Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon. Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Ousted White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon returned to the conservative Breitbart News website on Friday and said he'll be "going to war" for President Donald Trump, vowing to intensify the fight he has waged against opponents of his brand of populist conservatism.
"If there's any confusion out there, let me clear it up: I'm leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America," Bannon told Bloomberg News Friday in his first public comments after his departure was announced.
Bannon led the evening editorial meeting at Breitbart, where he resumed his role as executive chairman, the website said in a statement. A person who was on the call said Bannon called on the group to "hunker down" and work like never before to advance conservative causes.
According to a person close to Bannon, he met Wednesday with conservative billionaire Robert Mercer, co-chief executive of Renaissance Technologies and a major financial supporter of both Trump and Bannon's efforts. The two mapped out a path ahead for Bannon's post-White House career and discussed how Trump could get his agenda back on track.
The following evening, Mercer and several other major Republican donors had dinner with Trump to share their thinking, and Mercer also had a private meeting with Trump to pledge to redouble his efforts to support Bannon and advance Trump's agenda.
Bannon left the White House earlier Friday, ending a controversial tenure as the administration is engulfed in a storm over the president's remarks on violence in Virginia. Bannon's departure was agreed on mutually with new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
Bannon's exit caps a tumultuous four weeks in which a slew of senior officials have announced their departures, including the former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, former press secretary Sean Spicer and former communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who was hired and fired within the space of 11 days.
The benchmark S&P 500 Index rallied as much as 0.4 percent, rebounding from its second-biggest drop of 2017, touching its daily high point after the New York Times confirmed Bannon's departure. But stocks soon receded and the index ended down for the day. Investors interpreted his departure as removing a powerful advocate for a protectionist agenda and direct confrontation with China over trade.
Bannon, 63, the chief executive of Trump's presidential campaign and an architect of his election victory, was the leading champion of conservative populism within the administration. He served as a link to the so-called "alt-right" movement and was attuned to the attitudes of the most conservative elements of the president's base.
"Steve played an integral part in the president's journey to the White House," said former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg. "Steve went into the White House and didn't betray his values, worked every day to advance the agenda that the president was elected on. Trump's voters may get upset that America's not being made great again. We'll find out."
Sebastian Gorka, a Bannon ally who previously worked with him at Breitbart News, also may face removal from his post as a counter-terrorism aide to the president, said two people with knowledge of the situation.
The possible dismissal of Gorka suggests that Kelly is looking to root out Bannon allies and other officials prone to igniting public firestorms. Last week, Gorka told the BBC it was "simply nonsensical" for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss military matters related to recent provocations by North Korea. He subsequently accused the media of distorting his remarks.
Bannon had advocated that the president delve into racial issues and applauded Trump's widely criticized handling of the Charlottesville situation. The president appeared to press forward with that strategy with a series of tweets Thursday morning decrying the removal of Confederate statues.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California called Bannon's ouster "welcome news, but it doesn't disguise where President Trump himself stands on white supremacists and the bigoted beliefs they advance."
"Personnel changes are worthless so long as President Trump continues to advance policies that disgrace our cherished American values," she added.
A person close to Bannon portrayed his departure as unrelated to the backlash against Trump's comments this week that appeared to confer legitimacy on white supremacists following the violence in Virginia. The person said Bannon had turned in his resignation on Aug. 7 to take effect on Aug. 14. The announcement was delayed following last weekend's melees in Charlottesville to put distance between those events and his exit, the person said.
Bannon, whose relationship with Trump was forged through campaign battles, has been one of the president's closest advisers, skilled at infighting and cultivating the media. His departure strengthens Kelly, who has sought to better organize a West Wing known for chaos and disorder.
The move also will bolster Bannon's rivals within the administration, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and top economic aide Gary Cohn, with whom Bannon frequently clashed over policy. During an interview Sunday with NBC News, McMaster pointedly and repeatedly refused to say whether he could effectively work with Bannon going forward.
The American Prospect, a progressive magazine, on Wednesday published an interview with Bannon in which the president's chief strategist discussed his efforts to undermine fellow Trump aides and seemed to undercut the president on key foreign policy issues.
Bannon told the magazine political opponents at the State Department and Pentagon were "wetting themselves" over his plans to root out employees he disagreed with over policy. And despite the president's threats of a swift military response to provocations from North Korea, Bannon conceded "there's no military solution here" that wouldn't result in millions of deaths.
Even before the interview, the president signaled Bannon's fate could be in jeopardy. Asked about Bannon's job security during a freewheeling press conference Tuesday at Trump Tower in New York, the president was noncommittal. He said Bannon was "not a racist" and was treated unfairly by the press, but contended he "came on very late" to his presidential campaign.
There were also signals in recent days that friends of the president were souring on Bannon.
Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and a frequent confidant of the president, said earlier this week that Trump was "not getting good advice from the people that are around him" in the aftermath of the president's comments on the violence in Charlottesville.
"Whoever is advising him that now is the time to argue in favor of confederate monuments, is not giving him good advice," Ruddy said in an interview before Bannon's ouster.
Trump had been considering removing Bannon even in the months before the Charlottesville controversy, frustrated with perceptions that his adviser was the one pulling the strings at the White House. He was angered by a Saturday Night Live sketch that depicted Bannon as the grim reaper, sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office while Trump was given a child's table. A Time magazine cover labeling Bannon "The Great Manipulator" also hurt his standing, as did his portrayal as a key to the president's electoral success in a recent book by Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Joshua Green.
The president was also frustrated by perceptions that his senior aide was behind leaks to the media. Scaramucci, who was fired last month after less than two weeks on the job, said repeatedly he believed Bannon was a leaker.
But moving Bannon outside the White House raises new risks. Even if he continues to support the president, he may become aggressive in attacking the administration's more traditional Republican players and policies. He has ample access to funding through his close relationships with Mercer and other major Republican donors.
Some in the White House disagreed with the decision to oust Bannon, and argued that the move weakened the president's ability to translate his ideas into policy.
Bannon was the administration's most effective advocate for delivering on the Trump campaign agenda, said one official who requested anonymity to discuss internal dynamics. His removal also will isolate Stephen Miller, the president's senior adviser who's best known for his efforts to curtail immigration, the person argued, and leave Trump more vulnerable than ever to the so-called "globalists" on his team.
The official also discounted the notion that Bannon's removal was a victory for liberals who had long advocated for his dismissal, arguing that his power will only increase once he leaves.
Bannon may once again devote his attention to media interests, Ruddy said in an interview on Friday after the departure was announced.
"Steve is a media guy," Ruddy said. "He thrives in it and has done very well in it. I assume he'll be back in some role at Breitbart and using that as a platform for radio or television."
Kurt Bardella, a Republican communications specialist who worked for Bannon at Breitbart but later denounced him, echoed the view, predicting the strategist would "feel liberated" by his departure.
"Now, he will be able to operate openly and freely to inflict as much damage as he possibly can on the 'globalists' that remain in the Trump Administration," Bardella said.