WASHINGTON >> Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, took responsibility today for buying a $31,000 dining room set for his office, two days after saying his wife and assistant oversaw the purchase that has jeopardized his place in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
Carson faced withering criticism from Democrats on the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with one senator — Sherrod Brown of Ohio — suggesting that he regretted being one of the few Democrats to support the secretary’s nomination a year ago.
“I voted to confirm you,” said Brown, who is up for re-election this year. “Four other Democrats on this committee voted to confirm you. I’m not sure I made the right decision.”
In recent days, Carson’s aides have repeatedly advised him to apologize for the purchase, arguing that doing so was the only way to move on, according to several people with knowledge of the situation. But Carson, who has privately fumed about what he regards as the unfairness of being singled out for criticism, resisted doing so until Thursday’s hearing, when one of the panel’s Republicans, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, gently prodded him to be more contrite.
“I take responsibility,” Carson said.
Later, he suggested that the episode had been a personal ordeal, saying that he modeled his reaction to the criticism on advice that Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount, which he summarized as “don’t worry about what people are saying about you, and do the right thing.”
Carson’s tone was markedly different Tuesday, when he told a House subcommittee that he had dealt himself out of the decision-making chain on the dining room set, despite internal department emails showing that he had participated in the selection of specific pieces of furniture last summer.
“I invited my wife to come and help,” Carson said Tuesday. “I left it to my wife, you know, to choose something. I dismissed myself from the issues.” And it was his wife, Candy, he said, who “selected the color and style” of the furniture, “with the caveat that we were both not happy about the price.”
Despite his mea culpa, Carson took issue with the characterization of the purchase as “extravagant” and press reports that suggested he had authorized $31,000 in taxpayer funding for a single table.
“It’s not a table; it’s 17 pieces of furniture,” said Carson, who canceled the order when it was revealed in the press last month.
Scott, the lone African-American Republican in the Senate, said he was sympathetic to Carson, joking that he had become “a piñata.” But he also expressed publicly what many Republicans have said much more forcefully in private — that Carson needed to stop blaming others.
The scandal, Scott said, “has not been helpful, and I appreciate you taking responsibility.”
Legislators also confronted Carson with questions about the firing this week of HUD’s chief information officer, Johnson Joy, after The Guardian disclosed links to a colleague accused of fraud.
“I lost confidence in his ability to lead,” Carson said.
When Brown asked if he was aware of any problems with Joy, Carson said, “I generally don’t get involved in lower-level staffing decisions,” adding that Joy “had a tremendous amount of experience in technological advancement” that the department needed.
During the hearing, Carson continued to show support for Trump’s 2019 budget request, which included a $6 billion cut to HUD, hours after Senate and House negotiators bypassed the White House to allocate big increases to his agency’s budget.
Carson played no role in the congressional negotiations, House and Senate staff members involved in the process said.