ANALYSIS: Inside a week that could define Kemp’s political career

Gov. Brian Kemp revealed Monday that he planned to allow some small business owners to reopen by the end of the week, with other business being able to open the following Monday. The move was met by pushback, including a rebuke from the governor’s most important ally, President Donald Trump. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Gov. Brian Kemp revealed Monday that he planned to allow some small business owners to reopen by the end of the week, with other business being able to open the following Monday. The move was met by pushback, including a rebuke from the governor’s most important ally, President Donald Trump. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp’s brutal week started with the threat of a protest at the Capitol urging him to lift coronavirus restrictions as he was planning to do just that. It ended with a cacophony of horns from a caravan of demonstrators outside the Governor’s Mansion who were furious he allowed more businesses to open.

In the days between, he drew bipartisan condemnation. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms worried aloud on national television that he was willing to "sacrifice lives for the sake of the economy." Health experts warned of dire consequences. And President Donald Trump, his most important ally, strongly rebuked him for two consecutive days.

“I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp,” the president said Thursday. “I wasn’t at all happy.”

Kemp pushed forward anyways with a decision that could define his first term as governor. On Friday, barbershops and nail salons and tattoo parlors were cleared to reopen, though most would stay shuttered. And moments after Trump delivered his latest tongue-lashing, Kemp released guidelines allowing restaurants to resume in-person dining Monday.

The Republican has maintained he was taking a “measured approach” that was in step with the wishes of a president who encouraged protesters to “liberate” states from coronavirus lockdowns. Kemp’s personal philosophy, too, held that the “community” and not the government should lead the way in a recovery.

“The private sector has to convince the public it’s safe to go back into these businesses,” the governor said. “If they don’t, we have the ability to act on that.”

But his administration has been shaken by intense criticism from all corners.

The governor and his aides are accustomed to blowback, such as his polarizing support last year for new abortion restrictions. But this time, many of his most vocal allies are conspicuously silent, and other state Republicans aren't taking sides. House Speaker David Ralston, who was alongside Kemp on Monday when he unveiled his plan, is steering clear.

“I haven’t had time to get involved in that spat and don’t intend to,” the speaker said.

Along the way, Georgia has transformed into a litmus test for coronavirus rollbacks. If it goes smoothly, other states could soon follow. If it doesn’t, as feared by an odd coalition that’s united Georgia Democrats and Trump loyalists, it could risk future efforts to lift economic restrictions.

“If he does this wrong, they are going to bludgeon him and not want to open anything,” Fox News personality Sean Hannity said.

‘I don’t give a damn’

Kemp hinted for days that he was preparing to ease restrictions that shuttered close-contact businesses. But his announcement still caught some of his top allies off guard, and it blindsided the coronavirus task force he established to offer him advice on how to respond to the pandemic.

Bottoms, who leads one of the task force’s committees, said she was shocked to learn the news while watching a live feed of Kemp’s briefing. Bernice King, a co-chairwoman of a panel charged with publicizing Kemp’s coronavirus steps, found out in a text from a friend.

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak

The governor’s office was fast inundated with questions: How can they reopen when a shelter-in-place order was still in effect? Why choose businesses such as bowling alleys and barbershops? And, most persistently, did Georgia really meet the federal requirements to start loosening restrictions?

That “gating” criteria outlined by the White House recommends states wait to phase in sectors of the economy until there’s a decline in new COVID-19 cases for at least 14 days and testing becomes more widely available — two goals Georgia has yet to meet.

Kemp, saying "I don't give a damn about politics right now," also maintained that the state was on track to meet the guidelines through other factors, such as a reduction in emergency room visits and an increase in hospital capacity.

His administration also struggled with growing national outrage, the kind of furor that evoked memories of the exhausting 2018 race against Stacey Abrams.

Though several governors didn't impose any statewide standard, Kemp was one of the first to aggressively move to ease the restrictions — making Georgia the focal point for a growing debate about how to restore the U.S. economy even as he asserted this was no "great leap forward."

Much was focused on the types of shops allowed to reopen if they met safety standards his office issued — the close-contact businesses such as barbershops and massage parlors.

"The moment people hear a bowling alley could reopen, they don't look at his executive order," said Buzz Brockway, a former Republican state legislator who is a policy wonk at the conservative-leaning Georgia Center for Opportunity. "There are a lot of restrictions, a lot of hoops you have to jump through."

Add to the mix that Kemp had already attracted national scrutiny for suggesting he had just learned the widespread knowledge that people infected with COVID-19 could transmit the disease even if they were not showing symptoms. (He pointed to new guidelines about a higher transmission rate for people who could be unknowingly carrying and spreading the disease.)

As the backlash grew, so did the pressure on Kemp to reverse course. At Tuesday’s White House briefing, Dr. Deborah Birx, the federal coronavirus response coordinator, endorsed calls by local Georgia officials who urged residents to ignore Kemp’s directive.

At the same briefing, though, Trump praised the governor as a “very capable man.” A few hours later, in separate calls, both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence approved of Kemp’s stance, according to multiple officials with knowledge of the conversations.

‘Machine’

White House health experts had a starkly different view. CNN reported that members of the federal coronavirus task force huddled before Trump's press conference and decided they needed to unite in opposition to Kemp's plan. Birx was sent to Trump to persuade him to publicly oppose the Georgia governor, the network reported.

Shortly before the press briefing, an official said, Trump called Kemp again — this time to express concern about the pushback he’s facing. He wanted to talk at length later to discuss Kemp’s approach. The governor’s staff prepared for a phone call that never came.

In a tweet Friday, Trump denied the account and said he and Pence “never gave Governor Brian Kemp an OK on those few businesses outside of the Guidelines.”

When Trump took to the podium and proclaimed that he "strongly" disagreed with the governor's decision, Kemp officials were stunned. Just as many Georgia officials were caught in the dark earlier this week by Kemp's decision, now the governor and his advisers were blindsided. Some were just finishing their workday, others were en route home.

Still, it didn’t take long for Kemp to respond. He would stick with his decision, surprising none of his aides and confidants, some who have been with him since his political career launched in the early 2000s.

Kemp had bucked the president before, picking Kelly Loeffler to fill a U.S. Senate seat over Trump’s preferred choice. It was a decision that irritated the president but didn’t appear to alienate him.

This time, though, the president’s strong objections to Kemp’s plan — and his repeated use of the governor’s name — seemed personal to some of his allies.

Publicly, Kemp held his fire. He spent Thursday out of the media spotlight and in meetings — with advisers, with state officials, with health experts. One described him as a “machine” — a dervish of video-conference calls and paperwork as he prepared for the rollback. He began Friday with visits to South Georgia towns slammed by severe storms.

“He’s a guy who listens to a wide variety of opinions, but once he makes his mind up, he’s going to stick to it,” Brockway said. “And that’s what you have to do if you’re in his position. You can’t be waffling. You’ve got to be firm. And he’s doing that.”

HOW WE GOT THIS STORY 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with more than a dozen Georgia officials, operatives and allies of Gov. Brian Kemp to piece together this story. Many spoke without attribution because they weren’t authorized to comment on the record about confidential conversations.

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