Ben Carson plays a new, prominent role, but fails to reassure

Assuming Carson can speak with authority on a viral outbreak because he was a brain surgeon doesn't make nearly as much sense as Trump seems to think.
Image: Ben Carson, Donald Trump
Ben Carson watches as Donald Trump takes the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015.Mark J. Terrill / AP
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By Steve Benen

The White House hosted a press briefing on the coronavirus outbreak last Wednesday, but it wasn't led by Vice President Mike Pence or Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Rather, reporters heard directly from ... Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.

At first blush, it was a curious choice, since a viral outbreak has very little to do with housing policy or urban development. But Carson is a medical doctor, and Donald Trump apparently has no concerns over his loyalties, so Carson has been put up front and center as a member of the official White House Coronavirus Taskforce.

That isn't necessarily good news. On ABC News' This Week yesterday, host George Stephanopoulos asked Carson about the administration's plan to deal with the 3,500 passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship, which is scheduled to dock in Oakland today. The HUD secretary seemed to have no idea how to answer the question, and he struggled to fake it.

"Uh, the cruise ship personnel and -- as you know, the vice president met with the CEOs of the major cruise-ship companies yesterday, and they are coming up with a plan within 72 hours of that meeting...."

Stephanopoulos reminded Carson that a 72-hour window won't do much good for a large ship that's docking on Monday. The cabinet secretary added, "The plan will be in place by that time. But I don't want to preview the plan right now."

Oh, so evidently there's a secret plan. As Jesse Taylor joked soon after, "Does he think the coronavirus is watching?"

Part of the problem was having Carson appear on national television as a representative of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, despite the fact that he did not appear to be fully up to speed on the administration's response.

Another part of the problem is that the HUD secretary is not an altogether reliable source for information. Not to put too fine a point on this, but Ben Carson has been in the public eye quite a bit over the last four or five years, and he's earned a reputation as someone who says and believes very strange things.

But even putting these relevant details aside, it's not altogether reasonable for the White House to expect Carson to play this role in the first place. Yes, the secretary was an accomplished medical doctor, but his expertise was in brain surgery, not epidemiology.

Specialties are relevant. It would be unwise to ask an expert in contract law, for example, to defend an accused murderer in a criminal trial under the assumption that all lawyers are basically the same. Similarly, assuming Ben Carson can speak with authority on a viral outbreak because he's a retired brain surgeon doesn't make nearly as much sense as Team Trump seems to think.