An odd new development has arisen in the complicated relationship between Donald J. Trump and his onetime acolyte, Georgia governor Brian Kemp. On Wednesday, the president rebuked Kemp for getting too far out in front of his campaign to reopen the economy with a statewide order earlier this week — a move that had alarmed public-health experts everywhere. Alan Judd of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the story:
President Donald Trump threw Georgia’s easing of restrictions to quell the coronavirus into disarray late Wednesday, criticizing Gov. Brian Kemp for acting “too soon” to reopen shuttered businesses …
“I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree — strongly — with his decision to open certain facilities,” Trump said in a White House briefing on the coronavirus outbreak. “It’s just too soon. I think it’s too soon.”
By all accounts, Kemp thought he was doing Trump’s will by working with two adjoining states governed by Trumpy Republicans (South Carolina and Tennessee) to let a host of businesses reopen before the end of the month, on grounds that the economy had suffered enough from the stay-at-home order he was among the slowest to adopt. Indeed, Kemp seemed to be the poster boy — or perhaps the canary in the coal mine — for the direction Trump signaled he wanted the states to take, even as the president hid behind Anthony Fauci’s more cautious national guidelines for easing business restrictions.
As recently as Tuesday, when asked about Kemp’s plan, Trump called him “a capable man who knows what he’s doing.”
And then, according to Judd, the administration had expressed its satisfaction with Kemp’s course of action directly on Wednesday:
Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had called Kemp, reportedly in support of his plan to reopen Georgia’s economy this week. Earlier Wednesday, Kemp’s spokeswoman, Candice Broce, said only that the calls “went well.”
According to CNN’s Jim Acosta, two things happened to change the dynamics.
First, during the day on Wednesday there was a White House intervention that pushed Trump to zig after Kemp zagged:
At a meeting just prior to yesterday’s coronavirus task force briefing, task force members were discussing the likelihood that some of the doctors on the panel would be asked by reporters about Kemp’s controversial move to open up many businesses in Georgia, like nail salons and bowling alleys, the source added.
During the meeting, Dr. Anthony Fauci and others on the task force noted there would be a glaring inconsistency if the scientists were not in agreement with Trump on the Georgia issue during the press conference.
“I cannot defend this publicly,” Fauci said to others at the meeting, according to the source. Members of the group agreed it was necessary to attempt to change Trump’s mind on the subject.
Apparently task force coordinator Deborah Birx was deputized to talk Trump into shivving Kemp, and succeeded. Then Kemp learned of the about-face:
[T]he President, around the time Birx met with Trump, had a second call with Kemp, according to two sources familiar with the situation. This call was brief and struck an entirely different tone than the first: Trump asked the governor to slow down his reopening plan, to which Kemp said no, according to the sources. The President said he’d call Kemp back later to discuss, but never did.
If that’s accurate, Kemp couldn’t have been completely surprised when Trump tore him a new one during the nationally televised briefing. But even if he was blindsided by Trump, it was arguably a matter of karma, since Kemp blindsided Georgians, including the state’s mayors, with his sudden reopening announcement at the beginning of the week.
This isn’t the first time these two pols from the same atavistic wing of the Republican Party have had their ups and downs.
Trump gave Kemp a well-timed and decisive endorsement in his 2018 gubernatorial campaign when the then-Secretary of State (who called himself a “politically incorrect conservative”) was an underdog to Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle in a Republican runoff. But then last year, Kemp ignored Trump’s public and private pleas to appoint the president’s impeachment wingman on the House Judiciary Committee, Doug Collins, to an open U.S. Senate seat. Kemp instead gave the plum gig to sports executive Kelly Loeffler, who is rich enough to self-fund a special election campaign and is allegedly appealing to the suburban women who have been abandoning the GOP in Georgia lately (though Loeffler has been under intense scrutiny over her suspicious coronavirus-related stock trades).
Collins lost no time announcing an electoral challenge to Loeffler from the Trump-o-centric right, and it was no surprise when he quickly echoed the president’s rebuke of Kemp on Trump’s favorite show, Fox & Friends.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen next, though Kemp looks pretty exposed at the moment, under attack from the political left and right. It won’t be easy for him to walk back his tough position all but calling off his state’s lockdown, particularly from where he sits right now under the MAGA bus.