Bannon exit raises new questions for White House

Steve Bannon’s days at the White House are over, but questions remain over how much influence — or chaos — he will cause from the outside.

While the chief strategist’s ouster is a victory for new White House chief of staff John Kelly and his goal of eliminating leaks and bringing order to the West Wing, some believe Bannon could be an even more disruptive force for the Trump administration from the outside.

Bannon returned to Breitbart News immediately after his departure. He had turned the news site into a right-wing juggernaut as chairman before joining the Trump campaign.

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“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 [deputy national security adviser] Dina Powell, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, [economic adviser] Gary Cohn and [national security adviser] H.R. McMaster,” said one Bannon ally.

“They should all be very worried that their efforts to undermine the president will be exposed,” the ally continued. “If they think what’s happened with Steve is rough, wait until they see what he does outside the White House.”

One of Bannon’s friends called it his “Obi Wan Kenobi” moment, referencing the Jedi master from Star Wars who was felled by Darth Vader. “They will strike him down for him to become more powerful than they ever imagined,” the friend said.

That may be true, but for the time being Bannon’s ouster is a defeat for the administration’s chief proponent of economic nationalism and his allies. Questions were quickly raised about whether White House aides Sebastian Gorka and Julia Hahn, who both came to Trump’s orbit from Breitbart, might be leaving the White House next.

Bannon became a fixture in Trump’s orbit during the 2016 campaign. But he ultimately never found his footing in the turbulent West Wing, where he courted controversy and feuded constantly with other top aides.

Ideological foes to Bannon included Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.

His departure has sparked fears among Trump’s core supporters that the president might stray from the economic nationalist message he rode into the White House.

The now-former chief strategist was accused of being the source of leaks for unflattering stories about Kushner, Cohn, McMaster and others, many of which appeared in Breitbart.

“He will continue to use his weapon of choice, Breitbart, to attack his adversaries inside the West Wing,” said Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman and Trump critic. “He will relentlessly attack congressional Republican leadership like Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump backs down in rare reversal Trump, GOP launch full-court press on compromise immigration measure Meadows gets heated with Ryan on House floor MORE and Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFlake threatens to limit Trump court nominees: report Senate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Senators hammers Ross on Trump tariffs | EU levies tariffs on US goods | Senate rejects Trump plan to claw back spending MORE (and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake threatens to limit Trump court nominees: report Poll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border MORE & John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump's America fights back Mellman: Trump can fix it GOP strategist Steve Schmidt denounces party, will vote for Democrats MORE).”

In the aftermath of his dismissal, some Breitbart employees declared “war” on Bannon’s enemies and turned on Trump.

Conservatives lashed out, fearing that Trump had capitulated to the “liberal” wing of the White House.

“I’m very upset. The deep state globalists won,” said Tea Party activist Debbie Dooley. “They forced out Steve Bannon. I had a CNN is fake news protest scheduled for tomorrow at their headquarters in Atlanta that I’m cancelling because I’m so disheartened. It’s a betrayal of his base. I’ll continue to support Trump and his policies but I’ll no longer be on the frontlines defending him.”

But some Republicans say the move could benefit the White House in the short term, allowing Kelly to build cohesion among a staff that has split into factions and been consumed by infighting since the beginning.

“It’s good to have a chain of command in the White House and a unity of purpose among leaders in the administration,” said Frank Cannon, the president of the conservative think tank American Principles Project. “So as long as that discipline can exist while they’re pursuing the policies Trump articulated during the campaign, this could be a good thing.”

Ryan Williams, a former spokesman to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said with Bannon no longer on staff, “the internal turf wars and infighting can subside and Gen. Kelly can maintain control and instill more discipline.”

Few Republicans think Bannon leaving the White House will make a complete change for Trump.

“I think at the end of the day, President Trump says and does what he wants and I’m not sure the addition or subtraction of any one specific staffer will change his behavior,” said Williams.

Bannon leaves behind a complicated legacy.

As chief strategist, he oversaw a broad yet largely undefined portfolio of responsibilities.

Bannon’s fingerprints were all over the administration’s controversial travel ban, which was rolled out in sloppy fashion, sparked nationwide outrage and was tied up in the courts for months.

He spent a great deal of time shaping Trump’s policies on China and trade, the crux of his economic nationalist message, yet found limited success in advancing that agenda.

Instead of pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Trump was persuaded by other advisers and world leaders to renegotiate the deal.

Trump has barely fired a shot in Bannon’s self-proclaimed “economic war” with China; he has yet to slap steel tariffs or retaliate in a significant way against Beijing for its trade practices. The president this week ordered an investigation into alleged Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property, but took no specific action.

Bannon did score a major victory earlier this summer when Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord over the objections of Cohn, Ivanka Trump and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump cannot blame policy of separating children on Obama North Korea looked to set up communications back channel through Kushner: report North America wins 2026 bid to host World Cup after lobbying from Trump MORE.

From his office just steps from the Oval Office, Bannon kept close tabs on Trump’s campaign promises, which were scrawled in marker on a giant white board.

He also tracked the broader political environment by tracking the 2018 House and Senate races in an effort to stock the Congress with Trump loyalists.

But to his critics, Bannon did little other than think up grand schemes that would never be implemented. He was out of the loop on major White House initiatives in his final days and unlike other senior aides, he did not travel to Bedminister, N.J., during Trump’s 17-day vacation there.

Still, his influence on the president could be felt.

After Bannon gave a rare public interview this week encouraging the president to dive headlong into the racially-charged culture wars that exploded in the wake of the unrest in Charlottesville, Va., Trump followed his lead, defending Confederate monuments from the Democrats and liberal activists that want to see them taken down.

Returning to the private sector, Bannon will have his work cut out to rehabilitate his image.

Democrats, and some Republicans, have cast him as a racist and his claim that Breitbart is the “platform for the alt-right” has haunted the media outlet.

Bannon’s friends and allies are furious at the portrayal, noting that he set up Jerusalem bureau for Breitbart and arguing that his advocacy for “economic nationalism” had been twisted by liberals into “ethno-nationalism.”

“Now that he is not in the administration it will give him more freedom to speak out and he should strongly establish his moral credentials by condemning the alt-right movement,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a conservative activist who met with Bannon several times this year. “I think he has been unfairly demonized but that would be a great way for him to start his post-administration life.”