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Ben Carson, or the tale of the disappearing cabinet secretary

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 2/11/2018 Ben Terris
Ben Carson wearing a suit and tie: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson meeting with lawmakers and advocates in Lexington, Ky., last month. © Philip Scott Andrews/For The Washington Post Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson meeting with lawmakers and advocates in Lexington, Ky., last month.

It was Christmastime in Washington, and Ben Carson couldn't stop talking about the apocalypse.

"Did you know," the secretary of Housing and Urban Development asked his acting chief of staff Deana Bass at a Capitol Hill holiday party, "that if North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon into our exosphere, it could take out our entire electrical grid?"

Bass shook her head.

"What's that movie where there's complete lawlessness and anarchy for one night a year?" Carson said, calmly resting his right hand over his left. "'The Purge'! It will be like 'The Purge' all the time."

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Carson is an acclaimed neurosurgeon who oversees a large government agency for which he has no particular qualifications and in this way represents the grand theme of the Trump administration. He, like the president, came to power by promising that an outsider would have the "common sense" it takes to cure what ails us.

And so, while conservative gadfly Armstrong Williams played host to this party at the Monocle restaurant, it was Carson everyone came to see.

"There's never been a time in the history of the world where a society became divided like this and did well," Carson said as a crowd — including an off-duty New York Times reporter, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, a slew of representatives from housing nonprofit organizations, and old friends from his presidential campaign — circled him. "And we don't really have a reason to be fighting each other. There was a movie some years ago, a Will Smith movie called 'Independence Day' . . ."

With his soothing, story-time cadences and heavy-lidded gaze, Carson proceeded to hold forth on how the earth's near-annihilation laid bare the superficiality of all the world's strife. If only, he argued, people realized the fate of humanity hung in the balance, then Palestinians and Jews, or even the United States and Russia, could be "like best friends."

Carson has been telling stories about a dystopian future ever since he got into politics. In 2014 he warned audiences that if Republicans didn't win back the Senate there might not even be an election in 2016. And when there was an election in 2016, Carson ran for president with a simple message: Democrats and career politicians were taking the country on a dark path.

In his new role, Carson still sees himself as a warrior against impending doom, but he's battling contradictions on the side. He wants to be a good steward for an agency he calls the "philanthropic" arm of the government, even if he doesn't think of the government as a philanthropy. He wants to clean up the swamp, but finds himself swimming in ethically murky water.

Carson is a man torn by differing impulses. And nearly a year into the job, it's still unclear whether he's fighting the chaos or helping create it.

Ben Carson, Donald J. Trump are posing for a picture: Carson was disinclined to run a government agency until President Trump — shown here with the HUD secretary at a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration at the White House last month — begged him. © Jabin Botsford/Washington, D.C. Carson was disinclined to run a government agency until President Trump — shown here with the HUD secretary at a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration at the White House last month — begged him.

At first, the idea of Carson running a government agency seemed far-fetched even to Carson.

"Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience," Williams, his informal spokesman, told the Hill newspaper after the 2016 election. "The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency."

The president-elect felt otherwise. Trump met with Carson multiple times and even called his wife, Candy, so insistent on bringing him on board that Carson's friends joked he should ask for the secretary of state position.

The initial reports stated that Carson picked HUD because he had grown up in public housing. In fact, he had grown up only "near" public housing. It's a significant distinction. When Carson thinks back to the families he knew who relied on government assistance, he doesn't think of them as saved by a social safety net, but as captives.

"The people who put all these programs in place meant well," he said. "They had no intention of entrapping people and making them dependent."

By accepting the nomination, Carson — who by his telling grew up poor but became a world-famous surgeon and best-selling author through sheer determination (and, yes, the help of food stamps) — set out to run an agency designed specifically to help bootstrap-yanking.

For a man who preaches his life story as a parable for self-reliance, it's an odd fit. The agency oversees more than 1.2 million public housing units, helps subsidize mortgages, and fights segregation in the housing market. Carson might not have known the extent of what HUD did when he accepted the nomination. But any initial worry about his ability to do the job, disappeared quickly.

"Compared to pediatric surgery," Carson said of his new job. "It's nothing."

