Meet the Man Working Overtime as Ben Carson’s Biggest Public Defender
Armstrong Williams swears he isn’t paid by his friend’s campaign, but he’s still spent the last 72 hours trying to explain that Muslim president gaffe. ‘It’s what friends do,’ he says.
Three portraits of Armstrong Williams, presidential candidate Ben Carson’s “business manager” and his best public defender, decorate his office near Capitol Hill.
The first is a black-and-white poster-size photo, the second a realistic oil rendering like the ones they commission of presidents, and the third a more abstract blue and red painting he claims someone made for him. The office is also, it’s difficult to not notice, heavily armed with swords: one several feet long and leaning near the door; a statue of a knight clutching another; and yet another mounted on the wall.
On Monday afternoon, a receptionist led me into a back room where I found Williams reclined in a leather chair, his back to me. He did not turn around.
He wore a white shirt and dress pants with a crocodile-skin belt, an orange tie, matching orange socks, and black patent leather shoes with white stripes on the sides.
“Sit down,” he said, gesturing to a granite-topped table a few feet away from him. Behind the table were life-size cutouts of Barack Obama and John McCain. The McCain cutout wore a red “Carson 2016” T-shirt that Williams had initially attempted to dress Obama with, but Obama was too wide for it to fit.
“Sit down,” he repeated. I glanced at the chair, then at the sword, and sat down.
Williams had not been eager to do this interview, because The Daily Beast had been, he complained to me, dismissive of Carson’s candidacy. Agreeing to sit down with me was a risk, he said, but sometimes in life you have to take risks. And there is no one in the world Williams is more willing to take a risk for than his friend Ben Carson, whose campaign, Williams will repeatedly tell you, does not monetarily compensate Armstrong Williams but who he nonetheless has been working overtime for in the last 72 hours, since Carson stuck his foot in his mouth on national television.
On Sunday, the retired neurosurgeon and top-tier Republican candidate announced, on Meet the Press, that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” Condemnation was predictably swift and severe, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations calling for Carson to withdraw from the presidential race altogether.
Making things worse, Carson’s attempts to explain what he meant might as well have been gibberish. First he stood by his initial remarks. Then he said he would actually be OK with a Muslim-born president, but only if he or she rejected the religion by the time he or she entered the Oval Office. Carson acknowledged that rejecting Islam would technically make the hypothetical president an “infidel,” but hey, you can’t have everything.
When that answer proved unsatisfactory to Carson’s critics, he tried a different strategy. The problem, Carson said, is not Islam per se, but Sharia law, and so until American Muslims get together to “renounce” Sharia law, electing a Muslim as president would be tantamount to endorsing the murder of all homosexuals and people of other faiths.
Carson needed backup, and Williams was more than happy to come to his aid. On Monday the business manager appeared on CNN, ostensibly to respond to CAIR’s campaign to force Carson to end his candidacy. What Williams actually did was explain away Carson’s comment in a way that was so divorced from reality that by the end of his segment it was hard to remember what Carson had said in the first place.
CAIR’s ability to even protest at all, Williams said, was because of the “beauty of America,” and “where was CAIR? Where was CAIR when what happened at Fort Hood, when someone in the name of Islam killed our innocent men and women? Where was CAIR? Where was CAIR with our journalists overseas being held in Iran, and Daniel Pearl who was beheaded? Did they have a press conference, condemning those actions and that kind of behavior? Where were they? Answer that question for me!”
Carson didn’t mean to hurt anyone with his comments, Williams said, because Carson is a good person and he would never want a Muslim child growing up in America to think becoming president was an impossibility. Now, that said, “Because of how he feels in his heart about what it means when you’re president of the United States, the kind of power and authority and how literally you can change the world, he has to come to the conclusion for what is best for America and because of his love for America that in his heart of hearts he cold never advocate for a Muslim becoming president of the United States. He just can’t.”
“It’s what friends do,” Williams said when I asked why he defends Carson on TV if he’s not being paid by the campaign. “You won’t see me discussing anything unless I know that he’s comfortable with it.”
Williams moved to Washington from South Carolina in 1982, to work for segregationist Strom Thurmond and then for Clarence Thomas. When Thomas entered the Supreme Court in 1991, Williams said he found himself inundated with offers: a TV show, a radio show, newspaper columns. He accepted all of them. In the ’90s, he became a right wing media darling who called himself “Meteor Man” but could better be described, in the words of the former George H.W. Bush adviser and wife of James Carville, Mary Matalin, as a “mega-multimedia Wunderkind!”
"I always felt, with Armstrong, that the radio was an appendage to other things he was doing," Bob Newman, CEO of Newman Communications, a PR firm specializing in talk radio, told me. Because of this, Newman said, Williams never became a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity. But within his niche of black conservative commentary, he had considerable influence.
It was around this time, 22 years ago, that Williams met Carson, though he told me he can’t remember exactly how. “He may have been a guest on my TV show, maybe that was it,” he said. “I don’t really know.” (A spokesperson for Carson’s campaign did not respond to a request for clarification.)
In 2005, Williams became the subject of controversy when it was revealed that the George W. Bush administration had paid him $241,000 to promote No Child Left Behind. Talking about that time now, ten years later, Williams called it a "horrifying" experience. "I never knew if I would get my good name or get my life back," he said.
In the two decades since they met, Williams said he and Carson grew to be “like brothers.” They talk all the time, Williams said, and they’re very honest with each other. “Carson is easy to talk to, actually. He listens and he has a quiet wisdom.”
Asked if Carson is the sort of brotherly friend you can call at 3 a.m. in an emergency, Williams said, dryly, “We’re not night people.”
Carson was already a famous neurosurgeon with a TV movie (starring Cuba Gooding Jr.) based on his life, when, in 2013, he became a hero to conservatives after giving a rousing speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, criticizing President Obama as he sat just a few feet away. For the last five years, Williams said, he’s tried to convince Carson to run for president, but “he thought I was crazy.” Williams said now he sometimes has to “pinch” himself when he sees just how far his friend has come, polling nationally in second place in the primary, just behind Donald Trump.
Williams describes Carson as being insatiably curious about history, politics, and Washington and its dysfunction. “He’s a brother. He’s a genius, never seen anybody whose mind, who can grasp stuff so quickly, just blows me away. He loves this country. He loves this country. He would have to love this country to be running for president.” But Williams says Carson is also just an easygoing guy who “likes beating you on the pool table,” reading, and listening to classical music.
Williams told me his decision not to work for the campaign formally was made in part because he wants to ensure that there are people on the outside of the day-to-day operation whom Carson can trust to tell him the truth. He wouldn’t want Carson to become one of those candidates—Williams offered Scott Walker as an example—who finds himself surrounded only by advisers on the campaign payroll and loses sight of himself.
And part of that adviser-less Carson charm are those foot-in-mouth statements. “There’s no question that in the beginning he would commit gaffes in trying to sort out his ideas,” Williams said. Carson is perhaps best known, outside of the CPAC circuit, for saying that the Affordable Care Act is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery” and that being gay is a choice because “a lot of people go into prison straight and when they come out, they’re gay.”
But what Carson said about Muslims was no gaffe, according to Williams. “It was an inconvenient truth,” he said. “I think many Americans, deep down, feel that way.”
“It’s very painful for someone like Dr. Carson—it was very painful to admit that you feel that way,” he added. “It’s not easy. Its painful for Americans, privately, to admit they feel that way. So he did not take any joy in saying that. It was a very painful moment for him that he had to say that. But he said it. That’s what he believed. And Americans in this election want the truth.”
And anytime Carson is in trouble, they can expect to be hearing versions of it from Williams.