Ben Carson’s campaign is admitting the candidate and his advisers need to do a better job of “communicating his message” after a tough news report and a series of flubbed interviews have underscored ongoing doubts about his foreign policy acumen.
“We want to continue to get better at what we do in communicating his message,” senior Carson strategist Ed Brookover told NBC News in an interview Wednesday.
Brookover said, however, that Carson is “doing a good job of communicating his vision and values,” and that the “American people are showing they’re very comfortable with his values, which is probably the most important thing for the country to feel comfortable with him.”
His comments come after a difficult few days for the Republican candidate. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, Carson struggled to answer basic foreign policy questions; on Monday, Carson took a long pause before admitting, “I’m not sure” in response to a question on NATO.
That same day, The New York Times published a piece in which an alleged adviser complained of his lack of knowledge on the Middle East.
“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 agent and Carson adviser, told the Times.
Carson on Tuesday said Clarridge is “not my adviser;” Brookover the next day told NBC News that “if his expertise is needed we’ll reach out to him again.”
“It’ll be on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Carson campaign spokesman Doug Watts dismissed the Times piece, arguing “the campaign and Dr. Carson will demonstrate his knowledge … global matters in an undeniable manner before the Iowa caucus vote takes place, and we believe that will have an impact on voters, not a half-baked NYT piece.”
Carson’s main foreign policy adviser is Ret. Army Gen. Bob Dees, who now works at the Christian Liberty University and is not without controversy of his own. He once suggested the military could be “the most influential way” to bring people to Evangelical Christianity and called for Muslims to "demonstrate how their religion does not lead people to a final end state of violence and oppression.”
Carson has also received counsel from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Reagan National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane, though the two aren’t directly involved in the campaign.
Still, the candidate admitted, during an interview on PBS NewsHour on Tuesday, that he’s still learning and "a year from now, I'll know a lot more than I know now."
"In medicine we have something called continuing medical education. You have to get those credits in order to be recertified," he said. "I think that applies to every aspect of our lives, particularly in a rapidly changing world."
Carson receives daily mid-morning written briefings on both “what’s going on in the world” — the global news of the day — and a national security update, which are “an amalgam of no less than 5 senior foreign policy advisors” but compiled by Dees, according to Watts. If Carson has further questions, he calls those in his stable of experts, and Dees and others occasionally meet with him on the trail or in his home in Florida for more extensive briefings.
The campaign is declining to release a full list of foreign policy advisers, but Brookover said that list is coming “soon.” Carson has thus far elaborated on his policy positions only through a series of op-eds published in newspapers and online; his campaign says he’ll soon begin to give policy speeches as well.
But the repeated rocky interviews on foreign policy have brought to focus a main challenge for the GOP front-runner as he works to solidify his lead in national polls of the race: A perception that he may be too kindly and soft-spoken to be an effective commander-in-chief.
It’s an issue that, in the wake of the Paris attacks and growing concern over the rise and expansion of ISIS, could prove problematic for him in the GOP primary.
Brookover said the campaign “recognizes that — and we recognized from early on that demonstrating Dr. Carson's abilities to be president has been one of the things we want to communicate often and communicate well.”
Both Brookover and Watts also argued Carson, in Watts’ words, “has had more foreign exposure than any Republican candidate, save Sen. Graham,” noting the retired neurosurgeon “has lived abroad and worked in and/or visited 57 countries.”
An early Carson adviser who helped build his campaign and policy platform before leaving the campaign last Spring also pushed back aggressively against the perception of Carson as uninformed. Terry Giles, a longtime friend of the candidate and his former campaign chairman, said he was “shocked” by the Times piece because “I have always found [Carson] to be incredibly intelligent, to have the equivalent of a photographic memory.”
Giles hasn’t been working with the campaign since May, when he said he told Carson he needed to take time off from politics to deal with his own business and family matters. But before he left, Giles said he and Dees were the main figures crafting the campaign’s policy. Giles met with advisers at The Heritage Foundation, CATO and AEI to consult on policy, while Dees brought “a number of other contacts and a wealth of information” from his military experience.
“We put all of that together and then we would meet with Ben and go through everything with him, and as a result I felt that he was very prepared, relative to both military strategy and foreign policy, going all the way back to May of this year,” Giles said.
As a foundational figure in crafting Carson’s foreign policy, however, his mindset on the issue could shed further light on Carson’s struggles to show a depth of knowledge on foreign affairs.
“Military policy and foreign policy is not the most complex thing,” Giles told NBC News. "It’s pretty straightforward.”