Does Ben Carson Suspect His Campaign Was a Scam?

“We had people who didn't really seem to understand finances,” he said. “Or maybe they did—maybe they were doing it on purpose."

Gary Cameron / Reuters

For months, reporters and political operatives (including me) have been pointing out that Ben Carson’s campaign bears many of the hallmarks of a political scam operation. Now Carson seems to agree. On CNN on Tuesday, Carson discussed his year-end staff shake-up:

“We had people who didn't really seem to understand finances," a laughing Carson told CNN's Poppy Harlow on "CNN Newsroom," adding, "or maybe they did—maybe they were doing it on purpose."

It’s a remarkable statement—especially because he’s so blithe about it.

Carson has taken in incredible amounts of money during the race. His campaign has raised more than any other Republican presidential  rival, though they’ve raised more when super PACs are included. But he’s also spent more than any of them, so that despite his prolific fundraising, he has barely $4 million in cash on hand.

That’s because Team Carson has been plowing a huge portion of the money it raises back into fundraising, using costly direct-mail and telemarketing tactics. Pretty much every campaign uses those tools, but the extent to which Carson was using it raised eyebrows around politics. First, many of the companies being paid millions and millions of dollars are run by top campaign officials or their friends and relations, meaning those people are making a mint. Second, many of the contributions are coming from small-dollar donors. If that money is being given by well-meaning grassroots conservatives for a campaign that’s designed not to win but to produce revenue for venders, isn’t it just a grift?

These questions have been circling since last summer. If they're right, the most sympathetic interpretation is that Carson, like his donors, was being taken for a ride by his aides, and wasn’t in on the scam. Carson seemed to suggest as much on Tuesday, implying he was taken advantage of by aides who treated the campaign as an ATM. That doesn’t necessarily reflect well on him, though. If Carson couldn’t see what was going on in his own campaign, is he ready to run the country?

The question is also nearly obsolete. Carson’s polling was in a tailspin even before he sacked several top advisers, and it hasn’t gotten any better since. While he insists he’s staying in the race for the long haul, there doesn’t appear to be much reason for him to do so. Besides, he’s likely to run out of cash soon: Carson spent significantly more than he brought in during January. Whatever else you can say about the old team, they kept the money rolling in.