Who wins the White House power struggle — presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner or adviser Steve Bannon?
Will President Donald J. Trump learn to play nice with Congressional Democrats or with Republican hard-liners in the Freedom Caucus?
Will Congress pass the budget resolutions and debt-ceiling increase necessary to keep government functioning?
Did Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad bait Trump into bombing an airfield to drive a wedge between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin? Is it working?
And perhaps the largest question: Will Trump’s presidency start to look more like conventional politics, or will he veer more into the populism of the campaign?
“That’s the big question that encompasses all the other questions,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said Monday, prior to his speech to the Springfield Regional Chamber Outlook 2017 luncheon. “I want to give people a sense of what to look for as we all navigate the chaotic next few months.”
Robinson said we’ll know more in the next few weeks about how Trump will deal with Congress moving forward. Will he turn to the right-wing Freedom Caucus, or to Democratic moderates and middle-of-the road Republicans?
Robinson said Trump is angry at the Freedom Caucus right now and that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “can deliver the votes.”
“But at what cost?” he asked.
Robinson said he believes Bannon’s days in the administration are numbered, and said Bannon’s fingerprints were all over the failed legislation to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“I can’t imagine Bannon sticking around if his influence is diminished,” Robinson said.
Robinson said he is of the opinion that Bannon’s exit will be good for the country.
Which gets to the big question of whether Trump’s presidency starts resembling something closer to conventional politics.
“I have no idea,” Robinson said. “It is more chaotic than I imagined.”
Robinson said top members of the Presidents inner circle spend an inordinate amount of time infighting, often using a whole afternoon to call their favorite reporters to dish on their White House rivals.
“It’s to a degree we haven’t seen before in any other administration,” Robinson said. “Certainly this early in an administration.”
He does have a sense of how the foreign policy crisis of the moment — Syria — might play out. In a preview of his next column, due out Tuesday, Robinson said he thinks Assad used chemical weapons so Trump and Putin wouldn’t be able to work together in the region — perhaps to oust Assad.
“Because if Putin likes the deal he gets from Trump better than he likes Assad, well,” Robinson said. “Putin is not a sentimental guy.”
The outlook 2017 lunch drew more than 600 business and political leaders to the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield.
U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield and Mayor Domenic J. Sarno also spoke.
Neal said he feels it is a very strong possibility that the Trump Whitehouse will reach out for votes on a tax reform proposal. He said he’s willing to listen.
But Robinson said the Republican failure to pass repeal and replace means that the GOP can’t wrangle votes among its members and might not be in a mood to compromise – yet.
“I don’t think that’s a good omen for tax reform,” he said. “I believe that if you had a new Republican administration with political experience and the knowledge of how to get things done, tax reform would actually be a piece of cake. The Trump Administration is not that administration. But presumably they will get better at these things.”
Sarno described the $3.3 billion worth of public and private investment ongoing in Springfield right now, including a $25 million upcoming upgrade at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the soon-to-open Dr. Seuss Museum.
Robinson began his career at The San Francisco Chronicle, where he was one of two reporters assigned to cover the trial of kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst.
He joined The Washington Post in 1980 and has served as a city hall reporter covering the first term of Washing
ton’s larger-than-life mayor Marion Barry, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor of The Post, in charge of its award-winning Style section.
He was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Pulitzer Prize Board, the National Association of Black Journalists, and the NABJ Hall of Fame. He is the author of three books: Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race; Last Dance in Havana: The Final Days of Fidel and the Start of the New Cuban Revolution; and his latest, Disintegration.
“Local is where it’s at,” Robinson said in his summation. “Washington is dysfunctional. I’m not sure there are enough votes to keep the government functioning.”
Meanwhile, local communities like Springfield are addressing pressing national concerns.
“There are rooms like this one all over the country, and that’s where interesting things are happening,” he said.