close to Bannon. “But I don’t think Steve is going to totally abandon the president or be totally disloyal, unless the president allows himself to be overtaken by the liberal Democrats, in which case every Republican will call him to account.”
Matea Gold contributed to this report.