President Donald Trump demanded that Gov. Brian Kemp resign because he refused his demand to illegally overturn election results, his harshest rebuke yet of his fellow Republican days before crucial Georgia runoff votes for control of the U.S. Senate.
The president’s attack on Kemp, calling him an “obstructionist who refuses to admit that we won Georgia,” further inflames an internal Republican battle between Trump’s loyalists and some state GOP leaders who refute his false claims of widespread voter fraud.
And the increasing tension comes as U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are trying to project a united Republican front ahead of Tuesday’s runoffs against Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
Adding to the last-minute drama is the fact that Trump is set to headline a rally in Dalton on Monday, the night before the vote, the same day as President-elect Joe Biden will stage an event in Atlanta.
Inundated with requests for comment about the attack, Kemp’s aides arranged a press conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
Kemp said that Trump’s backers should give up trying to flip the outcome of Georgia’s election and instead shift their focus to the all-important Senate runoffs.
“There’s a constitutional and legal process that’s playing out. And I’m very comfortable with that process playing out. But that horse has left the barn in Georgia and it’s headed to D.C. right now,” Kemp said, referring to an effort to challenge Biden’s victory in Congress.
He added: “The next vote is going to be there, not here. So people need to focus on the vote that is happening here.”
Trump’s broadside comes on the heels of a report by Georgia’s top elections official that found an audit of more than 15,000 voter signatures in Cobb County didn’t find a single fraudulent absentee ballot, contradicting allegations that the mail-in voting system was rife with fraud.
Three previous tallies of Georgia’s roughly 5 million ballots have confirmed Biden’s won the state by roughly 12,000 votes. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris announced plans earlier to stump for Ossoff and Warnock on Sunday and Monday.
It’s not the first time the president has taken aim at Kemp, but it was the most extraordinary attack yet. And it serves as another reminder that the first-term governor will likely face a spirited GOP primary challenger in 2022, perhaps endorsed by Trump.
Still, it comes as little surprise to Kemp and his advisers. Trump has called Kemp a “clown,” predicted he would lose the 2022 Republican primary and said he was “ashamed” for endorsing him in 2018. At his rally in Valdosta, Trump encouraged U.S. Rep. Doug Collins to run against Kemp in two years.
The governor has pushed back, aggressively, against Trump devotees who have assailed his wife and family, as well as other state officials, for refusing to intervene in the state’s presidential election.
“I can assure you I can handle myself,” he said earlier this month. “And if they’re brave enough to come out from underneath that keyboard or behind it, we can have a little conversation if they would like to.”
But he has also been careful not to further agitate Trump, who could effectively end GOP chances of winning Tuesday’s runoffs with one negative word about the incumbents. The governor has said he didn’t blame Trump for the wrath he’s facing from Republicans, even though the president has led the charge.
Kemp said Wednesday that he hasn’t yet been invited to Trump’s rally and is uncertain whether he’ll attend. But he refused to swing back at the president.
“All of these things are a distraction. I’ve supported the president. I’ve said that many times. I worked as hard as anybody in the state on his re-election up through November 3, I’ve supported the legal process that him and any other campaign can go through in this state, but at the end of the day I also have to follow the laws and the Constitution.”
The attack is another unwelcome development for Perdue and Loeffler, who have both tried to appease Trump by refusing to acknowledge Biden’s victory and, most recently, backing his call for $2,000 direct stimulus checks.
Though Loeffler was appointed to the office by Kemp in December 2019, and counts him as one of her most important allies, she has not rushed to counter the president for fear of alienating him.
At a campaign stop in Savannah on Wednesday, Loeffler blasted Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the state’s top elections official, when pressed on Trump’s demand for the governor to resign.
“Look, the president is frustrated. I’m frustrated. The governor is frustrated. We need to have a free, fair, trusted election,” she said, describing Raffensperger as inept. “We have to make sure this vote is trusted, and I need Georgians to get out and vote.”