Georgia Today: Brian Kemp, Donald Trump, And The Most Acrimonious Of Political Divorces
Since the November election, President Donald Trump has mounted pressure on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to help overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the state. Trump even encouraged a primary challenge against Kemp. On Georgia Today, Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein on the acrimony between President Trump and the man he assumed would always be in his corner, Gov. Kemp.
Related: Trump on Kemp: ‘I’m ashamed that I endorsed him’
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Dec. 11th, 2020. Fewer Republican governors have been as stalwart a defender of President Trump as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. But as Kemp has learned these past months, and especially since the election in November, the president's idea of loyalty is a one-way street.
Donald Trump: The governor has done nothing. He's done absolutely nothing. I'm ashamed that I endorsed him.
Steve Fennessy: That's President Trump on Fox News last month, realizing he could not count on Brian Kemp to support his efforts to overturn the election results in Georgia. This week, AJC political reporter Greg Bluestein on what remains of the relationship between the two men and who stands to lose the most.
Greg Bluestein: What relationship? As I was preparing to come on the show, President Trump tweeted, “Governor Kemp is down 18 points in a recent poll. Don't believe it, it must be more.” Right? That tells you in a nutshell of where their relationship status is. It's in the toilet.
It has gone from frayed and strained because of his decision to pick Kelly Loeffler over his preferred pick, Doug Collins, for U.S. Senate to the pandemic, where he lashed out at Gov. Kemp’s decision to aggressively open the economy, to now where the president has been openly encouraging Gov. Kemp to call a special session to have lawmakers illegally overturn the results of the election that Biden won in Georgia. It's unfathomable. Me and you can never have predicted this, that we'd be talking about the president tweeting openly his anger at the Republican governor, who this is one of his biggest allies in the South, to do something that you just can't do.
Steve Fennessy: So let's go back to Friday, Nov. 20th, which is about two and a half weeks after the election, and Gov. Kemp went on TV where he said, look, my job is to certify the electors.
Brian Kemp: Every legal vote must be counted and the security of the ballot box must be protected. As governor, I have a solemn responsibility to follow the law, and that is what I will continue to do. We must all work together to ensure citizens have confidence in future elections in our state.
Steve Fennessy: When I saw it and I noticed that he didn't even mention the name of the president-elect, Joe Biden, it seemed like he was a little bit trying to have his cake and eat it, too, by maybe still trying to side, at least partially with those who had some doubt or skepticism about the results of the election. Or am I overinterpreting that?
Greg Bluestein: No, you're interpreting right, to me at least. And remember, this is before President Trump opened his really, you know, this new hostile warfare against Kemp. But he knew back then that this could happen. And so he was trying to walk that line. He was trying to say, "I've got to do my job," which he's legally bound to do this after the election certified. He has to do it.
Brian Kemp: State law now requires the governor's office to formalize the certification, which paves the way for the Trump campaign to pursue other legal options in a separate recount if they choose.
Greg Bluestein: He also, you know, was the former secretary of state who understands election law and understands Republican politics around election law. So he said something that he thought would be popular among conservatives. And maybe he — I'm not saying he doesn't believe it either, but would be enough to get some of the conservatives off his back, maybe the Trump supporters off his back. And really the same thing that Secretary Raffensperger said. Secretary Raffensperger has also called for — appealed for stricter absentee voting requirements in next year's legislative session. But again, that hasn't helped either of them get Trump supporters who are — many of them believe these baseless claims, his unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud — off their backs.
Newscast: This evening, the Republican secretary of state of Georgia confirmed that President-elect Biden has won that state and officially certified the results. Despite how overwhelmingly clear it is that Joe Biden is going to be the next president, the current shame of the Republican Party is the almost universal silence about what the voters have decided.
Greg Bluestein: There's a reason I'll never forget that day because it was also as Vice President Pence was in town. And Vice President Pence was in town to rally for Sens. Perdue and Loeffler for the Jan. 5th runoff.
Mike Pence: I can tell you, as our election contests continue, here in Georgia and in courts across the country, I'll make you a promise. We're going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted. We're going to keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out.
Steve Fennessy: Has he said publicly, Gov. Kemp, that our President-elect is Joe Biden?
Greg Bluestein: No, and neither has Sens. Perdue or Loeffler or neither has most of our state's Republican top leadership. I can think of two exceptions off the bat. Secretary Raffensperger, who said he wished Trump had won, he voted for Trump, but no, Trump didn't win. And then more recently, the lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, who went on CNN over this past weekend and said that President Trump should move on.
