Ben Carson’s top aides have resigned, casting the retired neurosurgeon’s campaign into chaos just a month before the Iowa caucuses.
Carson’s campaign manager Barry Bennett and communications director Doug Watts announced Thursday they will leave the team.
In an exit interview with The Hill, Bennett blamed Carson’s close friend and adviser Armstrong Williams for a handful of political missteps and accused him of railroading the retired neurosurgeon’s White House bid.
Bennett said he believes “a lot more” staffers will follow him out the door and predicted the campaign team will be “decimated.”
Williams does not have an official role with the campaign, but he’s a longtime friend of Carson’s and has his ear on everything from politics to business deals to life.
Williams, who often sets up media interviews for Carson without the campaign’s knowledge, and the top advisers have been on a collision course for some time.
Things came to a head last week when Williams arranged for several media outlets to interview Carson at his Maryland home, and Carson openly mused about a staff shake-up.
The interviews caught the campaign off guard and infuriated Carson’s top aides.
“I’ve been in politics 30 years and don’t know anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to have your candidate go on national TV and announce they’re taking charge of the campaign,” said Bennett. “That’s the most obscure idea I've ever heard.”
In a subsequent interview with The Hill, Carson insisted his top aides were safe and that he was happy with their work, but the damage had been done.
“The entire team was left wondering if they had a job,” Bennett said. “It made for a great Christmas.”
Bennett also blamed Williams for his input in an unflattering New York Times story in which one of Carson’s foreign policy advisers criticized his ability to understand matters related to national security.
Williams on Thursday was unapologetic.
“They’ve got to blame somebody,” Williams said. “At least they’re not blaming Dr. Carson. Let them blame me.”
Williams said Carson has already moved to put a new team in place. The new campaign manager will be retired Gen. Robert Dees, who presently advises Carson on foreign policy.
"We've moved on," said Williams. "Our focus now is on Iowa and South Carolina. This shake-up isn't a surprise, Dr. Carson talked openly about how it coming."
But it comes at a tough time for the Carson campaign.
Carson continues to raise enormous sums of money, having pulled in $23 million this quarter, the most of any Republican candidate.
But his campaign is spending at just as fast a clip. The campaign’s treasurer told The Hill earlier this month that they may have blown through half of the $11.5 million in reserves they claimed at the start of the quarter.
Carson’s campaign has been under scrutiny for spending the bulk of its donations on expensive small-dollar fundraising.
Critics have charged that the operation is merely enriching consultants and advisers.
The campaign has pushed back furiously, noting that, as a political newcomer, Carson did not have a fundraising base when he launched his bid for president and that it’s expensive to build one out from the ground up.
Meanwhile, Carson’s polling numbers have collapsed as the focus of the GOP race has turned to foreign policy in the wake of several high-profile terror attacks.
Close allies of Carson defended Carson and Williams and blamed the “political consultants” brought in to run the campaign.
Terry Giles, a friend of Carson's who set up the candidate's original campaign and hired both Bennett and Watts, says he lays the blame for Carson's fall entirely at their feet.
"I think you've got to put it almost completely on their shoulders," Giles told The Hill.
"The political consultants, and I count both Bennett and Watts as political consultants — they always want to turn their candidates into vanilla," Giles added.
Giles has known Watts for decades, dating back to their days as fraternity brothers at college, but he says he feels burned that the communications director wanted him out of the campaign. Giles left for good in late October.
"It was a surprise to me because Doug and I go back a long time," Giles said. "And I brought Doug into the campaign."
Giles says he thinks Carson can recover but only if he surrounds himself with good people. "I think he's got a better chance of recovering without these folks in his campaign than he would have had with them."
Jeff Reeter, a Houston businessman who runs the pro-Carson super-PAC "Our Children's Future," told The Hill that the resignations of Bennett and Watts are only going to be good for the campaign. He also foreshadowed more political operators leaving the campaign.
"I have a hunch that Dr. Carson is going to move forward in a very positive and powerful way to tell the American people that these associations with political folks and their politicizing his campaign pursuits are not his way forward," Reeter said.
Reeter said that Bennett's and Watts' political skills were not what the campaign needed and that Carson needs to get back to being a non-politician.
— Updated at 1:37 p.m.; Jonathan Swann contributed.