President Donald Trump gave a less than ringing endorsement to his top strategist Steve Bannon during his press conference.
“He’s a good person. He actually gets very unfair press in that regard,” Mr Trump said.
“But we’ll see what happens with Mr Bannon.” Mr Bannon was a key election campaign adviser and is a forceful presence in a divided White House.
The former leader of conservative Breitbart News has drawn fire from some of Mr Trump’s closest advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner. The anti-Bannon campaign comes as Mr Trump is facing heated criticism for not immediately condemning by name white supremacists and other hate groups after deadly violence last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Mr Bannon once described Breitbart as “the platform for the alt-right”. Speaking to reporters in Trump Tower, the president said Mr Bannon is a friend and “not a racist”. That less-than-enthusiastic defence called into question Mr Bannon’s own assessment of the situation.
He had been telling people that he believed his job was safe, following a conversation in recent days with new chief of staff John Kelly. The decision whether to drop Mr Bannon is more than just a personnel matter. He is viewed in some circles as Mr Trump’s connection to his base and the protector of Mr Trump’s disruptive, conservative agenda.
A Tuesday headline on Breitbart equated his potential ousting to the president being urged to Give Trump Voters Middle Finger. Ned Ryun, a conservative strategist, wrote on Twitter: “Cannot tell you how bad a signal it would be to @realdonaldtrump’s base if Bannon is forced out.”
Mr Bannon’s high profile and puppet-master image have at times irked a president who does not like to share the spotlight. In April, Mr Trump diminished Mr Bannon’s role to that of “a guy who works for me”. The president distanced Mr Bannon from his unexpectedly successful presidential campaign.
“I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr Bannon came on very much later than that,” he said in the press conference. Mr Bannon’s supporters say Mr Trump is being urged by advisers such as chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell to fire him.
Mr Kelly has also expressed concerns to Mr Trump about Mr Bannon, and is said to be particularly angry with a flood of negative stories about national security adviser H.R. McMaster that some believe are being leaked by Mr Bannon.
Mr Kelly has grown weary of the conservative attacks on Mr McMaster and believes, even if Mr Bannon is not personally responsible for them, he has not done enough to quell them. Mr Bannon has denied being behind the anti-McMaster campaign.
The public squabbling among White House advisers is precisely the sort of drama Mr Kelly was brought in to stop. The chief of staff is embarking on a weeks-long personnel review of West Wing staff and has indicated significant changes could be coming.
Mr Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s opposition to Mr Bannon’s West Wing role is well-known, but they are staying out of personnel decisions about him, according to a White House official. Mr Bannon has told associates that he has no plans to leave the White House and would only do so if Mr Trump fires him.