BALTIMORE—Everyone was in place. TV camera crews had set up their tripods early this morning on a scraggly patch of grass facing a boarded-up rowhouse. Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, would be arriving any minute for a news conference that his agency had quickly arranged in a blighted pocket of West Baltimore represented by Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings.
For days, President Donald Trump has been tweeting about Cummings, casting him as the overlord of rat-infested neighborhoods unfit for human habitation. It wasn’t clear ahead of time what Carson would say or why he had shown up. But the photo op didn’t seem to go as planned. If Trump had been hoping that Carson would reinforce his message that Cummings is a villain and West Baltimore a slum, the HUD chief didn’t deliver. Nor did he offer the sort of full-throated defense Trump might have expected.
The photo op was off the rails before it even began. Carson’s team would soon find out that the Morning Star Baptist Church of Christ owns the property where the secretary was to stand. Gregory Evans, 71, is a member of the church, and this morning, he was near the entrance, minding who was coming and going while children took part in a Bible-school session inside. He walked over and told Carson’s entourage that they hadn’t asked for approval to use the land—and needed to leave. Could they just stay and hold their news conference if no one had a problem with that? one of the housing department aides asked. Evans was emphatic: No. That settled it. Carson’s advance team, the TV camera crews, the print reporters, and I all packed up and replanted ourselves about 30 yards away.