In the midst of Trumpmania, Ben Carson had been one of the quietest candidates of the 2016 field: surging in the polls among the outsider-loving Republican electorate but making few, if any, waves after an early bout of outrageous statements. Not anymore.
In a weekend Meet the Press spot, the former neurosurgeon told host Chuck Todd that he doesn’t believe a Muslim person should be elected president of the United States. Now, the rest of the 2016 field is weighing in on his statements.
Carson’s comment came after Todd asked him how much a presidential candidate’s faith should matter to voters. Todd’s question was a response to a Donald Trump supporter’s claims at a town hall last week that President Obama is a Muslim and that Muslims are a “problem” in the United States. Carson responded that a candidate’s religion should matter if it’s “inconsistent” with American values and the Constitution. Asked if Islam jives with the Constitution, Carson—in his typical monotone—said no.
“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” he said matter of factly. “I absolutely would not agree with that.”
In the hours after the interview, the Carson campaign didn't back down from his comments. Spokesman Doug Watts said Sunday night that there’s “pretty strong evidence” for a “huge gulf” between American principles and those of Islam. But on Monday night, Carson told Sean Hannity that he'd back a Muslim candidate who'd be willing to "accept the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place the Constitution above their religion" and "reject the tenets" of his or her faith.
Outrage over Carson’s remarks hasn’t just been confined to the campaign trail. At a press conference Monday morning, the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked Carson to withdraw himself from the 2016 race, turning his legal argument on its head: “He is unfit to lead because his views are in contradiction with the U.S. Constitution.”
And on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, Minority Leader Harry Reid tried to use Carson’s words—as well as Trump’s—against the entire Republican party.
“If these Republican candidates are incapable of going to bat for America's Muslim community, then they shouldn't be running for president of the United States,” he said in a long statement. “I call upon every Republican to denounce Dr. Carson's disgusting remarks. That shameful intolerance and bigotry have no place in America today. Sadly, it seems to have a lasting place in the Republican party.”
Carson isn’t a stranger to unorthodox statements; his distaste for political-correctness is his claim to fame, even if he has been mum for most of the last few months. But as has happened repeatedly already this election cycle, from vaccines to illegal immigration, Republican presidential candidates are being put in the spot of having to answer for one member of their inflated field. Here’s how Carson’s fellow 2016 candidates are responding to his comments.
Speaking on Iowa Public Television on Sunday, Cruz used the Constitution—which Carson said Islam is not consistent with—to argue that a Muslim person can be president, at least in the hypothetical sense.
"The Constitution specifies that there shall be no religious test for public office,” Cruz said, “and I am a constitutionalist.”
A Bush spokeswoman boiled the campaign’s comment on Carson’s remarks down to the Constitution, too: “The United States Constitution is clear,” she wrote in an email to National Journal. “It prohibits religious tests for public office.”
Asked on CBS to respond to Carson’s allegations, Paul didn’t jump to criticize his fellow candidate, throwing a sympathetic bone to those who may feel the same way Carson does.
Asked if he’d “have a problem” with a Muslim commander-in-chief, Paul said: “I try to see that as a separate thing—someone’s religion. But I just think it’s hard for us, we were attacked by people who were all Muslim.”
On Monday, Paul seemed to take a page out of Cruz’s book, echoing how "Article VI of the Constitution says there won’t be a religious test.”
The South Carolina senator invoked the thousands of Muslim-American members of the U.S. armed services as evidence that practitioners of Islam can—and are—faithful to the Constitution. In an interview on Fox, Graham said Carson should apologize to the entire Muslim-American community.
“If he understood the world, and how dangerous it is, he would not say things like this,” Graham said. “We have to partner with people in the faith to destroy radical Islam. And most Muslims throughout the world reject what radical Islam is trying to do to the world and their faith. So this is an example to me that Mr. Carson may be a good doctor, but he is not ready to lead a great nation.”
In an interview Sunday morning, Rubio condemned the dug-up-again controversy over the president’s background precipitated by Trump’s town hall.
“This has nothing to do with the future of our country, these issues have been discussed ad nauseum over the last few years, it’s a big waste of time,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “Barack Obama will not be president in a year and a half it’s time to start talking about the future of America and the people that are at home.”
