From Day One, Armstrong Williams was a problem.
Ben Carson announced his presidential candidacy to a packed house on May 4, 2015, in his hometown of Detroit at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. It was an event surrounded by a great deal of fanfare, quarterbacked by Carson’s former communications manager Doug Watts. And it all would have gone perfectly if not for Armstrong Williams, a man who has kept close personal ties with Carson and frequently refers to himself as the candidate’s business manager.
According to Watts, Williams went behind his back and recorded an announcement at Carson’s home which aired on the local Florida TV station WPEC on May 3. This undercut all the planning that went into the event in Detroit the following day, causing the press to slowly disappear.
“At about 8 o’clock, in the middle of the rehearsal that evening, we’re sitting in the theater and Ben is sitting in front of me, with Armstrong next to him,” Watts told The Daily Beast after a discussion at Georgetown University last week. “Someone runs over and says, ‘So you just announced.’ And I’m like ‘What are you talking about? Ben is sitting right here, we’re announcing tomorrow.’”
In that moment, when Williams had done something in secrecy, subverting a carefully orchestrated and expensive plan, Watts knew there would be trouble. And try as he might for months after this, Watts just couldn’t take it anymore. In hindsight, he just wished he had realized the lengths of the issue with Williams earlier on.
“My antenna should have gone up on the night of the announcement,” he told The Daily Beast. “Like what the fuck? I had cameras fall off. I had reporters fall off. It was anti-climactic. Sean Hannity left. How many times do you need that?”
This kind of headstrong, bullish behavior is nothing new for Williams, who has demonstrated his win-at-all-costs temperament in the past whether defending Clarence Thomas in court or fighting for his own reputation when faced with a bruising harassment suit. Williams did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Whenever Watts and Barry Bennett, the former campaign manager, discuss Armstrong Williams—as they have become accustomed to do since exiting the campaign on a wild, confusing New Year’s Eve—it’s as if they’ve seen war.
Watts, the more boisterous of the two voices, a kind of guns-blazing sidekick in a western film, breathes deeply before letting his diatribes rip. Bennett, who managed to get Watts to stick around longer than anticipated, is contemplative and jovial, breaking into a high-pitched chuckle as he and Watts regale each other with the somewhat traumatic stories like supermodels would treat unattractive pictures of themselves in high school. And now that they’ve separated from the campaign, and Bennett has accepted a role as an unpaid adviser for Trump’s camp, it’s a no-holds barred war against Williams, who took to Facebook on Friday to address their “unmitigated gall.”
“If they are so willing to throw Carson under the bus, what will they do to their next employer?” Williams wrote.
As Bennett and Watts see it, it’s Williams who has thrown Carson under the bus. Now they just hope that Carson will wake up, listen to reason, and stop taking orders from the man who they say has driven the campaign “off a cliff.”
“Ben Carson has never said, ‘Armstrong Williams is my business manager,’” Bennett said, emphasizing that that specific designation is an invention from Williams’s own imaginative brain. “What business is it that they have together?”
The thing that cuts the deepest for Bennett and Watts is that they really like Carson and were personally touched by his inspiring story. Watts studied the playbook of Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign, hoping that Carson could capitalize on the same groundswell of support from people looking for hope once again. In the soft-spoken former neurosurgeon, the tag team saw a person who could be the insurgent candidate the Republican Party desperately needed, a similar game plan that has worked its magic for Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. And it worked in the brief spell when Carson became the nation’s frontrunner and the only person to date who managed to outpoll Trump nationally.
For Bennett and Watts, it all seemed possible too but for Armstrong Williams, who on multiple occasions bypassed the rest of the team, approving fiscally irresponsible moves and permitting interviews for Carson and his team that turned disastrous.
In just one of these cases, Williams offered up a personal driver for Carson before the campaign was granted Secret Service protection. According to Bennett, he would drive Carson around willy-nilly for months until Williams dropped a $22,000 invoice for his services with no warning and no precedent. In another instance Williams outsourced the production of a campaign song to the tune of over $50,000. The problem was that the campaign had already put money behind another tune and Williams knew that.
“What the f-,” Bennett said, trailing off to avoid saying the word. “I’m not paying for this.”
Above and beyond his flagrant uninterest in collaborating with the campaign infrastructure, Williams would allegedly lie to Carson to create an illusion that all internal relations were sound.
“Sometimes Armstrong would lie to him and say that he had talked to us and that we had signed off,” Bennett said. “That was never the case. Then Ben would try to be the peacemaker.
“I think he’s just living in an alternative universe,” Bennett said trying to understand why Carson would still cooperate with Williams.
