WASHINGTON — The Plan is pretty simple: respond to the criticism that Housing and Urban Development nominee Dr. Ben Carson lacks expertise by inundating him with housing policy in marathon briefing sessions, frame him as a doer from an inner-city with leadership experience, and embark on a listening tour across America after his confirmation.
But, so far, the process to prepare Carson for confirmation hearings next year has instead been preoccupied with internal politics, three sources said. Some Carson allies and people on the Trump transition team have concerns about the involved role of retired Major Gen. Robert Dees, who served as Carson’s campaign chair.
Throughout the Republican primary, Carson had a tight group of advisers — most prominently, Armstrong Williams — and influence with and proximity to Carson seem likely to be hotly contested. One source was led to believe that Dees was poised to become Carson’s chief of staff; another vehemently denied that. “Dees,” a source close to Carson said, “is coordinating everything.” An effort to reach Dees through a spokesperson was unsuccessful.
Confirming Carson, a popular figure within the Republican Party but one prone to at times highly unusual interviews, could prove one of the trickier nomination efforts, along with Rex Tillerson at the State Department. Democrats have been highly critical — Sen. Jeff Merkley said he was “deeply concerned” by the Carson pick — and if Carson were to have a difficult hearing, the unlikely possibility that a few Republicans might vote against him could become less unlikely.
“On the one hand, their problem right now is that he's not an advocate,” a nonpartisan observer familiar with the transition process said. “He’s not someone who’s known for fighting and expanding opportunity for black and brown communities. Even if you take out his lack of experience — it’s his presence and demeanor doesn't lend itself to either advocacy or knocking your socks off at that Senate hearing, you know, like his future boss said, he's low energy.”
The rancor around Carson’s nomination led at least one facilitator, DJ Nordquist, focused mostly on fighting the narrative that Carson was a bad choice. For his part, Carson is described by aides and colleagues as a notetaker who is grasping the policy and asking incisive questions. Alphonso Jackson, who ran the agency during George W. Bush’s second term, is among the aides helping Carson understand policies, urban issues, and dilemmas that the people HUD serves face everyday. If confirmed, the potential listening tour is viewed not just as an opportunity to put forward issues that Americans face, but also get Carson acclimated to that scope.
“Dr. Carson is spending time learning this stuff, and he’s passionate about it given where he came from,” a transition source said. “He sees it as an opportunity to create a pathway for others, for a lot of people who are struggling and looking for an opportunity to be upward mobile, and to make them feel empowered.”
Carson is also dealing with some people inside his circle and within the transition who don’t like the power shift over to Dees.
The devoutly religious retired Army officer (Dees has said his “greatest pleasure has been being a private in the Lord’s army”) earned Carson’s trust as a foreign policy adviser during the Republican primary. At times, he drew headlines in that role for previous comments in which he criticized federal “social engineering” in the military, specifically directives on gay and lesbian members, and women serving in combat roles. At Wildfire Weekend, an annual men’s evangelical retreat, he also spoke about 9/11, saying, “It’s not about these guys who came from way out, knocked down some buildings, and then have left. We have a serious internal issue. We’ve been infiltrated.” But during the primary, Dees reportedly helped Carson with foreign policy, something that the retired neurosurgeon was new to and at times visibly struggled with.
“This isn’t an area that he’s even been involved in — he’s never talked about poverty,” said a source inside Carson’s circle who asked for anonymity to speak openly, of Dees.
“He’s a friend who Dr. Carson respects,” another source close to Carson said. “It’s hard not to respect someone with that life experience. But it’s clear his focus are on things that they shouldn’t be on. It should be on policy, and getting Dr. Carson ready for this process. But he’s focusing on other things like this military general or that colonel getting into HUD. It makes you think he’s just not suited for the agency.”
Black Republicans in Washington are pleased with Trump’s pick, overall, and don’t believe he’ll have much trouble getting confirmed.
“He’s an unconventional choice, obviously,” said Gianno Caldwell, a Republican consultant with ties to the Carson camp. “He’s a surgeon and somebody who lived a life in the inner-city which I think affords him the opportunity to see things from a different lens outside of what we would normally see in a HUD secretary in a Republican administration.”
Caldwell said he believed Carson was looking to bring in “equipped hands” with housing policy experience, but that his involvement in the Trump cabinet won’t be just limited to housing. He said he expected Dr. Carson to serve as an adviser with a host of issues with respect to black Americans.
“The bigger thing for Mr. Trump and his administration, and he spoke about this on the stump, is renewing the black community’s faith in government and bringing about reforms that help communities rebuild,” Caldwell said. “And HUD is one way to help that agenda get passed.”