Ben Carson took to a stage in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday to let the world know that just because Armstrong Williams, his longtime friend and close adviser, says something, that doesn't mean it's true. That remark was a kick in the teeth to Williams, a prominent and controversial black conservative pundit and PR specialist who calls himself Carson's business manager, and it naturally made headlines. But hours later, Carson joined Williams on Williams' nightly radio show and declared that he had complete faith in Williams, who has played an outsize—and perhaps negative—role in Carson's presidential campaign.
What the heck was going on? The Carson campaign already had enough to worry about in the final days before the Iowa caucuses. Carson at one point led the GOP pack in Iowa, but for weeks he's been stuck in single digits in the polls. And once more the story for his campaign was internal chaos and Carson's odd relationship with Williams. It was the latest iteration of a deep problem that, according to Carson staffers who recently quit, has dogged the campaign from the beginning and may well doom it.
From the start, the Carson campaign has seemed afflicted with a split personality caused by Caron's relationship with Williams. Carson's campaign staffers, seasoned GOP operatives, were trying to conduct a professional effort with an orderly chain of command. Yet Williams would make decisions on his own and on the fly that would contradict or undermine the campaign's plans. And Carson—too often, according to his former staffers—did what Williams advised him to do. For instance, Williams, without informing the campaign brass, often set up media interviews that ended up hurting Carson and the campaign.
A strange pattern developed. Carson would publicly deny that Williams, who years ago worked for Sen. Strom Thurmond and then Clarence Thomas before his appointment to the Supreme Court, had any significant role in the campaign. But days later, Williams would pop up on television, speaking on behalf of the former neurosurgeon. Apparently in charge. Or something.
Several former staffers now say that Williams was always at the helm of the campaign—without any official title—and Carson constantly followed his guidance. In other words, when Carson was publicly stating that Williams did not have much to do with the campaign, he was not speaking truthfully.
Eventually, these internal tensions consumed the campaign. The breaking point came in December, when Williams, without consulting the campaign staff, arranged for Carson to do an interview with two Washington Post reporters, and Carson told the journalists he was planning to dump some of his top staffers. Carson subsequently tried to walk back this statement. But soon his top people, including campaign manager Barry Bennett and director of communications Doug Watts, jumped ship. Most of the departed cited the nonstop interference of Williams as the reason for bolting. For the past several weeks, news stories about Carson have focused on this mess.
Carson has responded to the latest stories in the same erratic fashion that has marked his campaign's decline. At the breakfast event in Des Moines on Wednesday, he observed, "Armstrong is not necessarily the epitome of truth. He doesn't speak all things that are correct. He often speaks without thinking. He has no official capacity in the campaign whatsoever. His influence has been vastly overrated." With these remarks, Carson seemed to be finally throwing his good pal under the bus.
Yet hours later, on Williams' SiriusXM radio show, Carson claimed his statements that day about Williams had been misrepresented by reporters. He thanked Williams for his contributions to "the community" and said the media depict everything as conflict. "I think that they're looking for ratings, they're always looking for conflict," Carson said. "Conflict gets them more ratings than peace and joy."
At this point, it is impossible to tell what Carson really thinks of Williams. But former campaign staffers say it is the curious Carson-Williams relationship that has dragged a once-promising campaign to the ground.
Former communications director Doug Watts tells Mother Jones that Williams never had a campaign email address or title, but he constantly intervened. "Our No. 1 challenge was the unaccountable interference from day one from Armstrong Williams," he complains.
"Our No. 1 challenge was the unaccountable interference from day one from Armstrong Williams."
Though Williams claims to be Carson's "business manager," Watts and other former Carson aides say they were unaware of any specific business relationship between the two. Carson and Williams have known each other since 1994, when they were introduced at an awards ceremony at which Carson was inducted into the Horatio Alger Society. The two men are so close that, according to Williams, he has his own bedroom at Carson's house.
"Armstrong has a way of insinuating himself in people's lives who he thinks are going to produce some benefit for him, and I suspect at some point he did see that in Ben," Watts says. "And to Ben, Armstrong looked like a man about town in Washington, who knew a bunch of media personalities, and I think he's his entrée there."
Carson could not resist going to Williams for advice and guidance, no matter the headaches Williams caused the campaign, Watts says. Williams, he adds, "was [Carson's] mac and cheese comfort food on matters of media and public affairs and he got accustomed to it."
