What was on Ben Carson’s mind during his Senate confirmation hearing?
In the final 10 minutes, it was actor Peter Falk.
“You remind me of Columbo,” Carson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of housing and urban development, told Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
The room gasped, then broke into snickers. “I’ve actually heard that,” said Sen. Brown (Ohio), recovering. His face and voice do resemble Falk’s.
Carson, shaking with laughter, had just coasted through a confirmation hearing in which few senators, even Democrats, pressed him on the finer points of housing policy. His own aide said during the selection process that Carson felt he was unqualified for the job because he didn’t have any government experience. But now, the brain surgeon turned cultural phenomenon turned presidential candidate is poised to start the next, very unexpected phase of his career leading the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And he’ll approach it by doing what he does best: being Ben Carson.
The 1970s television reference wasn’t the only odd moment from the hearing for the man known for his controversial statements on the campaign trail — many of which were memorialized by “Saturday Night Live.”
It started with his opening statement.
Carson recalled staring at an inner-city building with broken windows when he was 9 years old. “A sunbeam was shining through, and it made me think about my future,” he said.
A moment later, he spoke about rising to the top of his class in grade school. “Those students who used to call me ‘dummy,’ they were now coming to me saying, ‘Benny, Benny, how do you work this problem?’ And I would say, ‘Sit at my feet, youngster, while I instruct you.’ ” Here, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) shot a befuddled look at Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).
Carson wasn’t reading his remarks, but neither were they off-the-cuff: This was an excerpt of a speech he has made before, almost word for word. It took a question from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), halfway through the hearing, to knock him off-guard.
Will you make sure not one dollar of HUD’s budget financially benefits the Trump family?
This is where things got painful.
“It will not be my intention to do anything that will benefit any American,” Carson said. “It’s for all Americans.”
You really won’t promise to ensure Trump won’t benefit?
“If there happens to be an extraordinarily good program that’s working for millions of people and it turns out that someone that you’re targeting is going to gain $10 to it, am I going to say, ‘No, the rest of Americans can’t have it?’ I think logic and common sense is the best way,” Carson said.
Republicans on the committee kept things easy for the rest of the hearing. They did not ask pointed questions about what Carson, the only African American currently a nominee for Trump’s Cabinet, will do in his new job.
“I got to thinking, it seems to me that running this department is not really brain surgery. If you can handle that, you most certainly have the capability to step in and look at this with fresh eyes,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).
“Just a couple of basic questions,” said Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).
Shelby didn’t even use his full five minutes of time.
“I have six questions. I’m not going to read them all to you. But I’m hoping you can get them all answered — not before you’re confirmed, but after you settle down.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) congratulated Carson for dodging Warren’s “absurd” question about HUD funds benefiting Trump.
“You would not get pinned down to a yes or no answer. You said, what matters most is the benefit to the people we’re trying to serve. That, my friend, tells me you’re a very honest person. You could have been attacked for that.”
Carson already has, if you look online.
Some answers earned him praise from Democrats.
“Obviously, if you’re not going to replace it, you’re not going to get rid of major safety nets,” Carson told Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) when asked about government-sponsored health-care programs such as Medicaid. “Safety net programs are important, and I would never advocate abolishing them without an alternative.”
Carson also said he would enforce fair-housing laws already on the books — something that Democrats and advocates do not take for granted.
On most other topics, Carson couldn’t disguise his traditional Republican views.
An exchange with Tillis came straight to the point.
“What is the best possible thing we can do for someone who is on government assistance?” Tillis asked.
“Uh, get them off of it,” Carson said.
Carson himself argued that success at HUD is within his grasp because he has the power of the human brain.
“Billions of neurons, hundreds of billions of interconnections, can process more than 2 million bits of information in one second,” he told the committee. “Any brain can do that. . . . If you learn one new fact every second, it would take you more than 3 million years to challenge the capacity of your brain.”
“There’s an assumption you can only do one thing and that we have these very limited brains and they’re incapable of learning anything else. I find that a tad humorous.”
A man waiting to enter the hearing had predicted Carson would make this kind of remark.
“I feel SNL is going to have a good time with this,” he said.