WASHINGTON — Responding to a firestorm that raged on conservative talk shows and websites, the White House on Sunday announced the resignation of a top environmental advisor who had made fiery remarks about Republicans and signed a petition questioning whether the U.S. government had any role in planning the Sept. 11 attacks.
Van Jones, a prominent Oakland community activist, issued a statement decrying "lies and distortions" and a "smear campaign" that had been waged against him by the right.
But despite his defiance, Jones had been forced to apologize in recent days for some of his past statements, including a speech shortly before his appointment posted on YouTube, in which he used a vulgar term to describe Republicans.
White House officials never rose to his defense and took pains over the weekend to distance themselves from Jones' statements and decisions about his status.
President Obama's senior advisor David Axelrod said Sunday that Jones made his own decision to leave, but he commended him for the departure.
"The bottom line is that he showed his commitment to the cause of creating green jobs in this country by removing himself as an issue," Axelrod told NBC's "Meet the Press."
The controversy began bubbling to the surface over the last week as conservative talk show hosts such as Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity homed in on Jones as the latest example of a "radical" associate of Obama.
In accepting Jones' resignation over the weekend, White House officials in effect acknowledged that the president could ill afford such damage as he was already struggling to win congressional support for a healthcare overhaul.
Already, polls have shown decreased support for Obama and his healthcare agenda among moderates and independents -- the very voters whom the president has worked hardest to court and who are most likely to be turned off by a close advisor seen as an extreme liberal.
Jones, even as he hit back against his critics, acknowledged that he had become a distraction.
"On the eve of historic fights for healthcare and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me," he wrote in his resignation letter to the White House. "They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide.
"But I came here to fight for others, not for myself," Jones added. "I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past."
The Jones resignation could raise further questions about how the White House vets its top officials, including its so-called issue czars such as Jones, who do not require Senate confirmation.
A White House official, requesting anonymity in discussing inner workings, said Sunday that Jones underwent a "significantly less rigorous" vetting process than other officials, particularly those who require Senate approval.
Many of Jones' speeches, and his signature on the 911Truth.org website petition suggesting the Bush administration played a role in the attacks, could be found with simple searches online.
In 2005, for example, he told the East Bay Express, a weekly newspaper in the Bay Area, that he became a communist and a "rowdy nationalist" in the 1990s after being arrested during the Rodney King riots.
Conservative websites were circulating a C-SPAN video showing top Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett telling an audience, "We were so delighted to be able to recruit [Jones] into the White House.
"We've been watching him . . . for as long as he's been active," she said, citing "all the creative ideas that he has."
Conservatives such as Beck and some lawmakers have pointed to the proliferation of White House czars as a point of concern.
"We have about two dozen so-called czars -- the pay czar, the car czar, all these czars in the White House," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said on "Fox News Sunday."
"And that really is an affront to the Constitution, because the Constitution was set up to say that the president is the executive, but the people who manage the government -- the secretaries, the Cabinet members, of which I was one -- have to be approved by the Congress and have to report to the Congress."