Geoff Duncan: You know, if I had a chance to spend five minutes with every single person in Georgia that doubted the election results, I think I'd be able to win their hearts over, show them the facts and figures, separate fact from fiction. But certainly I don't have that opportunity. And so, yeah, you know, on Jan. 20th, Joe Biden is going to be sworn in as the 46th president and the Constitution is still in place. This is still America.
Greg Bluestein: And guess what happened to Geoff Duncan right after he said that. Trump started attacking him on Twitter too. He called him a puppet. He called him a RINO, a Republican In Name Only, and said he was too dumb or too corrupt to realize what was happening in Georgia. So a giant warning. You know, a lot of Republicans and Democrats might be saying, oh, he's courageous for stepping up. But a warning to other officials that, hey, when you go and do it, you know, Geoff Duncan did, you will get attacked promptly.
Newscast: Three metro Atlanta counties have been ordered to freeze their voting machines as part of a federal lawsuit that is asking the courts to overturn Georgia's presidential election.
Steve Fennessy: You mentioned that Gov. Kemp, before he was governor, was secretary of state of Georgia. And so he was the one as secretary of state who helped to sort of usher in our new voting system.
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, he paved the way for the new voting machines that are now in place for the first presidential election in Georgia. And he also is responsible for most of the voting — the newer voting rules that govern the state and of course, signed a law as governor signed in the most recent voting changes into law.
Newscast: Lawmakers got a hands-on demonstration from a company that makes touch screen voting machines that print paper ballots. Now, this comes after lawmakers gave final approval to a bill that would require our state to buy similar machines. The bill is now headed to the governor's desk.
Greg Bluestein: All these lawmakers that are complaining about whatever, you know, the absentee ballot rules or they want more verification or they want more — all these things that either are impossible or unnecessary in the eyes of of state elections officials were endorsed by the Republican governor, were administered by the Republican secretary state, and were passed by a Republican-controlled legislature.
Steve Fennessy: Right. So to cast doubt on the veracity of the outcome is sort of to disavow your own stewardship of the whole process.
Greg Bluestein: Exactly.
Steve Fennessy: Let's drill just a little bit deeper into the consequences for a Republican who would have the temerity to state what is what is clearly and legally obvious from the election, which is that Joe Biden won the state of Georgia. Incurring the wrath of Donald Trump, who is a lame duck president at this point, runs what risk for them?
Greg Bluestein: It is politically dangerous for Republicans right now to defy Trump. And one reason is they're really worried that he — that ostracizing him, that antagonizing him could mean that he could go tell his loyal base of supporters not to bother in January, because Republicans are fighting for him. Why should he fight for Senate Republicans? And that could cost Republicans control of the chamber. Secondly, he could go rally his base in general to go oppose in Republican primaries in 2022 anyone who didn't show him sufficiently loyal support right now. And we might — we probably will be talking about in 2022 Trump-backed challengers to Gov. Kemp, to Secretary Raffensperger and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, if they run at all. And, like, it's not it's not unheard of at all that any one of those three might not run for reelection. Maybe they were thinking about this before, but certainly now with the prospect of a spirited challenger backed by the former president, who knows?
Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, the GOP is at a crossroads. Which direction will it go? This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm speaking with AJC political reporter Greg Bluestein. Greg and I spoke just a few days after he served as a panelist for the two U.S. Senate runoff debates here in Georgia, one of which was carried live on several national TV networks. One of the things you spoke about when we talked in May on the first episode of Georgia Today, you talked about Gov. Kemp's choice of Kelly Loeffler as the senator to succeed the outgoing Johnny Isakson, who was leaving because of health reasons.
Brian Kemp: Today, I'm proud to announce that conservative businesswoman and political outsider Kelly Loeffler will be Georgia's next U.S. senator.
Steve Fennessy: This was despite President Trump's wish that it be Doug Collins. And I think you said that Gov. Kemp — it showed he's very much his own man, but it did set him in opposition to the president. And so I think that's an interesting sort of foundation to lay as we talk about what has occurred in Georgia since Election Day here and, specifically, on just this past Saturday, Dec. 5th, when Donald Trump called the governor. What occurred during that phone call?
Greg Bluestein: Well, it was a very traumatic weekend, honestly, in Georgia politics, because on Friday, Mike Pence came and there's this whole backdrop of President Trump wanting to overturn the election. In the middle of all this, down in Savannah, there's a car wreck.
Newscast: Two Republicans, notably absent from the rally in Savannah, Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Gov. Brian Kemp. The two stayed back in Atlanta today after one of Loeffler's campaign staffers was killed in a car accident.
