A defiant Ben Carson on Friday rejected the idea his past descriptions of receiving a scholarship offer to attend West Point were inaccurate, and called questions about the veracity of the story irrelevant to his campaign for president.
“I think what it shows, and these kinds of things show, is there is a desperation on behalf of some to try to find a way to tarnish me,” Carson told reporters at a news conference near West Palm Beach. “Because they have been looking through everything. They have been talking to everyone I have ever known and everybody I have ever seen. There has got to be a scandal.”
Carson, a newcomer to national politics, has developed a passionate following based in part on his inspirational personal story and devotion to Christian values. The only African-American in the Republican 2016 class, Carson grew up in inner-city Detroit and often speaks about his brushes with violence and poverty during his early years.
Following a story published by Politico earlier on Friday, his campaign sought to clarify Carson’s story about his interest in attending the U.S. Military Academy in his breakout book, “Gifted Hands,” in which he outlines his participation with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, commonly known as ROTC, while in high school.
“I was offered a full scholarship to West Point,” Carson wrote in the 1996 book. “I didn’t refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn’t where I saw myself going. As overjoyed as I felt to be offered such a scholarship, I wasn’t really tempted.”
Carson has repeated the story over the years, including in an interview in October with talk-show host Charlie Rose.
Campaign spokesman Doug Watts said Carson was “the top ROTC student in the city of Detroit” and “was introduced to folks from West Point by his ROTC supervisors.”
“They told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC. He considered it but in the end did not seek admission,” Watts said.
Students granted admission to West Point are not awarded scholarships. Instead, they are said to earn appointments to the military academy, which come with tuition, room and board and expenses paid, in exchange for five years of service in the Army after graduation.
A West Point spokesman on Friday said the academy “cannot confirm whether anyone during that time period was nominated to West Point if they chose not to pursue completion of the application process.”
At his news conference on Friday night, Carson said, “it was an offer to me. It was specifically made.” He said he could not recall specifically who made the offer, but he pushed back against the idea that he should be able to do so.
“I don’t remember the names of the people,” Carson said. “It’s almost 50 years ago. I bet you don’t remember all the people you talked to 50 years ago.”
Pressed further by reporters during the news conference, Carson replied: “What about the West Point thing is false? What is false about it?” Asking if he had made a mistake in recounting the story, he said, “I don’t think so. I think it is perfectly clear. I think there are people who want to make it into a mistake. I’m not going to say it is a mistake, so forget about it.”
Hours earlier, Carson had told Fox News in an interview, “I guess it could have been more clarified. I told it as I understood it.”
The story is the latest Carson statement that has been challenged for accuracy, including a post Wednesday on his Facebook page, in which Carson wrote that “every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no elected office experience.” About half had experience as elected members of colonial assemblies, and Watts later admitted the error to The Washington Post.
Also this week, a CNN report raised questions about the accuracy of Carson’s oft-repeated claim that he tried to stab a close friend as a teenager. Citing privacy concerns, his campaign has refused to name the person involved, and Carson said Friday he would “think about it” only if reporters would promise to sing his praises if he did so.
“My job is to call you out when you’re unfair, and I’m going to continue to do that,” he said.
Republican rival Donald Trump, now looking up at Carson in some recent preference polls, seized on Carson’s troubles in a series of tweets on Friday.
“With Ben Carson wanting to hit his mother on head with a hammer, stab a friend and Pyramids built for grain storage – don’t people get it?” Trump tweeted.
Replied Carson, “What would you expect Donald Trump to say?”
To date, Carson’s rhetoric and penchant for using extreme examples to prove his points, such as equating abortion with slavery, have not curbed his rise in preference polls and among small-dollar Republican donors. His supporters have cheered his willingness to ignore what he calls political correctness, and have been more willing to blame the media.
“My prediction is all you guys trying to pile on is actually going to help me,” Carson said Friday night. “When I got out to these book signings and I see these thousands of people, they say, ‘Don’t let the media get you down.’ … They understand this is a witch hunt.”