Two days before Christmas, Dr. Ben Carson did something quite odd for a presidential candidate whose rapidly fading campaign was about to enjoy a brief respite from attention: He summoned reporters to his home to let them know a staff “shake-up” with firings and pay cuts was in the offing. The actual summoning was not by any campaign figure, but by Carson’s longtime friend and business manager, Armstrong Williams, a controversial figure who has long been at odds with the campaign’s officials.
Indeed, this wasn’t the first shake-up. Back in June 2015, when Carson was still rising in the polls, it was reported that his campaign chairman, national finance chairman, deputy campaign manager, and general counsel had all departed within a month of his announcement of candidacy. According to the Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker, there was one clear beneficiary of this latest “exodus”:
Before the exodus, Carson’s campaign was mostly controlled by [Campaign Chairman Terry] Giles and conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who for decades has been Carson’s business manager and gatekeeper. Giles’s exit to the super PAC side, where he will be prohibited from directly coordinating with Carson or his campaign, leaves Williams as the candidate’s chief confidant.
“Things happen, man,” Williams said of the changes. “That’s the way life works. You start out with one idea, hoping it all works out, and then you get a better understanding of what needs to happen. Remember, we’re not necessarily a group of political people.”
That may have been true of most of Carson’s staff and advisers, but it could hardly be said of Williams, an outspoken conservative-media figure who has been a familiar presence on television and radio for many years. And after the latest Carson “shake-up,” which was consummated when Campaign Manager Barry Bennett, Deputy Manager Lisa Coen, and Communications Director Doug Watts, along with 20 other staffers, quit, all fingers seemed pointed at Williams:
Things had “boiled over” with Williams, Bennett told Reuters. “For the past seven weeks, I’ve been doing nothing but putting out Armstrong Williams-started fires,” Bennett said.
In a separate interview, Bennett told AP:
“You have to surround yourself with good people,” Bennett said. “And he hasn’t demonstrated that he can do that. No one wants Armstrong Williams anywhere near the Oval Office.”
One obvious theory for how Williams has survived all this turmoil is that as Carson’s “business manager” and personal friend, he was focused on the candidate’s bank account rather than his presidential aspirations. It would help explain why Carson took time off the campaign trail at the peak of his poll showings to release and promote a new book in places other than the early primary states. Cynics might also point to the Carson campaign’s heavy spending on fundraising efforts, costing nearly as much as the large amounts the campaign has brought in. Williams seems to be near the center of a network of back-scratching arrangements among Carson boosters and vendors, though there’s no evidence he’s personally benefited. Still, it’s hard to forget the big hiccup in Williams’s career, when he was caught taking $240,000 under the table from the Bush administration’s Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind initiative on his syndicated TV show. Here’s how conservative commentator Leon Wolf summed up his and others’ concerns over the Carson-Williams relationship at RedState:
[I]t’s also by this point completely fair to ask why Carson is so completely beholden to one of the most openly coin-operated people in DC, and whether that has any impact on the Carson campaign’s well-publicized catastrophic burn rate (a burn rate that has not even slowed Carson’s free-fall in the polls).
Corrupt or innocent, insider or outsider, it’s hard to discern any real rival to Armstrong Williams in what’s left of his friend’s presidential campaign. He’s king of a rapidly diminishing mountain.