Such was the discordant nature of a campaign where in many instances, reporters would struggle with conflicting statements coming out of two disparate camps: Bennett and Watts on one side and Williams on the other. In some cases, Williams would be on the phone with Carson and reporters at the same time, trying to get the story straight in real time. Even as Williams attempted to float above the campaign, never distinguishing himself as an actual staffer and never actually appearing at campaign headquarters, he was always pulling the strings.
“Yeah, he would tell you he has nothing to do with it, which is complete and utter bullshit,” Bennett said.
Williams has never made a secret of how tough he can be to his colleagues and employees—even using it as a defense in a 1997 sexual harassment case that was eventually dismissed.
Both Bennett and Watts acknowledged the case itself was just a subsidiary concern as Williams positioned himself for a role in Carson’s presidential campaign, but was just one of a multitude of reasons why Watts and Bennett began to lose faith in the whole endeavor.
“We only read it in passing and said ‘OK, I guess we’re going to have to handle this at some point in the campaign,’” Watts said, breaking into one of his burly laughs.
The plaintiff in the harassment case was Stephen Gregory, a young man who met Williams in 1994 when he was hired as his personal trainer at a local YMCA. Gregory went on to work alongside Williams on his radio program The Right Side—a show which still airs to this day—and eventually became his radio producer. On April 10, 1996, Gregory filed his complaint detailing allegations of sexual harassment over a period of two years and requested “emotional distress damages in an amount to be proven at trial.”
“I didn’t sexually harass him, but I did harass him,” Williams said, defending himself in a deposition at the time. “I only harassed him to do his job.”
The list of alleged physical and emotional altercations began with Williams touching Gregory’s knee while he was driving, according to Gregory’s statements to psychologists in court documents obtained by The Daily Beast. There are other purported instances of Williams grabbing Gregory’s butt and penis in the office, discussions of sexual matters, requests for personal time between the two of them and shared beds in hotel rooms on business trips.
Gregory claimed that he was fired from his position because he repeatedly rejected these sexual advances. He and his attorney, Mickey Wheatley, requested $250,000 in damages, which Williams chalked up to an extortion letter, calling the allegations baseless. Williams and his attorney, Peter Axelrad, painted Gregory as an inept employee who was fired for doing a bad job.
“To sue people who are well known who has a degree of money. You make false allegations, and you hope to live a life without ever working for—earning an income,” Williams said in a deposition.
During Williams’s depositions the argument with Wheatley devolved into a series of questions about the radio host’s sexuality. Williams, a prominent media figure in conservative circles who gained notoriety for defending Clarence Thomas, patently denied any suggestion that he was homosexual and referred to it as a sin.
“I can’t speak for other heterosexuals, but I can only speak for myself,” Williams said when Wheatley asked if it was impossible that he harassed Gregory because he is heterosexual. “It is impossible that I could have harassed the man who worked for me. It is impossible.”
While it remained unclear what, if anything, exactly happened between Gregory and Williams, this wasn’t the first time that an employee had leveled these sorts of allegations. Ebon Robinson said that Williams sexually harassed him as well, but later recanted the statement. Gregory’s counsel also alleged at the time that they had spoken to a former masseur who made similar allegations against the radio host.
Multiple attempts to reach Wheatley and Gregory were unsuccessful.
The Gregory case came to halt on Jan. 19, 1999, when both parties suddenly agreed to dismiss the matter with prejudice in D.C. Superior Court. While the attorneys were preparing for what could have been a nasty trial in April, Gregory and Williams privately agreed to walk away from the case. At the time, Williams claimed that no money changed hands, but Gregory didn’t comment as to whether there were financial incentives for him to dismiss the charges.
“I am not going to comment on that,” he said. “I am very happy with the resolution.”
When The Daily Beast spoke with Williams’s attorney at the time, Peter Axelrad, a civil trial litigation attorney in Maryland, he said he had no idea how the case ended.
“It is entirely possible that this matter was settled,” Axelrad said. “I can’t tell you.” But to his recollection, Axelrad thought the suit was a waste of time.
“We didn’t believe in the case,” he said. “I didn’t believe that the plaintiff had any merit.”
Watts and Bennett said Williams has never harassed anyone on the campaign except, they joked, for them. “My history has always been [that] innocent people don’t often write checks,” Bennett added.
But the only thing Bennett is outright willing to accuse Williams of is being a bully—one who pushes Carson around until he gets his way. As to which way Carson is going as the campaign continues to nosedive, Bennett says there’s only one sensible path.
“I’m sure he’d never do it but the most influence he’d ever have right now is [with] Trump,” said Bennett, who thinks Trump will get the nomination. “He could endorse Trump and help him win Iowa.”
He thinks this’ll never happen though and that Carson will ride the campaign out until the wheels fall off.
That is, maybe unless Armstrong Williams says otherwise.
—with additional reporting by Katerina Pappas