Trump fires controversial Steve Bannon as White House chief strategist
WASHINGTON/HAGERSTOWN, Md., Aug 18 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Friday fired Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist in the latest high-level White House shake-up, removing a powerful and controversial figure known for far-right political views.
Bannon was a force behind some of Trump's most contentious policies, including a travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority nations, and has fought with more moderate factions inside a White House riven with rivalries and back-stabbing.
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.
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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."
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.
Critics have accused Bannon of harboring anti-Semitic and white nationalist sentiments. 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 fueling hate in communities, including his recent attempts to divide our country and give a voice to white supremacists."
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.
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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.
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, 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."
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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.
He has told friends he could go back to Breitbart News if he were to leave the White House.
Kelly's appointment was intended to bring order to a fractious White House beset with behind-the-scenes intrigue and back-stabbing.
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-Semitics. 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.
(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)