(FILES) This file photo taken on May 13, 2017 shows strategist Steve Bannon walking off Air Force One as US President Donald Trump (2nd L) walks to Marine One at Andrews Air Force Base May 13, 2017 in Maryland.
President Donald Trump has moved to dismiss his far-right chief strategist Steve Bannon, as the White House reels from the fallout over Trump's response to a violent white supremacist rally, The New York Times reported Friday. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
© AFP

Following a week in which Donald Trump has been criticised as never before for giving cover to neo-Nazis, the departure of Stephen Bannon from the White House might appear at first sight to be a decisive statement of contrition.

After all, Mr Bannon, the former Goldman Sachs banker-turned-populist-firebrand, was the official in the White House most closely associated with white nationalist ideas. In a candid interview published this week, the former head of the Breitbart media group admitted that he waged a daily battle with National Economic Council chair Gary Cohn — whom Breitbart routinely denounces as a “globalist”.

His departure from the role of White House chief strategist after eight months in the job is, therefore, a milestone in the fierce internal battles that have hampered the Trump administration.

Yet little is ever what it seems in the Trump White House. As a result, it would be unwise to read too much in terms of policy into personnel shake-ups.

For a start, the real reason for Mr Bannon’s departure might turn out to be more complicated than a power struggle between aides. Associates of the president often claim that what angers Mr Trump the most is not disagreements over issues, but attempts by his underlings to hog the limelight. Mr Bannon’s crime might have been one too many articles about his power in the White House.

Mr Bannon could still retain considerable influence over the administration, especially if he returns to his perch at Breitbart. He will be tempted to try to lead a campaign to keep the president true to his populist election message in the face of pressure from the “globalists” — a message with considerable resonance among the Republican base.

In Trump world, being sacked does not always mean becoming irrelevant. Mr Trump has a history of staying in close contact to people whose counsel he values, even if they have been removed from their official role. Corey Lewandowski, his original campaign manager who was fired in June last year, has just been hired by the main pro-Trump outside political group.

Most of all, the furore of this week had little to do with Mr Bannon: it was all the president’s doing. It was Mr Trump who appeared to reveal his true political views on Tuesday when he argued, under intense questioning from reporters, that there were “some very fine people” among the white supremacists protesting in Charlottesville last Friday.

After a crowd of young white men carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” marched through the town, it was Mr Trump who described the demonstrators as “innocently” objecting to the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee. And it was Mr Trump who argued vigorously for a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and the leftwing activists who oppose them.

Mr Bannon might have encouraged some of the statements that have left the White House isolated and reeling this week. But he did not shape Mr Trump’s instincts.

geoff.dyer@ft.com

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