It's also, he'd quickly find, nothing like pediatric surgery.

a man wearing a suit and tie sitting in a chair: Carson tours a residential unit at Hope Center, a facility for homeless people in Lexington, Ky. © Philip Scott Andrews/For The Washington Post Carson tours a residential unit at Hope Center, a facility for homeless people in Lexington, Ky.

Early in his tenure, Carson made headlines for suggesting one public housing complex might be too comfortable, and for getting stuck in an elevator while touring another. Then he went so quiet you'd be forgiven for thinking he never made it out.

This was a different kind of role for Carson, who has been in-your-face famous for years. (Before becoming a Fox News contributor and later a presidential candidate, Carson was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in one movie and played himself in another, a Farrelly brothers comedy about conjoined twins.)

Carson's low profile had been a relief for HUD employees. The alternative, as showcased by a few other cabinet secretaries, seemed to be overexposure by way of dubious usage of private jets, undisclosed conflicts of interest and posing in front of sheaths of paper currency.

Yet certain rumblings began early on when employees and journalists noticed he was frequently bringing his wife and son, Ben Jr., to the office.

"At one point, Candy seemed to be coming in every day," said a former HUD employee. "There's this glass door on the 10th floor, where the Secretary's office is. It used to be they would keep it open, but they started keeping it closed. The family would go in, and then freeze everyone else out."

Was Carson relying on family members for advice over professionals? Or was Ben Jr., who owns an investment firm that specializes in infrastructure, wielding interest over decisions that might benefit his company?

"That is such crap," said Carson in a recent interview from his office. "There's nothing to find. It's ridiculous."

Part of why Carson might have wanted to surround himself with family: He was otherwise mostly alone. It took months for Congress to approve much of his team, and many Trump officials came into their jobs suspicious of civil servants and Obama administration holdovers. It was, by Carson's own account, a "difficult time."

Carson's reliance on his family, however, risked running afoul of federal ethics rules. A story last week in The Washington Post reported that top HUD lawyers repeatedly warned the secretary against allowing his family to put people with whom they might have current or future business ties on the guest list for events. He ignored those warnings.

In one case, Carson's son invited an administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to an event in Baltimore; three months later CMS awarded a $485,000 contract to his wife's company.

Carson has ordered an internal investigation into the matter and maintains that his son "dots every 'I' and crosses every 'T' to make sure he stays 10 feet away from anything I'm doing." But these days, both Jr. and Candy are staying even farther than that from the HUD building.

"In the beginning you don't always know the rules of engagement," said Williams. "It's a learning curve for everybody. They realized that just the presence of being there brings scrutiny."

Donald J. Trump, Mike Pence, Elaine Chao, Wilbur Ross, James Mattis sitting at a table with wine glasses: Carson, behind President Trump’s right shoulder at an Oval Office gathering last March with fellow cabinet secretaries, has had little luck encouraging the president to avoid inflammatory rhetoric. © Jabin Botsford/Washington, D.C. Carson, behind President Trump’s right shoulder at an Oval Office gathering last March with fellow cabinet secretaries, has had little luck encouraging the president to avoid inflammatory rhetoric.

As HUD secretary, Carson preaches the same conservative strain of self-reliance that he sprinkled throughout his 1990 memoir "Gifted Hands," only now he's trying to apply it to a government agency. He's got the same God complex that many surgeons have (Carson even owns a painting of himself hanging out with Jesus), even as a humble public servant. And he still smiles at his ability to set off the "PC police" — past run-ins include the times he seemed to compare health care to slavery and homosexuality to pedophilia — only now he tries to keeps his opinions to himself.

"I have to admit, it felt good when you would say something inflammatory and everybody would go, 'Yeah!' " said Carson. "But what good does that do?"

It's a message he's tried to relay to Trump. After Trump refused to condemn racists at a Charlottesville protest, and after reports surfaced that the president had referred to African and Latin American nations as "s---hole countries," Carson made public statements about how such language wasn't "helpful."

But Carson hasn't been able, either publicly or privately, to persuade Trump to tone it down. He talks to the president on a weekly basis, but it's unclear whether he can get him to listen. He hasn't been able, for example, to keep the president from trying to shrink HUD.