Jindal was quick to condemn not Carson’s comments, but the press for asking candidates the question in the first place, calling it “absurd.” But in a statement, he said he’d “indulge the media” and answer it himself.
“If you can find me a Muslim candidate who is a Republican, who will fight hard to protect religious liberty, who will respect the Judeo-Christian heritage of America, who will be committed to destroying ISIS and radical Islam, who will condemn cultures that treat women as second-class citizens, and who will place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution, then yes, I will be happy to consider voting for him or her,” Jindal said.
In his interview Sunday on Meet the Press, Trump was asked if Muslims are a source of problems in the United States. He once again wouldn’t criticize his supporters’ claims.
“We can say no, and you can be politically correct, and say everything’s wonderful. But I haven’t seen people from Sweden going back and leaving after the bombing of the World Trade Center, so we have a problem,” he said. “And at the same time, we have fabulous Muslims living here and they have done fantastically well.”
On Fox on Monday, Trump doubled-down: "I've said it always, I've never had a problem with Muslims. You do have an individual problem where you do have some radicals that are having problems," he said.
When National Journal asked the governor’s campaign for comment on Carson’s remarks, his spokeswoman pointed to Christie’s “record of supporting nominees of various religions to NJ courts,” including a Muslim-American lawyer he nominated for a Passaic County Superior Court position. Christie also criticized Trump’s response to the town hall questioner in a Today interview on Friday, the spokeswoman noted in an email; he told Matt Lauer that the president’s religious background and U.S. citizenship are “self-evident.”
“I wouldn't have permitted that if someone brought that up at a town hall meeting of mine,” Christie said. “I would’ve said, 'Listen, no, before we answer, let's clear some things up for the rest of the audience.' And I think you have an obligation as a leader to do that.”
Speaking with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show Monday evening, Fiorina called Carson's initial claims about Muslims "wrong" and said she would be "fine" with a Muslim president.
"I actually believe people of faith make better leaders," she said, whether they're Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise. "I think faith gives us humility and empathy and optimism."
When Kasich appeared on Meet the Press Sunday shortly after Carson, Todd asked him whether he’d view a Muslim-American president as a “problem.”
“That's such a hypothetical question,” the Ohio governor replied. “The answer is, at the end of the day, you've got to go through the rigors, and people will look at everything. But for me, the most important thing about being president is you have leadership skills, you know what you're doing, and you can help fix this country and raise this country. Those are the qualifications that matter to me.”
The former New York governor “strongly disagrees” with Carson’s remarks, his spokesman told National Journal. In a Fox News Talk radio interview on Monday, Pataki said Carson’s anti-Islam remarks are consistent with claims in past decades that a Catholic, African-American, Jew, or woman couldn’t be president. He noted that political philosophy, not religious philosophy, should be what matters.
“I think he’s completely wrong,” Pataki said of Carson. “What he’s doing is saying that anyone who follows the Islamic faith is incapable of respecting the rule of law and the Constitution and the principles of this country, and I don’t think that’s true.”
It’s not just Republicans who’re weighing in on Carson’s remarks. Early Sunday afternoon, the former Maryland governor admonished Carson, as well as Trump, for showing “bigotry.”
This story has been updated with Ben Carson's comments to Sean Hannity and Carly Fiorina's comments to Jimmy Fallon, both on Monday night.
American people are better than latest Trump/Carson/GOP anti-Muslim bigotry. Hate is not an American value. #diversityisourgreateststrength— Martin O'Malley (@MartinOMalley) September 20, 2015
It’s sad to see the party of Lincoln being led by candidates who choose bigotry against Muslim-Americans over “united we stand.”— Martin O'Malley (@MartinOMalley) September 20, 2015
In a tweet, Clinton—like Cruz before her—sought to quash the controversy by citing the words of the Constitution itself.
Can a Muslim be President of the United States of America? In a word: Yes. Now let's move on. -H pic.twitter.com/AB99hiUPie— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 21, 2015
In a statement to National Journal, Chafee said the qualifications for assuming the presidency can be found in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, which outlines the citizenship and age requirements for the office.
“Dr. Carson should discontinue his campaign based on making such an uninformed and discriminatory statement,” he said. “A Muslim should be able to ask American voters for their support."
We’ll keep this file updated once we inevitably hear more from the field.