Exactly a year and a day ago, Donald Trump tapped the conservative media insurgent Stephen K. Bannon as chief executive of his campaign, affirming that while Trump was the nominee, his was a hostile takeover of the Republican Party: With Bannon, he would take the party in a new direction — nationalist, nativist and economically populist.
Bannon got considerable credit for Trump’s upset win and then, as chief strategist in the White House, for his early orders against immigrants and refugees, and more.
On Friday, he was out.
Perhaps appropriately, his ouster came in a week in which Trump left no doubt that his own voice — and the racially divisive rhetoric that comes with it — is his own. Bannon was no ventriloquist.
The White House made the dismissal official in a statement to reporters: “White House Chief of Staff John 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.”
Long-simmering speculation that Bannon would be forced out intensified in the two weeks since Kelly, a retired Marine general, replaced Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff, charged with imposing discipline and order. Among other things, Bannon is suspected of stoking a recent campaign of right-wing opposition to national security advisor H.R. McMaster.
By Friday, he had apparently also lost the support of the president, after months of alienating many others within the administration.
Ironically, for a man who often expressed disdain for the mainstream media, a magazine interview in which Bannon publicly disagreed with administration policy toward North Korea may have been the final trigger for Trump and Kelly. But there was also little doubt that the president, who shares top billing with no one, had grown unhappy with Bannon’s image as the strategist of his electoral victory.
“Well, we’ll see,” Trump said about his aide’s future. “I like Mr. Bannon. He’s a friend of mine. But 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.”
Even as he failed to embrace Bannon fully, Trump also pushed back against moderates and liberals who saw the strategist as a racially divisive figure who has encouraged Trump’s most nativist instincts.
“He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He’s a good person. He actually gets a very unfair press in that regard,” Trump said. “But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon.”
In that same free-wheeling exchange with reporters on Tuesday at Trump Tower, Trump made plain that he was quite able to express divisive ideas on his own — saying “both sides” were to blame for the weekend’s deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., and expressing support for preserving monuments to Confederate generals, thereby roiling racially charged local debates in communities throughout the country, but especially in the South.
The comments cheered some of Trump’s backers and white supremacist groups, but caused an uproar that has left the president increasingly isolated, with many congressional Republicans and leaders of the military and business communities telegraphing their distance from Trump, and some breaking with him.
Few Republican officials or members of Congress had anything to say about Bannon’s departure, reflecting his broad unpopularity with the political establishment he scorned.
The lack of comment may also reflect fear of what Bannon may do now that he’s returning to Breitbart, the militantly conservative website he headed before joining Trump. The website announced his return in a headline declaring him a “populist hero.”
Earlier in the week, 19 conservative groups and a faction of hardline Republicans in the House, the Freedom Caucus, lobbied the president to keep Bannon, seeing him as their in-house ally.
Ed Martin, president of the conservative Eagle Forum Fund, said on Fox News that he was sorry Bannon was leaving but added he was confident that Trump would not bend, that he was no “Manchurian candidate” controlled by the strategist.
Kurt Bardella, a onetime Republican congressional aide and former spokesman for Breitbart News, said he expected little would change inside the White House with Bannon’s departure.
“It’s Trump who tweets day and night. It’s Trump who has consciously decided to pander to racists and white supremacists. It’s Trump who has engaged in a dangerous game of chicken with North Korea,” Bardella, now a vocal critic of the administration, wrote in a widely circulated email.
“At the end of the day, while some of the internal West Wing infighting may calm down, the real root of the problem is in the Oval Office,” he added.
Bardella said he expected Bannon would once again use Breitbart as a platform for attacking his main adversaries, “Jared, Ivanka, Cohn, etc.” — referring to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Trump’s son-in-law and daughter, and former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn, chief White House economic counselor. The trio are disparagingly referred to as the “White House Democrats” by some conservatives.
Trepidation within the president’s inner circle that Bannon, if forced out, might freely use his conservative media network against perceived enemies in and out of the White House was a factor in Trump keeping him for as long as he did, people familiar with the internal White House debates have said over the last two weeks.
As publisher, Bannon had promoted Breitbart as a “platform of the alt-right,” and made it a bane of Republican leaders.
Breitbart signaled the rough coverage that might be ahead, listing national security advisor McMaster, McMaster’s deputy, Dina Powell, and Cohn as “Bannon’s enemies in the White House.”
Subsequently, Joel Pollak, the website’s political editor at large, wrote that Bannon’s dismissal could be the “beginning of the end” for Trump. Without Bannon to “guarantee that Trump will stick to the plan” as laid out in his campaign, the president could follow the path taken by former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who turned left after his initial conservative period in office, Pollak warned.
Bannon is just the latest, if one of the most high-profile, of Trump insiders pushed out in an administration that has packed unprecedented amounts of turmoil into its first seven months.
A widely circulated photo of Trump and his top advisors in the Oval Office in January illustrates the turnover: Of six men in the picture, only Trump and Vice President Mike Pence remain. Gone are Priebus, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer, former national security advisor Mike Flynn and Bannon.
Bannon’s exit had an unlikely parallel in the recent departure of one of his White House nemeses, Anthony Scaramucci, who had been brought in to be communications director but was ousted before he officially took over. Bannon and Scaramucci both appeared to seal their fates when they criticized fellow staff members in provocative remarks to journalists.
Bannon gave several interviews this week after having kept a low media profile since the campaign. The most damaging was perhaps the first — to the liberal editor of the American Prospect magazine. In it, he disparaged the president’s North Korea policy, spoke of purging the Defense and State departments, called the white supremacists in Charlottesville “clowns” and urged an “economic war with China.”
Strikingly, he contradicted the president’s tough talk toward North Korea, saying, “There’s no military solution here, they got us.”
Like Scaramucci, Bannon — no naif to media — reportedly said he thought those remarks were off the record. Later he told another interviewer he had spoken intentionally and strategically to draw fire away from Trump.
Bannon saw himself as Trump’s chief promise-keeper, displaying a white board in his office with a list of campaign vows, separated by topic: immigration, national defense, Obamacare, tax reform and infrastructure. Most remain unrealized — stalled, defeated or under court challenge.
In a recent interview just after his dismissal, with Peter Boyer for the conservative Weekly Standard, Bannon said: “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.”
He added, “we still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else.”
At a conservative conference in February, Bannon talked about being in “the first inning” of shaping “a new political order” and beginning the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
He framed the administration’s chief enemy as the media — “the opposition party” — a term for the press, and an attitude, that Trump echoed.
“They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has,” Bannon said. “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight,” he added, “you are sadly mistaken.”
4:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional detail and reaction.
The article was first published at 9:40 a.m.