Opinion: Donald Trump, Brian Kemp, and a relationship that may not be worth saving

If Brian Kemp’s soured relationship with Donald Trump were a movie, the governor of Georgia would have received a boiled bunny in the mail last Wednesday — rather than a Twitter message demanding his resignation.

It is in many ways a romance gone bad.

Sparks flew between the two in the summer of 2018, when Trump put Kemp on the road to the governorship with a Tweeted endorsement. As governor, Kemp chafed Trump last year by choosing Kelly Loeffler rather than U.S. Rep. Doug Collins to succeed a retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

But it wasn’t until early November that the liaison really cratered. Kemp has now endured two months of presidential fire-breathing for his refusal to participate in the overthrow of a free and fair election won by Joe Biden in Georgia. And yet, the governor still expresses his loyalty — in terms that would be familiar to any domestic abuse expert.

For even if Trump is an ex-president, Kemp still must share the same political space with him for the next two years.

“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 Nov. 3,” the governor told reporters on Wednesday, closing out one of the most unusual days in the history of the state Capitol.

Kemp answered questions for only 10 minutes. But if you listened carefully, you could hear the 2020 presidential contest finally come to an end — and the 2022 race for governor begin. Groundwork was laid for the establishment of separate Kemp and Trump households.

Wednesday had started fine for Kemp. The day before, an audit of signatures on more than 15,000 absentee ballots in Cobb County had been completed by GBI agents and investigators from the secretary of state’s office. Not a single instance of fraud had been turned up, contradicting assertions from the governor’s own party that the process was rife with corruption.

There was little time to celebrate. Wednesday’s hairpin turn came at 9:26 a.m. with the Tweet from Trump, who was apparently displeased by the results of the signature audit — and wanted attention focused on a state Senate hearing that would soon be graced by the president’s own personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

“@BrianKempGA should resign from office. He is an obstructionist who refuses to admit that we won Georgia, BIG!” the leader of the most powerful nation on earth declared.

Giuliani had been to the state Capitol only a few weeks earlier, but was still unfamiliar with the geography. The former mayor of New York was apparently quite rude to a state trooper on the grounds — because he couldn’t tell Giuliani just where he was to make his argument for putting an end to democracy.

More on that later.

In fact, the subcommittee hearing was on the fourth floor of the Capitol. The president’s lawyer referred to the Nov. 3 vote as “the dirtiest election, the most crooked election, the most manipulated election in American history.”

“There are more facts to be collected,” Giuliani promised. “Georgia is going to be at the center of it.” Soon, “international connections” would be made public, he promised.

Giuliani told the state senators gathered that they could call themselves into session to name a new delegation of electoral college members from Georgia and negate the outcome of Nov. 3. “The governor has no right, really, to interfere,” Giuliani said.

And that signature audit? “The recount in Cobb County is a joke. It’s an insult,” the president’s lawyer said.

Giuliani also made this curious assertion about his relationship with Trump. “He is my client, your client,” he told the state lawmakers.

But as he made his case for authoritarian rule in America, Giuliani may have made one misstep. He said the “fraud” of the Nov. 3 vote could be proved six ways to Sunday — and pulled out exactly the wrong example.

“How is it that in every single Republican county in this state, state senators ran ahead of the president by 4 to 6%. Every single one. Exactly the same — 4 to 6%. We know the president’s favorability in this state,” Giuliani said. “We know in at least a few of those cases, he’s going to run ahead of the Republican senators. And it’s just in the states that fixed the vote that that happened.”

In other words, to justify the overthrow of the 2020 election, state senators would have to admit that they were less popular in their districts than Donald Trump. Not just democracy would need to be sacrificed. Egos would, too.

Giuliani asked if any senator had any questions. His performance was met with silence.

Not long afterwards, two floors down, Governor Kemp placed himself in front of a group of socially distanced reporters. They wanted to talk about Trump’s Tweet.

Kemp called that a distraction. The governor said he was focused on two things: Tuesday’s two U.S. Senate runoffs, which will determine whether the GOP continues to control that chamber, and the pandemic.

It is possible, even probable, that Trump’s resentment toward the governor of Georgia will live on. Kemp could face a challenger in a 2022 GOP primary. The president has encouraged Doug Collins to think about it.

But Georgia has changed. The 2022 race for governor will be settled by a November general election, one that most likely will involve Democrat Stacey Abrams. To win that contest, Kemp must focus on the very issue that Trump has neglected since the first week of November — a coronavirus pandemic that is now claiming nearly 4,000 victims a day in the U.S.

And it’s about to get worse.

“We’re seeing our hospitalizations increase at an alarming rate right now. We’re working frantically to get the World Congress facility back opened up. I’m making sure we’re getting this vaccine distributed to all parts of Georgia,” Kemp said.

In his spare time, Kemp said he’s focused on Tuesday’s runoffs. “I don’t want to wake up on Jan. 6 and wonder what else I should have done,” Kemp said. “I’m doing everything I can with the time that I have.”

Translation: If Republicans lose one or both Senate seats on Tuesday, it won’t be on him. Responsibility will belong to a president who ripped the Georgia GOP apart to win a lost election.

As mentioned, Kemp was unable to bring himself to say a harsh word about Trump. But fortunately for Kemp, the president had offered up a substitute.

Informed that Rudy Giuliani had just dismissed the Cobb County signature audit as “a joke,” the governor applied the same word to the president’s lawyer. Kemp defended the GBI agents involved.

“I told them, you follow the truth, wherever that may lead you. That is what they did, and they will continue to do,” the governor said.

As for those Republican state lawmakers (and U.S. House members and one U.S. senator) who outpolled Trump in Georgia, the governor hinted that it might have been because they knew what they were doing.

Now, about Rudy’s rudeness. “Giving Georgia state troopers that are working at the Capitol grounds a hard time, when he’s trying to figure out where the committee meeting is — we don’t appreciate that down here. That’s not how we treat people. They may do that in New York, but that’s uncalled for,” Kemp said.

Much attention has been given to the damage that a rupture with Trump could cause Kemp as he ramps up his re-election effort. But Tuesday’s U.S. Senate runoffs will probably be determined by suburban voters in Georgia. The same is likely to be the case in 2022.

Twenty-two months from now, politely refusing to bend to Trump’s will might be a decent calling card in those neighborhoods.

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