Kemp faces new crossroads with old adversary as Trump legal problems grow

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to supporters after being re-elected at Coca-Cola Roxy at the Battery, Tuesday, November 8, 2022, in Atlanta. Also shown in Kemp’s wife Marty. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Combined ShapeCaption
Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to supporters after being re-elected at Coca-Cola Roxy at the Battery, Tuesday, November 8, 2022, in Atlanta. Also shown in Kemp’s wife Marty. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

There aren’t many Republicans who have drawn Donald Trump’s fury quite like Gov. Brian Kemp. And there may not be any state GOP leader who channeled the former president’s wrath into sweeping electoral success as effectively as Georgia’s two-term governor.

Now as Fulton County prosecutors prepare to unveil a potential indictment against Trump, Kemp finds himself at a new crossroads in his relationship with the GOP’s most dominant national figure.

Kemp is a popular Republican with national ambitions who briefly entertained speculation that he’d run for president. He’s also expected to be a star witness in the proceedings against his party’s presidential front-runner if the case moves forward.

Will Kemp join many other Republican leaders in declaring the case a liberal fantasy brought by politicized prosecutors, or will he more aggressively confront Trump for his role in the 2020 election fraud claims that roiled Georgia?

In the short term, Kemp is likely to sidestep commentary on a potential indictment because of the role he could possibly play in a trial.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is expected to announce her decision within days, called on Kemp to testify before a special grand jury in November; he spoke for three hours in the closed-door proceedings that centered on Trump’s demand that the governor take steps to reverse his defeat.

But Kemp’s broader approach to a potential criminal case could also have long-term implications for his political future, whether it be a U.S. Senate run against incumbent Democrat Jon Ossoff in 2026 or aspirations for another federal office down the line.

Credit: AJC file photos

Credit: AJC file photos

“The governor is in a precarious political position,” said Fred Hicks, a veteran Georgia strategist who has done work for Republicans and Democrats.

Hicks noted that Trump’s legal peril could smooth Kemp’s path to higher office as a rare Republican who has gone toe-to-toe with the former president — and won.

“However, he runs the risk of alienating a not-so-small piece of the Republican electorate and, more immediately, making enemies in a state Senate that leans toward Trumpian politics.”

His allies sound confident that Kemp has inoculated himself from Trump-driven fallout. Cole Muzio, the head of the Frontline Policy Council, said the governor has earned GOP goodwill because he will “do the right thing, regardless of political consequences.”

“And the trust that has engendered among Georgians is why he will emerge unscathed from a situation that would be politically lethal for others,” Muzio added.

‘Courage of conviction’

Although Kemp has distanced himself from Trump’s other criminal cases, the Fulton County probe hits far closer to home for him. Not only will the proceedings play out a short walk from the state Capitol, the investigation has directly involved the decisions Kemp made in 2020.

Prosecutors have previously said they’re interested in Trumps calls to Kemp and any purported evidence that the then-president and his campaign put forward alleging the election was “rigged.” They also want details about any threats that may have been made.

Kemp refused Trump’s call for a special legislative session that could have invalidated Joe Biden’s victory and rebuffed other attempts by Trump’s allies to undermine the election when he certified the results.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

That put Kemp at the top of Trump’s revenge list in 2022, when the then-president promised to oust the governor and other Georgia Republicans he accused of disloyalty. Trump told his supporters that a vote for Kemp was a betrayal of his values and swore that the governor would “go down in flames” at the ballot box.

That prediction was wildly inaccurate. Kemp easily beat former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in last year’s GOP primary, then forged an alliance of conservative Trump backers, mainstream Republicans and more moderate voters to defeat Stacey Abrams in a November rematch.

He waged that campaign without publicly uttering a bad word about Trump, careful not to ostracize MAGA supporters who would help him beat Abrams for a second time. But since his victory, Kemp has felt freer to pan Trump and urge Republicans to move beyond his obsession with 2020.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Trump’s devotees, who have vowed to protest an upcoming GOP event co-hosted by Kemp that is scheduled to draw several of the former president’s rivals for the Republican nomination in 2024. Some activists say they are carefully watching Kemp’s next step.

Salleigh Grubbs, a pro-Trump activist who chairs the Cobb County GOP, noted that Kemp has told Republicans he will support the party’s nominee in 2024 — whoever it is.

“By all indications that may very well be Donald Trump,” Grubbs said. “Assuming that to be the case, it stands to reason that he will follow through on his word to support President Trump. Indictment notwithstanding, courage of conviction is important to the grassroots.”

A balancing act

Many of the party’s most prominent figures have tiptoed around the criminal charges against Trump, framing the cases in Miami, New York and Washington as evidence of a partisan justice system that has been weaponized by Biden’s allies.

Among the few prominent Republicans who have taken a sharper stance is former Vice President Mike Pence, a close Kemp ally who has criticized his ex-political boss over attempts to undermine the election results.

“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States,” Pence said in a statement last week after the federal indictment was unveiled.

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

Kemp, meanwhile, is still engaged in a careful tightrope act. He recently told CNN he was “disappointed” that the Fulton County probe has stretched on since 2021, adding that it “sows distrust” in the judicial system.

But the governor has also blasted Trump’s recent praise for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and repeatedly pleaded with the GOP to move on from Trump — without mentioning the ex-president by name.

Whether he intends to raise his criticism to a new level remains to be seen. Hicks, for one, noted that Lt. Gov. Burt Jones is among the Trump-aligned Republicans who aren’t afraid to butt heads with Kemp.

“Any slippage from the governor opens the door for Lt. Gov. Jones and his supporters in the Senate to drive the legislative agenda,” Hicks said of Jones, who broke with Kemp this year by backing a failed Buckhead cityhood initiative and promoting a hospital deregulation plan.

“How Kemp balances what’s best for him in the short term and the long term will decide how effective he is in advancing his legislative agenda,” Hicks added, “and how effective he is at laying the foundation for a federal position.”

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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