Donald Trump changed his mind about Ben Carson. And so, apparently, did Ben Carson.
The president-elect announced on Monday morning his intention to nominate the award-winning neurosurgeon to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, putting a former Republican rival in charge of leading a revival of the nation’s inner cities that Trump believes are “a disaster.”
The move marks a reversal for both men. During the heat of the GOP primary, Trump said Carson had “a pathological temper” that was as incurable as pedophilia. And much more recently, a spokesman for Carson, Armstrong Williams, said the one-time presidential aspirant “feels he has no government experience, no experience running a federal agency.”
“The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple a presidency,” Williams told The Hill.
Currently led by Secretary Julian Castro, HUD has more than 8,000 employees and a budget of more than $30 billion. Carson’s selection is an odd one chiefly because as a former chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, he would seem to be an obvious fit to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, which will be led by Tom Price if confirmed by the Senate, as opposed to the Cabinet federal housing policy, in which he has comparatively little experience. “Dr. Carson has experience with everything,” Williams told the Los Angeles Times, revising his earlier statement. “You’d be shocked at the depth of his experience.” Carson is the first African American to be named to Trump’s Cabinet.
Carson was first reported to be Trump’s pick for the job before Thanksgiving, but the nomination wasn’t announced for nearly two weeks. “Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities,” the president-elect said in a statement released by his transition team Monday. “We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities. Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up.”
What Trump and Carson do share is an up-by-the-bootstraps approach to poverty. Carson’s comes from his personal experience growing up poor in Detroit, where from the age of eight he was raised by a single mother who was a domestic worker and who relied, at times, on food stamps and public assistance. According to a 20-page biography published by Johns Hopkins, Carson’s mother Sonya limited her sons’ television viewing and required them to read constantly and submit weekly book reports. Carson struggled as a teenager with a violent temper, and he has said he once tried to stab a classmate and “almost killed him” except that the blade hit the student’s belt buckle and broke. That was the incident that Trump mocked on the campaign trail, suggesting it would be unwise for voters to elect someone who had admitted to that kind of temper.
Carson’s constant reading, however, fostered an interest in science, and he said he went from being the “class dummy” to the top of his class in just a year. He went to Yale and then the University of Michigan medical school, and by the age of 33, he had become the youngest person ever to lead a major division at Johns Hopkins. He first gained national fame in the 1980s as the doctor who led a surgical team that separated conjoined twins. Twenty years later, he became a conservative political star after assailing President Obama’s signature healthcare law at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013.
In a Facebook post just before Thanksgiving, Carson briefly addressed his change of heart on joining the Cabinet:
After serious discussions with the Trump transition team, I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly to making our inner cities great for everyone. We have much work to do in strengthening every aspect of our nation and ensuring that both our physical infrastructure and our spiritual infrastructure is solid.
Carson has said little, however, about what specific ideas he would bring to HUD to combat inner city poverty and homelessness. He will likely have to work with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has developed a conservative anti-poverty proposal centered on consolidating federal programs and giving more authority to the states. In choosing Carson, Trump seems to have passed over Ryan’s mentor on the issue, Bob Woodson, the president and founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Trump met with Woodson last month.