Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon turned presidential candidate turned unfiltered pitchman for Donald Trump and now part of the presumptive nominee’s vice presidential search committee, sat in the back of a Town Car with his wife, Candy, on his way to a televised interview. He had just explained to the reporter riding along that he wanted no role in a Trump administration when news arrived of a new poll naming him as the best-liked of a list of potential running mates.
“Who else was on the list?” he asked quietly, maintaining his usual inscrutable calm. The most favorably regarded contenders after himself, he was told, were John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin and Chris Christie.
“Those are all people on our list,” he said.
“Well, not you,” Candy reminded him sharply.
That the Trump campaign might want its potential VP picks held close to the vest didn’t seem to occur to Carson. He’s not the type to keep his candid thoughts to himself.
(Update: After this story was published, Carson called to clarify his comments: "When it comes to who could be the vice president and you name a list of people," he said. "I’m going to say yes to everybody, everybody could potentially be considered, doesn’t mean they are on the shortlist.")
It’s an attribute typically unbecoming of a “surrogate,” campaign shorthand for the high-profile friend-of-the-candidate assigned to offer up flattering comments and spin away the controversies. Since joining Team Trump, Carson has acknowledged that the mogul wasn’t his top choice and that supporting him was merely “pragmatic.” He’s called into question Trump’s Twitter habits, said he “has major defects” and recently went off-message by suggesting they might consider picking a Democrat for the ticket.
And despite all that, or perhaps because of it, he apparently has earned the trust of Trump, speaking to the candidate a few times a week, making the rounds on television on his behalf, calling up House Speaker Paul D. Ryan ahead of Trump’s meeting on Capitol Hill and, yes, helping campaign manager Corey Lewandowski come up with a list of possible VP candidates.
Carson says there’s no plan to pull a Dick Cheney and suggest himself. Having already run for president, Carson understands he’s a lightning rod for controversy, and Trump doesn’t need help sparking fires.
“He’s not interested,” said Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business manager and friend. “But miracles can happen, right?”
Williams added: “But I don’t see that miracle happening.”
And then: “But we’ve seen stranger things, right?”
Yes, yes we have. Not the least of which has been watching Carson say things that would get any other surrogate benched, only to be elevated within the campaign. He’s what some commentators have called “the worst surrogate ever.” Which raises the question: Is Carson the best surrogate ever?
No, he’s not.
Or is he?
Not long ago, Donald Trump stood on a stage in front of thousands of Iowans accusing Carson of fabricating parts of his life story, calling him “pathological” and comparing him to a child molester. No big deal, Carson says today. He didn’t take it personally.
“It just means he’s like a typical politician,” Carson said; at the time, he noted, he was creeping up on Trump in the polls. “Other politicians might not be as colorful, but they do the same things.”
Carson puts greater weight on another moment he shared with Trump. It was during the ABC debate in February, when Carson, waiting in the wings to be introduced, didn’t hear his name come through the loudspeaker. He remained standing offstage, hands clasped. Cruz, Rubio and Bush all breezed past him to take their spots at the lecterns, but when Trump was called, he, too, hesitated in the wings.
To viewers at home, they looked like a pair of middle school drama students who had both missed their cue. But Carson saw Trump’s pause as a deliberate gesture to ease his awkwardness.
“That showed the kind of person that he is, to stand by me even though it did nothing for him personally,” Carson said.
“They stood together that day like brothers,” said Williams, one of Carson’s closest confidants. “That was a very important moment.”
Shortly after dropping out of the race, Carson headed to Mar-a-Lago to have breakfast with Trump. He hadn’t endorsed anyone yet but was leaning toward giving his support to the reality star who cared as little about political correctness — or, some would say, polite discourse — as he did. They sat in an ornate room eating fruit and talking about, as Carson might put it, the fruit salad of each other’s lives.
“I wanted to make sure we were on the same page, and we were,” Carson said. In mid-March, he endorsed. He stumbled right out of the gate, telling the conservative website Newsmax that Trump wasn’t his first pick and that he had been promised some sort of advisory role in the administration.
Or was it a stumble?