Greg Bluestein: The victim is a young man named Harrison Deal, who not only was he an aide to Sen. Kelly Loeffler, he was also basically a member of Brian Kemp's family. I mean, he treated — he treated Gov. Kemp as like a second father, as a father figure. He was dating one of Gov. Kemp's daughters. And so Gov. Kemp had this personal, tragic loss on Friday. And amid this backdrop of whether or not Kemp would show up for this big rally and get, like, bullied and yelled at by the president.
Steve Fennessy: President Trump’s rally in Valdosta.
Greg Bluestein: Yes. President Trump's rally in Valdosta and whether or not the governor would show up. And either way, you knew that Trump was likely to go after him, but would he do it in person or will, you know, the governor be elsewhere and have to hear about it, watch it from afar. And the governor decides not to come because of this tragic loss. And you add this to he's getting attacked every day and hasn't lashed back at the president.
Newscast: Breaking news to share. The Washington Post reports President Trump called Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp today urging him to persuade the state legislature to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's victory in the state.
Steve Fennessy: His phone rang Saturday. This is hours before President Trump flies down to Valdosta to stump for Sens. Perdue and Loeffler. So what is that conversation? What does it consist of?
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, well, he gets a phone call. I was told it was a lengthy phone call. It started with condolences for Harrison Deal, the Kelly Loeffler aide who died in that tragic accident. But it quickly turns into badgering over calling a special session. The president, I'm told, continued to ask Gov. Kemp why he isn't using his emergency powers to call a special session, why he can't do signature verification on ballots, why he hasn't succumbed to all these calls from Trump and his allies to do something to not only help the president overturn election results, but also helping Sens. Loeffler and Perdue on January by tightening absentee ballot mailing requirements. And the governor essentially said, no, I can't call a special session to overturn the election results because that's illegal. You cannot verify signatures with ballots because it’s a secret ballot. So even if you go back and look, go look at the envelopes, signatures and envelopes, you can't match up to the ballots and that you also cannot —
Steve Fennessy: Because they've been separated. The envelope that contains the secret ballot has been separated.
Greg Bluestein: They’ve been separated. Exactly. All these signatures have already been verified twice by county elections officials. And so you can go back and look at the signatures on the envelopes, but you can't match them back to the ballots. And even looking at the signatures and the envelopes, state elections officials say, is unnecessary. And on top of all that, if you go in and try to change the rules midstream right before a runoff with voting and absentee ballots already out, that will be gummed up in the courts in a heartbeat, is what the governor essentially — the message he tried to say to President Trump. I was told it was not — it was a very fiery conversation and it was not very friendly by the end, was — that was the subtext that I was told.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Greg Bluestein: And, you know, and the president did not did not leave that phone conversation happy.
Newscast: Like a campaign flashback.
Donald Trump: Hello, Georgia. Hello, Georgia.
Newscast: President Trump promoting tonight's Georgia visit on Twitter just after his campaign filed a new challenge to Georgia's presidential results that turned the state blue for Biden.
Steve Fennessy: At that rally. Did President Trump invoke the name of Brian Kemp?
Greg Bluestein: He did.
Donald Trump: You got to make sure your governor gets a lot tougher than he's been. He's got to get a lot tougher.
Greg Bluestein: The president said he was ashamed to have supported Gov. Kemp, and that was the second time he said that in recent days.
Donald Trump: Because at stake in this election is control of the U.S. Senate, and that really means control of this country.
Greg Bluestein: And he basically invited Doug Collins to run against him in 2022.
Donald Trump: Doug, you want to run for governor in two years, buddy? You’re a good-looking governor.
Steve Fennessy: He's inviting a primary challenge to Brian Kemp in 2022.
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, encouraging one. And Doug Collins is among several names of folks who could do that. And another one is right there, too. State Sen. Burt Jones was in the crowd, too. He was up with President Trump. President Trump singled him out. He is a wealthy Middle Georgia Republican state senator. Young, and he's been a state senator now for several terms. And shortly after that rally, Burt Jones and three other senators led the call for a special session — a petition for a special session to go change the will of the people and to give Republicans those 16 electors. And Gov. Kemp had to once again say to fellow Republicans why he couldn't call a special session to go and negate the votes of 2.5 million or so Georgians.
Brian Kemp: That would be unlawful and unconstitutional. I made that very clear over the last couple of days. The attorney general actually weighed in on that. The General Assembly in 1960 made it very clear that the General Assembly cannot change or overturn the electors in this state if they are elected by the popular vote on the proper day for a presidential election.
Steve Fennessy: What's your insight into Gov. Kemp's sort of personal reaction to being attacked and disavowed by President Trump, when Gov. Kemp himself has been and really remains a stalwart defender of President Trump?
