Ben Carson's Quiet Life in a Chaotic Cabinet

August 01, 2017

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner

Surrounded by dated wood paneling and stacks of newspapers, Ben Carson lives out most of his days at the Department of Housing and Urban Development quietly.

His 10th-floor office in a nondescript government building in Southwest Washington could not feel further removed from the cable news green rooms and early-state coffee shops that turned the former neurosurgeon into a household name during the 2016 Republican primary.

But in the nearly five months since Carson took the helm of HUD, he has faded into the background of an administration otherwise defined by intrigue and outrage. One of President Trump's highest-profile Cabinet nominees, Carson has maintained one of the lowest profiles of any Cabinet secretary.

And that's the way he likes it, Carson says.

"Let me put it this way," Carson told the Washington Examiner in an interview on Wednesday, "I'm glad that Trump is drawing all the fire so I can get stuff done."

Standing as the lone Senate-confirmed appointee at HUD as eight other deputy and assistant secretary positions remain vacant, Carson said he has had to brief himself about programs that would ordinarily fall under the portfolios.

"There's no question that I've been forced to learn very rapidly a lot of stuff. But that's okay," Carson said. "I happen to have some excellent people around me at the non-assistant secretary level, at the non-deputy secretary level. Everybody's doing two or three times more than they ought to be doing."

Carson said he and the White House "collaborate" when it comes to picking people for the highest posts in HUD, and despite some differences, he projected optimism that the Senate would confirm the eventual nominees by the end of the summer.

"I have people that I wanted, and there have been some people that they wanted," Carson said, describing the process as "amicable." "There was one person they didn't particularly like."

Paralyzed by controversy over alleged Russian ties and knocked off balance by the slow failure of its biggest legislative effort, the White House has yet to fill hundreds of positions across the federal government. The Russia scandal has drawn Trump into Twitter fights with the former FBI director, various media outlets and Democrats as his administration struggles to dig out from the scrutiny and move on with its agenda.

While Carson has not been dragged into the Russia mess, he believes the president — to whom he speaks "every week or two" — is right to fight back and argues, unlike most, that Trump has been relatively "restrained" when doing so.

"I think they've done well given the level of frustration. I mean, can you imagine you've been elected president and the only thing anyone wants to talk about is Russia? Can you imagine how frustrating that is?" Carson said of the White House. "People say he's wild with his tweets and things. I think he's pretty restrained under the circumstances."

Trump's Twitter feed this week has focused less on the Russia imbroglio and more on the healthcare battle engulfing his party. The president dispatched top administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, CMS Administrator Seema Verma and White House legislative director Marc Short, to Capitol Hill late Wednesday evening in an effort to salvage Republicans' crumbling Obamacare repeal plan.

But despite Carson's medical background, he has almost never been mentioned as a factor in GOP healthcare talks since congressional leadership first introduced a bill to the House in March.

Even so, Carson insists he has played a role in working with lawmakers toward a bipartisan compromise — a bargain the White House and most Republicans are still resisting.

"I've already spoken to a number of people," Carson said of his contacts on Capitol Hill. "[I] made it clear that there are other ways to look at this, and when you guys get tired of arguing, maybe we could talk about that."

"I've talked to Democrats as well … recently," Carson added, noting that his outreach to Democrats has included "running into them or talking to them in their offices, or talking to them here [at HUD headquarters]."

"I would hope in the long run that they would make a deal with the Democrats," he said. "That was the problem with Obamacare. It was done by one party, and you have the other party constantly against it. That's the same thing that will happen if you pass it this way. At some point, we have to learn."

Meanwhile, the retired neurosurgeon has remained one of the Cabinet members most unscathed by the administration's raucous first six months. Carson has instead remained out of the spotlight, focusing on initiatives such as Housing First, his push to end homelessness and help move individuals into the "engine" of America.

"The goal is really to get these people off the streets where they're in danger, and where they actually cost society more than if you go ahead and take care of them," Carson said. "We also have to think about the fact that every single human being has potential, and I look at them as human capital, and if we develop that, we're talking about them becoming part of the engine, and if we don't develop it, part of the load."

Carson's famously soft-spoken style has always seemed an ill fit for a president known for his outspokenness. However, the HUD secretary said he sees a "very, very kind heart" behind Trump's Twitter thumbs.

"No problems at all," Carson said of his relationship with Trump. "We're philosophically very well aligned. He knows a lot about housing. It's amazing how much he knows about it. But he's also a very kind-hearted person. You may not see that sometimes because he's reacting to things that other people are doing and saying. He sometimes reacts rather vigorously."

Carson stopped short of criticizing Trump's often dramatic response to criticism, restraint one would expect from the self-effacing secretary.

"I don't know if you could say he reacts too much," Carson said of the president. "I would just say he is, perhaps, more reactionary than I might be."

Carson's soft touch and familiarity with the workings of Washington media could one day make him an effective voice to promote the administration's agenda publicly, as several of his counterparts are already doing.

For now, Carson says he intends to remain behind the scenes and allow Trump and others to soak up the spotlight. The biggest change for him may be people calling him "Secretary Carson" rather than "Dr. Carson" — with one major exception.

"When my wife tries to get my attention, she now says 'Dr. Carson!'" he jokes.

Read the original article here.