Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who’s had an illustrious career in medicine but little formal background in housing policy, defended his qualifications Thursday to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as he sought Senate approval during his confirmation hearing.
Carson, testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, cited his personal story as he explained his familiarity with the core issues that HUD — an agency with 8,300 employees and a nearly $50 billion budget — handles. He recalled his childhood in inner-city Detroit and being raised by a single mother who worked as a “domestic” because she had just a third-grade education.
“We had no place to live … so I have actually in my life understood what housing insecurity was,” he told lawmakers.
He also cited the insight he gained from being involved in community programs during his time as head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.
Carson did not read from prepared remarks during Thursday’s hearing — which may have been due to claims that certain passages were plagiarized. According to The Washington Post, Carson’s written statement contained large sections lifted from a 2008 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
A Trump transition spokeswoman told the paper the text in his written statement — normally entered into the official congressional record — was “an error.”
It is not the first time Carson has faced such allegations. In 2015, he issued an apology for failing to properly attribute parts of his 2012 book, “America the Beautiful,” according to ABC News.
Prior to the hearing, Democrats repeatedly raised questions about Carson’s fitness to manage a large bureaucracy given his lack of government experience. Carson faced similar questions during his 2016 Republican presidential primary run.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent him a letter earlier this week with 35 questions ranging from whether he saw veteran homelessness as a HUD priority to whether he believed the “scientific consensus that the earth is warming due to C02 and other greenhouse gas emissions.”
In one of the few tense moments Thursday, Warren grilled Carson on issues unrelated to his resume — on Donald Trump and his family’s real estate interests.
“Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar you give out will financially benefit the president-elect or his family?” asked Warren, who noted the billions of dollars in grants and loans issued annually by HUD.
“It will not be my intention to do anything to benefit [Trump],” Carson responded.
Warren pressed Carson for a yes or no answer. Carson argued he would not withhold funds from a program simply because a company with ties to Trump may be involved, particularly if that program might benefit low-income Americans.
“If there happens to be an extraordinary program that’s working for millions of people, and it turns out that someone that you’re targeting is going to gain $10 from it, am I going to say, ‘No, the rest of you Americans can’t have it?’” he asked.
Visibly frustrated, Warren asserted he could not “assure us that HUD money — not of $10 varieties but of multimillion-dollar varieties — will not end up in the president-elect’s pockets.”
Prior to the hearing, four former HUD secretaries who served in Republican and Democratic administrations released a letter of support for Carson.
“Some of us came in with deep housing experience while others had to learn it,” said the letter.
Carson pledged he would go on a listening tour beginning at HUD itself and then across the country to “hear from the actual people with boots on the ground.”
The Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus urged senators to reject the nominee because of “repugnant and ignorant statements regarding the LGBT community, particularly transgender individuals.”
Ranking Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said Carson’s “appointment raises real questions about how serious” Trump is to “actually getting anything done” regarding housing.
In the hearing’s opening round, Brown asked Carson directly about his commitment to housing discrimination laws given past remarks.
“Of course I would enforce the laws of the land,” stated Carson, who added that “what I have mentioned in the past is that no one gets extra rights.”