“No one is going to believe him if he came out and said Trump is the perfect candidate, because he isn’t the perfect candidate,” explained Deana Bass, Carson’s former spokeswoman. “If he did that, Dr. Carson would lose the respect he’s earned for not telling the truth as he sees it.”
Good doctors don’t sugarcoat bad situations. If a patient requires an unpleasant but necessary procedure — say, a spinal tap or an enema — any physician worth his scrubs will warn that it’s going to be rough, not gonna lie, but it’s the best path forward. In other words, what critics see as Carson’s gaffes are really just part of his bedside manner: Look, this candidate comes with some unpleasant side effects — but if he couldn’t heal the country, I wouldn’t be prescribing him.
“Would I and everyone always prefer someone who is completely consistent 100 percent of that time? Yes,” Carson said. “But who is that? Who is that person?”
Trump may have changed positions on a number of issues, but on the “spectrum of deceit” Carson sees Hillary Clinton as being much worse.
“That’s why I made it very clear that this is a pragmatic choice,” he said: Trump, he thinks, is the Republican who has a chance of winning. “It’s sort of like: Would you rather have a cut on your finger or have both your legs cut off?”
Vote Trump: Doctors agree, he’s better than having your legs chopped off.
“The left-wing media loves to say I’m a terrible surrogate, but I pay so little attention to it,” Carson said. “If I said their mother was a good person, they’d find something terrible to say about it.”
But it’s not just people on the left who think the doctor should surgically remove his foot from his mouth.
“If I were to grade him, I’d give him a B-minus,” said Doug Watts, Carson’s former communications director. “He wings it a little bit too much.” Watts, who is now working for a new pro-Trump super PAC, the Committee for American Sovereignty, took particular issue with Carson saying they might pick a Democrat as a vice president.
“That wasn’t helpful,” said Watts, who thinks Trump has already had enough trouble proving he’s a conservative. “He would say it’s just him not being a politician, but I’d say it’s him not being mentally prepared.”
Not so fast, Doug, don’t put words in Ben’s mouth. Let’s let him speak for himself.
“I’m not a politician, and I will never be a politician,” Carson said when asked about his propensity to go off script.
It’s not a lack of preparation, he says, so much as a matter of being true to himself. Yes, he said that Trump has defects, because all people have defects. Sure, he said he’d consider a Democrat, if they could find one that stood strong on all parts of the Constitution, including the Second Amendment. And of course there will be times he disagrees with the candidate he is standing behind. “If two people agree all the time,” Carson said, “then one of those people isn’t necessary.”
The Town Car dropped them off at the TV station, where Ben and Candy retreated to a conference room to wait. They idly watched an episode of “Mike and Molly” while leaving a hospitality plate of sugar cookies untouched.
“Is that Paul Blart the mall cop?” Candy asked.
“I don’t know,” said a staffer with Sinclair Broadcast Group, the company hosting the evening’s event, an hour-long conversation in front of a small studio audience.
Not much for sitcoms, Ben Carson turned to Greg Massoni, a Sinclair executive producer, and began talking Trump.
“Part of the problem is this whole my-way-or-the-highway mentality that makes people your enemy,” said Carson, who once claimed Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the country since slavery. “I would strongly suggest to Donald Trump, and he will do this, that even when you have the advantage, you should be respectful of the other side.”
“You promise that he’s going to do that?” Massoni asked with a chuckle.
“He can’t do it now because now he’s got to win,” Carson said, leaning back in his chair and tapping his hands together. “It’s a difficult line to walk. You don’t want to turn off all the people who supported you because you are like that, but you don’t want to get so far out that other people will never support you.”
“You wouldn’t allow your 12-year-old to act that way,” Massoni said.
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Carson, who for a while had a habit of comparing the trajectory of this nation to Nazi Germany. “But by the same token, look at the people like me or Mike Huckabee — nice, decent, caring and respectful of others. Where does that get people? Not very far.”
The “Mike and Molly” studio audience laughed and clapped. The credits rolled, and then “The Big Bang Theory” was beginning.
Carson stood up and flipped through the channels, stopping on a news program that happened to be talking about him. Although it wasn’t technically another sitcom, it sure feels like it sometimes.