WASHINGTON (AFP) - Donald Trump parted ways with his controversial chief strategist Stephen Bannon on Friday (Aug 18) as the White House reeled from the fallout over the president’s much-criticised response to a violent white supremacist rally.
But the 63-year-old – whose departure caps one of the most disastrous weeks of the already chaotic young Trump administration – vowed to keep pushing the president’s right-wing agenda, as he returned to his former home at the ultra-conservative Breitbart News.
“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,” the hero of the so-called “alt right” told Bloomberg News within hours of leaving the White House.
Bannon’s departure amounts to a nod to members of Trump’s government and Republican Party who grew increasingly frustrated with the anti-establishment firebrand.
It remains to be seen what role the serial provocateur – who was credited with a major role in Trump’s upset election victory – will continue play from outside the White House.
In comments to the Weekly Standard, he made clear his commitment to the nationalist-populist “movement” that carried Trump to power.
“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon said. “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.”
Bannon’s presence in the West Wing had been contested from the start, and with Trump under fire for insisting anti-racism protesters were equally to blame for violence at a weekend rally by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, the president faced renewed pressure to let him go.
Five top aides out
Trump, who rose to political prominence by casting doubt on whether Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was born in the United States, did condemn neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan once this week.
But the next day he reverted angrily to his initial stance – effectively setting a moral equivalence between the white supremacists at the Virginia rally and anti-racism counter demonstrators there.
“Steve Bannon’s firing is welcome news, but it doesn’t disguise where President Trump himself stands on white supremacists and the bigoted beliefs they advance,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
Bannon was the nucleus of one of several competing power centers in a chaotic White House, and reportedly fell into disfavour for allegedly leaking stories about colleagues who he felt did not sufficiently adhere to his populist agenda.
Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced on Friday that the president’s new chief of staff John Kelly and Bannon had “mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day,” adding: “We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.”
Kelly, a no-nonsense former Marine general, had reportedly warned he would not tolerate what he saw as Bannon's behind the scenes maneuvering.
And Trump was reportedly furious about an interview in which his aide contradicted his own position on North Korea.
Since taking office in January, Trump has lost five top aides: Bannon, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, press secretary Sean Spicer, chief of staff Reince Priebus and communications director Anthony Scaramucci.
The latest departure came as former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney added his voice to those criticising the president over last weekend's events, telling Trump in a Facebook post he was facing a "defining moment" and needed to apologise "for the good of the country."
The woman whose daughter was killed when an avowed white supremacist rammed his car into protesters in Charlottesville said she would not meet with Trump following his comments equating the likes of her daughter with white supremacists.
"You can't wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying 'I'm sorry,'" Susan Bro, the mother of 32-year-old victim Heather Heyer, said in an interview on ABC.
Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger warned Trump he has "a moral responsibility to send an unequivocal message that you won't stand for hate and racism."
And James Murdoch, the chief executive of 21st Century Fox whose tycoon father Rupert has been a Trump ally, pledged to donate US$1 million (S$1.3 million) to the Anti-Defamation League, which combats anti-Semitism.
"What we watched this last week in Charlottesville and the reaction to it by the President of the United States concern all of us as Americans and free people," Murdoch said.
In other developments Friday, a statue of a US Supreme Court justice who was behind a racist ruling was taken down in Maryland and all 16 members of a presidential committee on arts and the humanities resigned to protest what they called Trump's "hateful rhetoric."
The statue of justice Roger Taney is the latest monument to topple in a growing campaign to remove symbols of the pro-slavery Confederacy.
Trump called the movement "foolish" on Thursday and said US culture and history were being "ripped apart." In the letter to Trump announcing their mass resignation, the members of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities said "ignoring your hateful rhetoric would have made us complicit in your words and actions."
The first letter of each paragraph spelled out the word "R-E-S-I-S-T."