Ben Carson sipped hot chocolate across the breakfast table from Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcConnell breaks with Trump on NATO Trump makes unannounced stop at his DC hotel Rick Perry misunderstood Energy Secretary job: report MORE at the businessman's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday morning, still unsure as to whether he’d endorse anyone in the Republican primary.
Over the last week, Carson had spoken by phone to Ted CruzTed CruzCaitlyn Jenner to attend Trump inauguration: report Trump’s UN pick threads needle on Russia, NATO Haley slams United Nations, echoing Trump MORE, Marco RubioMarco RubioTop Dem: Don’t bring Tillerson floor vote if he doesn’t pass committee Booker to vote against Tillerson Rubio wades into Trump-Lewis feud MORE and John Kasich, the other three candidates still in the GOP presidential race. None had stood out to him.
Trump closed the deal at a meeting that lasted more than an hour in an ornate corner of the businessman’s swanky resort, in a room where original Mar-a-Lago owner Marjorie Merriweather Post — at one point the wealthiest woman in the United States — was known to take her breakfast.
About 24 hours later, Carson and Trump met again at Mar-a-Lago, this time at a press conference where Carson announced – to the surprise of many – that he’d be supporting Trump for president.
In an interview with The Hill, Carson recalled the process by which he came around to supporting the controversial front-runner, who was once his rival for the GOP nomination.
“I needed to know that he could listen to other people, that he could change his opinions, and that some of the more outlandish things that he’s said, that he didn’t really believe those things,” Carson said.
When asked which statements Trump might back away from, Carson demurred.
“I’ll let him talk about that because I don’t think it’s fair for me to relay a private conversation,” he said.
Carson and Trump first met about three years ago, around the time the retired neurosurgeon began his ascent in conservative circles. Carson came to prominence for delivering a blistering rebuke of the Obama administration at the National Prayer Breakfast with the president forced to sit quietly by.
That’s when Carson, who also has a home in Baltimore, bought a house in West Palm Beach near Trump’s lavish estate.
On several occasions, Trump and his wife Melania hosted Carson and his wife Candy for dinner at the resort.
Carson recalls being impressed by Trump’s attentiveness to the needs of his guests – a quality that even some of Trump’s most bitter rivals acknowledge is one of his better attributes.
But Carson said his path to supporting Trump began in earnest in September at the second Republican presidential debate in Simi Valley, Calif. That debate took place not long after Trump had achieved front-runner status and a short time before Carson would challenge him atop the polls.
There, Carson said, the two men bonded over their shared status as outsiders who had flummoxed the media and party elites. Both also shared a strong distaste for being politically correct. The connection grew stronger as they crossed paths at subsequent debates.
“He and I have talked over for months about the fact that we had a lot of alignment and there would probably continue to be some association,” Carson said.
The relationship endured through Carson’s run at Trump in the polls last fall. At the time, Trump unloaded on Carson, seeking to frame his quiet adversary as a deranged man with a questionable backstory.
At their Friday press conference, Trump said Carson’s dignified response to his insults left a lasting impression on him. Carson has forgiven Trump, chalking it up to politics.
The two men seem to genuinely like one another.
But Carson insists that he carefully considered all of the remaining candidates before giving his endorsement.
Cruz, Carson determined, is a “polarizing figure” who would lose to Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAgriculture head backs Perez in DNC race Hillary Clinton tweets well-wishes to Bushes Chelsea Clinton: We must keep fighting MORE in the general election.
“I think it would be very difficult to convince the independents and Democrats to come over and support him,” Carson said.
Carson said his decision not to support Cruz had nothing to do with the Texas senator’s campaign circulating a false story about him dropping out of the race before the Iowa caucuses.
In fact, Cruz was Carson’s second choice.
But Carson said he doesn’t think Cruz has appeal beyond a narrow slice of the Republican base.
“I just did not get the impression that Cruz would have the ability to draw in a lot of people other than hardcore conservatives,” he said. “I’m not sure you can win that way. You’ve got to be able to expand. The country has changed and we have to change with it.”
Carson’s assessments of Rubio and Kasich came down to math.
“I didn’t see a pathway for either,” Carson said. “That was the same reason I dropped out, because I didn’t see a pathway to victory for me.”
Now, Carson is going all-in for Trump, saying he’s incensed by the efforts of the mainstream Republicans seeking to derail the GOP front-runner with millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads.
“The key thing for me was recognizing that the political establishment was pulling out all the stops to try to stop Trump,” Carson said. “It seems to me that’s thwarting the will of the people. The people are the ones who are supposed to make the decision.”
Carson is also inflamed by what he sees as an effort by Rubio and Kasich to hang around in hopes of forcing a contested convention.
Kasich is openly discussing the possibility, while the Rubio campaign has taken the peculiar step of encouraging its supporters in Ohio to back Kasich, who has a better shot of defeating Trump in the Buckeye State’s winner-take-all contest.
“I don’t like it,” Carson said, vowing to “go down fighting” for Trump in Cleveland in July if the situation arises.
“That’s the reason I came out this week, because if there’s any way to preclude that from happening it will be good for us. If we go to a contested convention, regardless of the outcome of it, it’s going to fracture the party in an irreparable manner.”
Carson predicted that if Trump shows up with a plurality of delegates at the convention, but the nomination goes to someone else, the despair felt by grassroots conservatives would keep them home on Election Day and “hand over not only the presidency, but perhaps the Senate and the House to the Democrats.”
Carson is optimistic it won’t come to that.
“If [establishment Republicans] see a popular movement expanding in Trump’s direction, they have no choice but to come on board,” he said, arguing that the front-runner has grown the party by attracting legions of new voters.
Carson says he’s now focused on helping Trump shape his policy goals. Trump has lauded Carson for his ideas on healthcare and education in particular.
As for the possibility of joining the ticket as a vice presidential candidate?
“I leave the door open,” Carson said.
“My primary focus is to make sure we get the kinds of policies in place that are really going to solve our problems and are going to preserve the American dream for the next generation. If serving as vice president is going to make that more likely, then I’m willing to do it.”