Watts and others who worked on the campaign cite numerous instances of Williams interfering and costing the campaign dearly. At Williams' insistence, according to Watts and other former campaign staffers, Carson sat for a long open-ended interview in March with CNN's Chris Cuomo, which would air on the cable network the morning after Carson announced he was exploring a presidential bid. In the interview, Carson stumbled on a question about whether being gay is a choice, telling Cuomo that people "go into prison straight, and when they come out, they're gay." Williams had steered Carson wrong; it was a mistake to have a novice candidate do a lengthy interview that would be edited before airing. This would allow CNN to emphasize the prison comment, and, not surprisingly, the news of Carson's exploratory efforts was overshadowed by his remark about homosexuality.
Several months later, Carson's campaign staff was working in secret to plan an elaborate event in Detroit to announce his official presidential bid. Yet hours before the announcement—at which Carson's wife, Candy, would play the violin and a gospel choir would cover an Eminem song—a television station partly owned by Williams played a taped interview of him and Carson in which Carson said he would be running for president. That is, Williams stepped on the campaign's carefully orchestrated event.
Throughout the summer and fall, members of the press were granted access to Carson via Williams, resulting in a series of articles that did not help the campaign. In one instance, Williams proudly shepherded a reporter from the Hill on a trip with Carson to a clothing store in Georgetown to buy a suit for an upcoming debate. This episode clashed horribly with Carson's supposed image as a Washington outsider.
"Can you believe that? Why would you take a reporter along with you suit shopping?" a former campaign staffer says, complaining that the campaign knew nothing about the trip until Carson's entourage called and asked for the campaign credit card. "Why would you do that? Here's why you would do that—to prove to everyone how integral you are to Ben's life."
Other screwups followed. Williams contacted New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel and set up an interview with former CIA official Dewey Clarridge, billing him as Carson's top foreign policy adviser. Watts and others from the campaign say Clarridge had only briefly spoken with Carson a handful of times and was far from an influential adviser. Clarridge told Gabriel that Carson was struggling to understand foreign policy. He remarked, "Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East." In the article, Williams was asked why Carson had bobbled a question about ISIS on a Sunday talk show, and he replied with the unhelpful comment, "He's been briefed on it so many times...I guess he just froze." The Times story was a major blow to the campaign.
Watts says he reached the realization the campaign was off the rails when Williams leaked to the New York Times the campaign's plans for a secret trip to Jordan that was to begin the night before Thanksgiving. The Times' story ran moments before Carson's plane took off from Baltimore to head overseas. "I could no longer be in my own personal denial after Thanksgiving," Watts says. "I thought, 'This is outrageous, I am not going to get blindsided again. Armstrong Williams is not going away, and Ben is not exercising the necessary leadership to keep Armstrong Williams at bay.' Irreconcilable."
"He uses manipulations and lies and distraction, and Southern soft-soap bullshit, and frankly, all cloaked in Christian language and such."
On December 31, Watts, Bennett, and the deputy campaign manager resigned, and a string of other staff, including the general counsel, quit soon after. The campaign's original chairman, Terry Giles, a colorful attorney and PR specialist who introduced Carson to Williams, had left months earlier, claiming the campaign was dysfunctional amid rumors of clashes with Williams.
Watts notes that Williams reminds him of an old Albert Brooks routine, in which the comedian would too ambitiously set up a row of eight people all spinning pie plates on poles and scramble back and forth to keep everything going. "This is sort of what Armstrong does," Watts says, "except he uses manipulations and lies and distraction, and Southern soft-soap bullshit, and frankly, all cloaked in Christian language and such. It's all suspect, in my experience."
Another former campaign staffer says he could not understand Carson's willingness to tolerate Williams and the problems he caused. "I don't think Ben is a liar; I don't think he was duplicitous," this ex-staffer says. "But boy, he's just got a huge blind spot that is Armstrong." And another former Carson campaign official says he blames Carson's devotion to Williams for the campaign's decline. "Basically, Ben listens to Armstrong," the ex-official says. "I don't know really why he listens to Armstrong, but he does. I think Armstrong has some great qualities and some great skill sets but I don't think advising Ben Carson has been one of them."
But Dean Parker, the campaign's former finance chairman who resigned earlier this month after questions were raised about his oversight of the campaign's finances, has kinder words for Williams. "All I can say is that Armstrong has been a friend throughout the process," he says. "We speak on a regular basis, and there's nothing more to say because that's the truth."
In an email to Mother Jones, Williams states that Carson's appearance on his radio show this week—when Carson declared his faith in Williams—should be the final word on their relationship. "Dr. Carson," he claims, "is absolutely correct in noting that I have no official capacity with the campaign, and that my role as an outside adviser has been vastly overstated in the media. Dr. Carson as always remains in charge, and it has been that way since the beginning. Being in command is not new to him. While I may have misspoken on rare occasions—as anyone who is human is prone to err—my loyalty to Dr. Carson and his candidacy is clear and unwavering."