"I wasn't happy," Carson said when the Office of Management and Budget suggested a $6 billion cut from the $46 billion agency. "I've made many trips back and forth to OMB to talk about it. . . . There's still some differences of opinion there."

Presidential candidate Carson might have felt differently, but a funny thing happens to a person's thoughts on slashing government spending when suddenly part of that government is under his control.

"The thing that looms largest is making sure the budget to the most feeble among us is not cut," said Williams. "If they cut that budget from 10 to 18 percent, I don't think he'll stay there."

That sentiment might come as a surprise to many of the people working inside HUD, a massive brutalist building in L'Enfant Plaza, where Carson has also kept a quiet presence. Many current employees say they rarely see the secretary, and when he does address groups of more than 10 people he requires a microphone due to his soft voice.

"There is no real agenda, and it's certainly out of the ordinary even for a Republican administration," said Gustavo Velasquez an Urban Institute fellow who served for nearly three years as assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity in the Obama administration. "Many offices have been decimated. It's preposterous."

This is a continued deterioration of HUD, which during the Reagan administration had more than 16,000 employees but by the end of the Obama years was about 8,000. Meanwhile, last year, for the first time since 2010, homelessness levels ticked up nationwide.

Still, many HUD employees have quietly admitted that they feel almost lucky. While other cabinet-level appointees have the will and knowledge to unravel the administrative state — Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency or Ryan Zinke at Interior — it's unclear if Carson really knows how to find the various self-destruct levers, or if he'd even want to pull them.

"Basically benign neglect is the best way to describe it right now," said Julián Castro, the previous HUD secretary.

And recently, just as folks have been leaving the agency, Carson has finally been successful filling out his team, including many longtime civil servants who have worked there before, and a deputy secretary who by many accounts runs the day-to-day operation of the place.

"He's learning that he does need the swamp," says Williams. "It's not always the answer to drain the swamp. Sometimes you need to feed it."

a man and a woman standing in front of a door: Ben Carson tours St. James Place, an affordable housing non-profit in Lexington, Ky. © Philip Scott Andrews/For The Washington Post Ben Carson tours St. James Place, an affordable housing non-profit in Lexington, Ky.

"Racism is like pornography," Carson told about 20 HUD employees at Kentucky field office, leaning on a lectern with a smirk curling his neatly trimmed mustache. "You know it when you see it."

Weeks earlier, Carson decided to delay a measure to strengthen a civil-rights-era requirement for local governments to take active steps to undo racial segregation. When Carson was campaigning for president he pointed to this measure — crafted during the Obama administration to help the Fair Housing Act of 1968 live up to its mission — as an example of "social engineering." Now, as HUD secretary, he claimed the rule should be paused because it was too burdensome on local governments. Plus, as he pointed out with his analogy, it shouldn't take a bunch of bureaucrats to recognize racism (or nudie films, for that matter).

The move didn't come as a surprise to anyone who was paying attention. The only surprise was that it took so long.

"People here are excited about him, but things haven't really changed much down here," said a Kentucky staffer after Carson's visit. "We're still mostly waiting on our marching orders."

Without many specifics to ask him about, the first polite question posed to Carson during the Q&A: "Do you miss being a surgeon?" Later, Carson autographed copies of his books.

The trip to Kentucky gave some hints of the direction he hopes to take the department. He spoke with his staff about ramping up the rollback of regulations. He toured a number of public-private transitional homeless shelters — places that provide short-term tenants with job training and substance-abuse programs in hopes of putting them back on their feet.

"The goal," he said, "shouldn't be to increase the number of people on government assistance, but to increase the number of people we get off of government assistance."

At the end of his visit, Carson had a lot to consider. He liked what he saw in Kentucky but knew that in other places it might make more sense to provide permanent housing. He knew that his agency could help people who couldn't help themselves, but how much would be too much?

"If we had all the money in the world, we would fund everything," he said sitting alone in the Louisville airport. "Or maybe not."

Carson doesn't have all the answers. These are confusing times. And anyway, he's new at this.

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