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, I mean, I know that there's a sense of frustration, I'm sure, and anger. And what I'm picking up on is betrayal. You go into this thinking that Trump feels like Kemp owes him big, because Trump came in and endorsed Gov. Kemp six days before the Republican runoff in 2018 against Casey Cagle. And Kemp won by a landslide, a giant, huge, easy victory. And so, you know, in that sense, Trump has always, I think, felt like the governor owed him payback. And when he didn’t pick Doug Collins for that Senate seat, that was a betrayal. But at this point, too, you're also looking at a governor who has put his name on the line for President Trump, even as his popularity waned, even as he did — as he made decisions that weren't all that positive for his administration, whether it be attacking his decision to open the economy, whether it be holding up — there’s, you know, the long fight over Hurricane Michael, federal relief, all these issues that, you know, that have been hard for Gov. Kemp to defend. And Gov. Kemp has remained, you know, as close as you can be to President Trump, even when President Trump’s beating him up.
Donald Trump: The governor has done nothing. He's done absolutely nothing. I'm ashamed that I endorsed him.
Greg Bluestein: I think you were surprised, but I had a lot of Democrats reach out to me and just say, I can't you know, I don't like him, but I can't, you know, I feel bad for him. I feel bad that Gov. Kemp is in this bind right now. It's not his fault. He's just — he's doing his job. He's doing something that we wouldn't have batted an eye at a few years ago. And now it’s, you know, national news.
Steve Fennessy: And President Trump is the only one whose sort of abandoned Gov. Kemp. Kelly Loeffler has not stood up for Gov. Kemp either, and he's the one who appointed her to fill the seat.
Greg Bluestein: Yes. You know, although publicly it looks terrible, it doesn't look great, they're not warring. They're not at odds with each other at all. Gov. Kemp is Kelly Loeffler’s closest political ally, period. And I think the governor would probably be the first to tell her, you can't stand up for me right now.
Steve Fennessy: Huh.
Greg Bluestein: It's just not politically expedient. That's just my hunch.
Steve Fennessy: Is that why we are not seeing Gov. Kemp out on the hustings stumping for Kelly Loeffler?
Greg Bluestein: Yeah, I think that's one reason. Right now, he is not he is not a popular political figure in the Republican circles, which is quite the contrast to just, you know, just a few weeks ago. And look, when I asked Kelly Loeffler that question at the debate the other night...
Greg Bluestein (during debate): Senator, President Trump has attacked your closest political ally, Gov. Kemp, as hapless. He said he was ashamed to support him, even invited one of your former rivals to run against him in 2022. Was the president wrong to say that about the governor? And are you concerned his comments could alienate some Republicans in Georgia ahead of the runoffs?
Kelly Loeffler: Well, the president has the right to pursue every legal recourse to make sure that this was a free and fair election in Georgia. And we know that these audits….
Greg Bluestein: She wouldn't answer that straightforward and that that kind of reflects the position she's in because she can't — politically speaking, she can't afford to alienate President Trump right now, and any sort of hint at that will lead to a tweet that he can fire off in three seconds, that questions her loyalty to him or her loyalty to the Republican base and could literally cost Republicans the Senate. If Kelly Loeffler loses, that is a defeat that is also Gov. Kemp’s. I mean, Gov. Kemp picked her out of hundreds of other applicants for this job because he thought that she would be a great running mate for him in 2022. And he wanted — it's up to him to pick someone who could win the seat in 2020. So, you know, if she loses, it's on her and it's also on him. And I think people close to him are fully aware that his capital will be, you know, just decimated if she loses this race and if President Trump continues his attacks. And you're looking at a governor who can't turn to Democrats for much help and who can't turn to his own party for much help.
Steve Fennessy: Our thanks to Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein. Donald Trump has not let up on Brian Kemp. On Thursday morning, the president tweeted that Kemp, quote, “is finished as governor,” unquote. Meanwhile, after losing dozens of court battles challenging the outcome of the election, Trump is now focused on a lawsuit brought by the attorney general of Texas who's asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the results of four battleground states, including Georgia. Georgia's own attorney general, Chris Carr, has called the lawsuit, quote, “constitutionally, legally and factually wrong,” unquote. That didn't stop Trump from calling Carr on Tuesday to warn him against rallying other Republican attorneys general against the president's efforts, which Sens. Loeffler and Perdue say they support, despite there being no credible evidence of fraud that would come close to reversing the outcome in Georgia. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Our producer is Sean Powers. Eva Rothenberg is our intern. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg