This post was updated Dec. 11 (see below)
In what will certainly be seen as another next step in a potential run for president, Ben Carson and a team of advisers is heading to Israel.
The retired surgeon — who has become a favorite long-shot choice for a vocal conservative subset — plans to spend December 13-20 combining tourist activities with a “fact finding mission” that will include flying over the Gaza border in a helicopter, touring a military base and meeting with various Israeli officials. A meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also tentatively on the agenda.
Traveling with Carson will be Terry Giles, a Texas lawyer who would serve as the chairman of a presidential run; businessman Logan Delaney, who would serve as the financial officer; and Armstrong Williams, who currently serves as Carson’s business manager.
“I think having real life experience in the region as opposed to just book learning is extremely helpful in terms of putting things into perspective,” Carson said in a phone interview. He has never been to Israel before. “I don’t necessarily get the impression that Israel feels we are solidly in their corner. Perhaps there could be more done to solidify confidence in their relationship.”
Over the years, Israel has become an established campaign stop for many presidential contenders. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. -- who is the object of 2016 speculation despite repeated denials she is planning a White House run -- traveled last month to several Middle Eastern countries, including Israel. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Vice President Joe Biden both visited Israel earlier this year, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) has traveled there three times in 2014 alone.
Carson won’t yet announce whether he will actually run for president, but readily admits that this trip is part of the process.
“There’s no question that I’m thinking very, very seriously about [running for president],” Carson said. “We wouldn’t be doing this fact finding tour, we wouldn’t be organizing in other kinds of ways if that were not the case.”’
In another concrete step toward a Carson possible presidential bid, Giles has been conducting interviews with dozens of people interested in staff jobs on a future campaign. Last week, he set up shop at the Grand Hyatt in D.C. to interview 35 potential staffers.
“He better be serious about running,” Giles said at the Hyatt. “My wife and I have already started looking for a place in D.C. in preparation.”
Giles knows that Carson is running a long-shot campaign, but he said he likes it that way.
“What I can tell in campaigns, and I’m a novice, is that outperforming expectations is what matters for momentum,” said Giles. “And we are doing that.”
Still, he admitted there are plenty of hurdles to overcome.
“If I could create the Webster’s dictionary of words Dr. Carson could use in the campaign, there would be some words I’d leave out,” he said, referring to Carson’s proclivity for controversial statements. “Like 'Nazi' or 'Hitler.'”
But Giles said he sees the chance to speak with Netanyahu as proof that Carson is on the right path.
“When the invitation came to us we were very excited about it,” said Giles of the potential meeting. “I think the Israelis are very, very smart. I would imagine that what they do is watch both sides of the equation, and those candidates that they think have a chance of ending up in the White House, I suspect they give invitation to those serious contenders. It’s a smart thing to do, to get to know people before they are about to go to the Oval Office.”
Update, Dec. 11: Ben Carson's team released a statement from the potential candidate nodding to the tricky political timing of his journey. "As Israel heads into a contentious and short election period, we do not expect, nor have we requested, to meet with government officials," Carson said in the statement. "This trip is a private fact-finding mission rather than an official visit. We regret that Mr. Giles' misstatement has caused confusion on the matter."