White House

Republicans cheer Bannon exit but warn Trump still needs to change

Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, accompanied by ex-White House strategist Stephen Bannon, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Both men are now gone from the administration.
Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, accompanied by ex-White House strategist Stephen Bannon, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Both men are now gone from the administration. AP

Republicans exhaled on Friday after President Donald Trump ousted controversial strategist Steve Bannon from the White House —a move that will help ease lawmakers' return to Washington after a damaging and polarizing period many blame in part on the former Breitbart chairman.

“I, for one, am relieved he will no longer be at the White House advising the President of the United States,” said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union who has clashed with Bannon over how inclusive the Republican Party should be. “His agenda was anti-immigration, nationalist, and an agenda that would take us back in time from the social justice issues that many of us fought for.”

Certainly, some GOP insiders warned that blame for the difficult nature of this White House ultimately sits with Trump. But operatives inside Washington and out said Bannon's exit signaled chief of staff John Kelly might be successful in bringing some order to what has been a chaotic White House prone to self-inflicted distractions that throw the entire Republican Congress off of its agenda.

“With Bannon leaving, I'm hopeful it's a turning point for the administration,” said Ozzie Palomo, a Republican lobbyist and donor. “If anything it shows that General Kelly is really having an impact on day-to-day operations within the West Wing. September will be a critical month with several major policy battles and the administration needs to limit the distractions.”

Bannon — who as executive chairman of Breitbart, boasted of serving the so-called “alt-right,” a loose coalition of populists, white nationalists and anti-Semites — was enormously influential in pushing a nationalist agenda in the White House that made more centrist Republicans deeply uncomfortable.

That was especially so in light of Trump’s refusal this week to clearly condemn white nationalists affiliated with the “alt-right” after bloody protests in Charlottesville. Bannon was widely faulted inside the administration for pushing Trump to blame both the neo-Nazis and the people who showed up to protest racism and hate groups for the deadly clashes in Charlottesville, according to people close to the White House. That decision sparked enormous bipartisan and nationwide backlash for Trump.

“Bannon being out, and Bannon’s clear affiliation with, in his own words—Breitbart was the voice for the alt-right, which leads into some of these groups which have created this controversy—his exit is positive,” said Chip Felkel, a veteran South Carolina-based GOP strategist.

But Felkel, like others, stressed that the bigger problem remains with Trump: “The president’s inability to clearly separate himself from those people creates a lot of questions about his moral character.”

In recent days, Bannon has found himself at the center of fresh rounds of stories concerning infighting at the White House—and he described some of those fights publicly in an interview with the liberal outlet The American Prospect.

His ouster, Republicans hope, may reduce some internal strife.

“The more Gen. Kelly is in charge of the day-to-day, as well as cutting out fighting, getting people on the same page, that there’s not all of these different fiefdoms, the more hope there is that a focused effort can be put on issues which Trump was elected to deal with, not all of these diversions,” Felkel said. “The less distractions for Donald J. Trump, the better.”

There is a sense of relief inside the White House too, especially given the criticism the president faced over his Charlottesville remarks.

"There's a thought maybe they can move past this," said one former adviser in close contact with the White House who did not want to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the situation

The former adviser said the turmoil this week was similar to what happened after the release of the Access Hollywood video during the campaign in which Trump bragged about assaulting women. "It's better off to put your head [down] and let it pass," the person said.

Several Republicans close to the White House said Bannon's ouster allows Kelly to assume control of the West Wing and instill some much-needed discipline. "It’s another step toward more reasonable and responsible approach to the world," a second former adviser said.

The second adviser said Bannon led one of the two factions at the White House that fought policy and staff decisions, which led to delays. "They think it will get better," the person said. "A lot of things were getting held up because they fought about everything."

At the same time, Republican strategists and Capitol Hill staffers cautioned, the president’s tensions with Congress, his propensity to fight with Republican senators and his frequent tweetstorms can only be corrected by the president himself.

“The reality is, at the end of the day the buck stops with the president,” said a senior adviser to a Republican senator. “He routinely goes off-script and takes action which sabotages his own agenda. No staffer — whether coming into the White House or leaving it — can change that dynamic.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Steve Bannon’s position at Breitbart.

Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01