Some advisers to Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson say he is struggling to grasp the complexities of foreign policy, his closest confidant said Tuesday, acknowledging their frustration while adding the political newcomer is making progress.
“I’d say he’s 75 percent of the way there,” said Armstrong Williams, Carson’s longtime business manager. “The world is a complex place, and he wants to get it right.”
A story published Tuesday by The New York Times quoted one of Carson’s advisers as saying the retired neurosurgeon, who is making his first run for public office, is having trouble understanding foreign policy despite intense briefings on the subject.
“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” Duane R. Clarridge, a former CIA official, told the newspaper. Clarridge added that Carson needs weekly conference calls to brief him on foreign policy, so “we can make him smart.”
The Carson campaign reacted swiftly to the Times’ story, casting Clarridge in a statement as “an elderly gentleman” who isn’t part of Carson’s inner circle.
“He is coming to the end of a long career of serving our country. Mr. Clarridge’s input to Dr. Carson is appreciated, but he is clearly not one of Dr. Carson’s top advisers,” said Carson spokesman Doug Watts.
But Williams, who has no official role with Carson’ campaign but regularly talks to the candidate, acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that advisers beyond Clarridge are distressed at the pace of Carson’s progress.
Williams estimates Carson has been spending “40 percent of his time” in foreign policy briefings in recent weeks.
“I know they’re frustrated,” Williams said of the team advising Carson. “They know that Dr. Carson is bright. He understands. … There’s just so much there.”
For his part, Carson said Tuesday that he is treating his foreign policy education like medical education, diving into reading materials and discussions with experts with diplomatic and military backgrounds.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he said during a satellite interview with WHO-TV in Des Moines. “In medicine we have something called CME — continuing medical education — that recognizes that you never become a know it all, you always are continuing to learn.”
Carson recently mistakenly suggested that China is militarily engaged in the Syrian civil war and offered sometimes meandering answers in an interview with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace a few days after the Paris attacks.
Williams added that too much is being made of Carson’s appearance on Fox News Sunday. Along with delving into the hypothetical of a shooting war with Russia, Carson demurred when Wallace pressed him on which countries he would call first in attempting to build a coalition to fight Islamic State militants.
“Of course he knows the answer to that question,” Williams said, arguing that Carson was “being dismissive” because he didn’t think the question was relevant to the bigger picture.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of style, not substance,” Williams said, adding that it’s “outrageous” to suggest Carson can’t name existing or potential U.S. allies.
Williams, meanwhile, told AP that Clarridge is entitled to his view, but rejected the notion that Carson is less qualified or capable than any of his rivals.
“I don’t know anybody on that stage who has extensive experience in foreign affairs,” Williams said, adding: “They depend on researchers. They depend on staff. They all depend on talking points.”
Williams, who sometimes advises Carson on how to deal with journalists, said he spoke with the candidate Tuesday about having to engage with questioners even if he doesn’t like the format or the questions.
“We had a very deep conversation today,” Williams said. “He realizes he has to get better at all of it. He can and he will.”