Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson held a bizarre press conference Wednesday in which he implied that Sen. Ted Cruz is a hypocrite, but then accused the media of trying to create a “mud fight” when he was pressed for more clarity on what exactly he was alleging.
Carson’s campaign asked the media to assemble at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., so that Carson could talk about “deceptive Iowa caucus tactics.” It was a clear reference to allegations that the Cruz campaign told some caucus-goers in Iowa that Carson was dropping out of the race, just as Iowans were about to cast their votes.
Carson said at the press club that his support had been reduced as a result of these rumors, and argued that presidential candidates should be judged by their actions, not just their words.
“I believe what it says in Matthew 7:20, the Sermon on the Mount: ‘By their fruit you will know them,’” Carson said. The invocation of Jesus’ teaching from the Bible was another not terribly subtle way for Carson to signal to religious voters that he has integrity, while Cruz does not. Cruz and Carson are competing for conservative religious voters.
But Carson did not mention Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, by name in the statement he delivered. Cruz won the Iowa caucuses Monday night. He later called Carson to apologize for the rumors that were spread, and Carson accepted the apology, his campaign said. But in the same press release the Carson campaign sent out announcing the news of Cruz’s apology for “dirty tricks,” Carson spokesman Larry Ross said that “we need an individual who is not a politician to lead and to heal our nation, not someone driven by ambition.”
When asked if he was calling Cruz a hypocrite, Carson demurred.
“I didn’t say a word about Ted Cruz,” Carson claimed. “What I said was, what we need to be able to do is look at a person’s life, look at the way a person does things, look at the way a person treats other people to make a judgment.”
Asked to clarify that he was talking about rumors spread by Cruz campaign supporters, such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa, that he was ending his candidacy, Carson acknowledged he was.
“It’s clear there were people that tried to take advantage of the situation, they tried to distort information,” Carson said. “Sen. Cruz told me that he was not aware of that and that he did not agree with that kind of thing. And we’ll wait and see what he does to demonstrate that.”
Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, also implied, but did not directly state, that Cruz should fire or repudiate anyone who had participated in spreading the rumors.
“When I discovered there were things in my campaign that I couldn’t agree with … I made changes. I think that’s what a good leader does,” Carson said.
Donald Trump, who came in second in Iowa, on Wednesday called the Iowa results a “fraud” because of the rumors spread by Cruz supporters, and said the contest should be invalidated and new caucuses held.
Asked if he agreed, Carson grew defensive and accused the press of trying to stir up a fight.
“I know you guys like to create a mud fight, because that’s fun,” he said. “But this is a problem with America today. We’ve become like ancient Rome. Everybody wanted to go to the Coliseum and see the blood and the gore — ‘Oh this is exciting!’ — while their society was crumbling around them.”
It was a strange moment. A candidate who had asked the press to come hear him speak for the sole purpose of denouncing another candidate in the presidential campaign was accusing the press of trying to manufacture controversy.
But Carson is deeply invested in the idea that his unique strength is not being a traditional politician. So he ties himself into knots to avoid saying anything explicitly about another candidate. Ironically, by parsing his words and not saying what he means, however, he came across Wednesday as more of a politician than if he were to simply speak more plainly.
Cover tile photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images