Julio Cortez / AP

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.

“Why did someone come onto church property without permission?” Evans asked us, as he shooed us away. “This community needs some support on all kinds of issues—on dilapidated housing and everything else. All of a sudden you’re going to show up on our property and not even ask permission to be here?”

A few minutes later, Carson arrived. He had invited Cummings to join him, but the congressman declined. Cummings’s office said the invitation came last night and he couldn’t rearrange his schedule.

Carson had been briefed on the kerfuffle with the church and was none too happy, using it to make a broader point about vanishing civility. “It’s a church!” he said. “They say, ‘Get off my property.’ A church! … This is the level to which we have sunk as a society.”

Carson spoke for about 20 minutes, making a statement about how he had watched Baltimore’s uneven progress while working as a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and then taking a few questions. He’s in an uncomfortable spot from which there is no easy escape. He’s the lone African American Cabinet secretary serving a president whose attacks on people of color are now commonplace. And implicitly, the president’s demonization of Cummings is an attack on Carson’s agency: HUD. Carson said at the news conference that $16 billion in federal money has flowed to Baltimore in the past year alone. Without providing evidence, Trump has said that funds have been “stolen.” Even if that were true, isn’t it his administration’s job to properly account for the money and ensure that it was properly spent? (Carson, asked about Trump’s claims of theft, said he has put rigorous “financial controls” in place.)

As a Cabinet secretary, Carson would likely lose his job if he were to slight Trump in a way that offends his vanity. That’s happened before—just ask the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. However, in his remarks today, Carson separated himself from his boss in some fundamental respects. Though he didn’t directly impugn Trump’s behavior, it seemed at times as if he were talking to the president himself.

Carson said that Americans need to “realize that we’re not each other’s enemies and that we have a job to do here.” That doesn’t sound much like Trump, who seems less focused on wooing political adversaries than forcing their unconditional surrender. Or their exile: Tweeting about the four freshman congresswomen of color known as “the squad” earlier this month, Trump wrote, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”

I asked Carson whether Cummings is largely responsible for poverty in his district. “I’m not one who likes to sit around and point fingers at people,” he said. “I like to come up with real solutions.” Trump is someone who does point fingers. In a tweet last week, he wrote: “So sad that Elijah Cummings has been able to do so little for the people of Baltimore.” The final question came from a reporter who asked whether Trump’s remarks about Cummings were racist. Carson walked away silently, got into a waiting SUV, and drove off.

Afterward, I went into the church to talk some more with Evans. He was behind a desk, a copy of The Baltimore Sun spread in front of him. He bristled at Carson’s suggestion that the church was at fault. He said the institution is an altruistic force in a neighborhood that sorely lacks investment. It runs food and clothing drives, he said, along with programs to help people get high-school diplomas and wean them from drug dependence. “We’ve done everything we can in this church,” he said. “But some things have to have support from government, not just the congregation.”

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