Are there more important stories we could be discussing today than the new office furniture for HUD Secretary Ben Carson? You might be tempted to think so, but what should have remained in the pages of The Onion as one of the dumber stories out of Washington in 2018 is entering new, dangerous territory.
While I find it difficult to believe that we’re actually talking about this, Carson actually had to appear before a House Appropriations subcommittee this week to talk about the new dining room set which had been ordered for his office. One might think that a quick apology and reckoning of the books could have put this entire debacle to rest, but Secretary Carson decided to double down with yet another explanation for how an order was placed for a $30,000 furniture set for his office. This time (and you might want to be sitting down before reading this) he declared that the replacement was in order because the old furniture was too dangerous and represented a personnel hazard. (WaPo)
Testifying during an appearance on Capitol Hill after weeks of scrutiny over the furniture set — a mahogany dining table, chairs and a hutch for private lunches with guests — Carson called the decision to replace the existing set with the new one “facilities” issue and not a decorating one because of concerns about the old set.
“It’s my understanding that the facilities people felt that the dining room table was actually dangerous,” he told a House Appropriations subcommittee. “People are being stuck by nails, a chair collapsed with somebody sitting in it, it’s 50 years old.”…
On Tuesday, Carson said that a few months after he became secretary, he was told — by whom, he did not specify — that the dining room set in his 10th floor office needed to be changed.
Carson said. “I asked my wife also to help me with that.”
One can easily imagine the collective outrage on the committee and the hawkish demands for answers to this pressing quagmire.
Have you no sense of decency, sir?
Secretary Carson, who knew about the table? Not to mention… THE HUTCH! And when did they know it, sir!?!?
This may all sound silly, but Carson appears to have dug himself into an increasingly deeper hole and shows no signs of putting down the shovel. Just to put this week’s testimony in context with the previous versions of the story, here’s a brief review.
Before the story even broke, Helen Foster, former chief administration officer for HUD said she was demoted as retaliation for objecting to the price of the dining room set. When word leaked out, HUD spokesman Raffi Williams told the press that neither Carson nor his wife was even aware of the purchase order. (This week Dr. Carson said he wasn’t responsible for what “other people” said, apparently including his own spokesman.) But this week Carson said he had already been uncomfortable with the price, but had asked his wife for her input and decided to let her deal with it.
As to why a formal request wasn’t entered to spend more than the normal, allowed amount on furnishings, Carson claimed that it was a “facilities issue” and not a matter of decorations. (Because the table was so dangerous, you understand.) And once he found out about the price he canceled the order immediately.
Why did this bizarre story ever have to come to this point? These conflicting tales have made the HUD office look completely disingenuous, not to mention wasteful in terms of the public purse. As has been discussed repeatedly, if the old table and chairs were really that old and rickety, nobody would have objected to replacing them. A trip to IKEA and a couple of interns with basic tools could have remedied the situation in a day or so.
As for this hearing, would it have been so awful to come in and simply say that he’s new to Washington, wasn’t familiar with all of the rules about purchasing, made a mistake, canceled the order and won’t let it happen again? As it is now, Carson is simply making it look as if he’s trying to blame everyone else under the sun (up to and including his own wife) without taking responsibility. The “facilities vs. decoration” argument seems particularly weak in that light.
We don’t have a requirement for every single cabinet agency to be involved in some sort of media circus every week. This one could have been defused in less than a day if Carson didn’t go into a defensive crouch. And if he winds up losing his position over tablegate (which we still can’t rule out entirely) it will be one of the dumbest scandals on record to depose a cabinet secretary.