By Jonathan Easley and Jordan Fabian - 08-18-17 12:52 PM EDT
President Trump's chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is leaving the White House, a stunning turn of events for the man who had been the caretaker and champion of Trump's populist campaign message.
His departure is another sign that new chief of staff John Kelly has broad authority to clean house in a West Wing that has been hobbled by infighting and leaks.
"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," said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a statement.
Trump this year has fired two other aides who helped him win the White House - Reince Priebus and Michael Flynn - but the departure of Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, is perhaps the most significant change yet.
The move came as a shock to Bannon's allies inside and outside the White House, who were certain that Trump would stand by his loyal chief strategist.
One senior administration official said the president had been inundated in recent days from "high-level Republican donors and activists" pleading with the president to keep Bannon on.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) had spoken to Trump this week, urging him not to fire Bannon, GOP sources said. Meadows argued that Bannon was helpful to conservatives' agenda.
"Steve Bannon was integral to Trump's victory last November," said one senior administration official. "The president built his own platform, but Steve translated it into policy. He's the man that most embodies the base outside of the president. He's the highest-level expression of the platform that got the president elected, and the president knows that."
The president had signaled Bannon stood on shaky ground Tuesday when he was asked by a reporter if he still had confidence in his chief strategist.
"We'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon," Trump responded, adding that while he believes he is a "good person," Bannon "came on very late" to the campaign.
Bannon did not attend a national security meeting on Afghanistan with Trump at Camp David on Friday, even though he had been involved in the debate over troop levels.
The controversial strategist is adored by Trump's base of supporters, who had warned there would be backlash among grassroots conservatives if he were cut loose.
But Bannon had few allies left in the White House following the departure of Priebus as chief of staff. The two men had formed a strategic partnership out of political convenience but had become genuine allies.
But Bannon's worldview is at odds with many of Trump's senior aides, and he clashed with the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Their feuds would often spill into the press, exacerbating tensions in the White House.
Bannon was already suspected of leaking to reporters about his political enemies, and a surprising on-the-record interview he gave this week to left-wing site American Prospect reinforced that notion.
In that interview, Bannon swiped at Cohn and undercut the president's military threats directed at North Korea.
In the days that followed, Bannon, who rarely spoke on the record with the press, gave several more high-profile interviews, giving the appearance that he was seeking to go out on his own terms.
In one interview, Bannon encouraged the president to engage in the culture wars over race. Shortly after, Trump inflamed the controversy around the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., by defending Confederate monuments that critics say should be taken down.
With Priebus gone, Bannon was at the mercy of Kelly, a retired Marine general who has been running a tight ship and is eager to rid the White House of drama.
Bannon may have become a political liability in the wake of the Charlottesville protests.
Democrats cast Bannon, who once described Breitbart as "the platform for the alt-right," as one of the "racists in the White House." Pressure had been growing on Trump to cut ties with his nationalist wing, which also includes advisers Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller.
Even some Republicans called for Bannon to go, calling him a divisive figure who had muddied the president's authority on international issues.
But Bannon is also a conduit to Trump's base. His departure could provoke a backlash among Trump's core supporters, who are fearful that the president is now being advised by liberals and who they refer to as "globalists" like Cohn, Kushner and McMaster.
Breitbart News has been hammering McMaster in particular, who in recent weeks successfully rid the National Security Council of several of Bannon's allies.
"Steve's allies in the populist nationalist movement are ready to ride to the gates of hell with him against the West Wing Democrats and globalists like [national security aide] Dina Powell, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster," said one Bannon ally.
"They should all be very worried that they're efforts to undermine the president will be exposed. If they think what's happened with Steve is rough, wait until they see what he does outside the White House."
-- Scott Wong contributed.
-- This story was updated at 1:12 p.m.