The president’s rapid about-face undermined a member of his party and added to the sense of confusion about how states should begin restarting economic activity in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
It also underscored underlying tension between the president and Kemp, who soared to the governorship on a pro-Trump platform and pivotal endorsement but has since resisted the president’s suggestions on some of his most significant decisions as governor.
Kemp, who rejected Trump’s call to reverse course on his state’s reopening this week, has drawn increasingly sharp public rebukes from a president who has vacillated throughout the crisis between urging for a cautious public health response and advocating for a swift restart of economic activity across the country.
“I want them to open, and I want him to open as soon as possible. And I want the state to open,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “But I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp. I will tell you that right now.”
Since Trump released his “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” last week, states have taken differing approaches to determining whether to ease stay-at-home orders and how closely to hew to the recommendations. But the president has also expressed disparate views about his own recommendations in his public remarks — calling for governors to “LIBERATE” their states one day, and urging continued social distancing the next.
Georgia now finds itself at the center of Trump’s erratic approach.
In a phone call last week with the nation’s governors, as Kemp was making plans to lift coronavirus restrictions, Trump told the governor he was doing a “great job,” according to audio obtained by The Washington Post.
Kemp thanked Trump for working with his state and said he had spoken to the president and Vice President Pence about reopening Georgia’s economy and was trying to emulate Trump’s approach.
“Our folks are really looking forward to that. I’m sure the whole country is,” Kemp said on the call. “We’re going to dig in and get ready to go.”
The green light Kemp received from Trump to move forward with easing restrictions fell victim to the president’s mercurial governing style, according to senior administration officials, who, like others, requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Kemp announced his order on Monday, saying he would allow some beauty salons, spas and tattoo parlors to begin operating.
Once it became public that Kemp’s order would ease restrictions on those businesses, Trump and Kemp spoke again and the president suggested that Georgia scale back the plan, including not opening nail salons and spas, according to people familiar with the call. Kemp declined.
The conversation followed warnings from Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said they disagreed with Kemp’s move.
Trump did not attempt to force Kemp’s hand, telling the governor that the decision was up to him, according to people familiar with the call. Trump has also said publicly he wanted governors to make their own decisions.
Asked about Kemp’s order on Tuesday, Trump called him “a very capable man” and said he was doing a great job as governor.
But on Wednesday, Trump broke with Kemp publicly in unprompted opening remarks during the White House coronavirus briefing. Kemp had no idea the president was going to berate him publicly for his decision and believed the president had left it up to him, said people familiar with the matter.
Others including Pence, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Georgia Sen. David Perdue (R) have been involved in trying to broker a compromise of sorts, a White House official said.
“Senator Perdue has consistently called for a measured, phased approach to reopening the economy, and he believes President Trump’s guidelines strike the appropriate balance and prioritize the health and safety of all Americans,” said Casey Black, a spokeswoman for Perdue.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
After the Associated Press reported that Trump and Pence had repeatedly told Kemp that they approved of his plan to reopen Georgia’s economy, only to reverse course, the president took to Twitter to offer a rebuttal.
“I (or @VP) never gave Governor Brian Kemp an OK on those few businesses outside of the Guidelines,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Friday, decrying the reporting as “FAKE NEWS!” “Spas, beauty salons, tattoo parlors, & barber shops should take a little slower path, but I told the Governor to do what is right for the great people of Georgia (& USA)!”
A spokeswoman for Kemp declined to comment.
On Thursday, after Trump told reporters that Kemp’s decision was in violation of the White House reopening guidelines, the governor defended the move on Twitter and said he had been coordinating with the Trump administration.
“For weeks now, my team has worked closely with the Trump Administration and our federal counterparts to mitigate the impact of #coronavirus in Georgia,” Kemp wrote. “Our decisions and direction are informed by data and public health recommendations.”
While Trump’s support among Republican voters in Georgia is “rock solid,” his public critique of Kemp will have less influence on the governor’s political standing than how the easing of restrictions is managed, said Brian Robinson, a GOP communications consultant in the state and longtime spokesman for former governor Nathan Deal (R).
“He went out on a limb, and there’s always a risk inherent in that,” he said. “There’s a perception that Trump came in and sawed the limb off behind him — and there’s some truth to that.”
But, Robinson said, Republicans in the state are supportive of Kemp’s decision to move more aggressively than any other governor reopening the state’s economy. Ultimately the governor will be judged nationally on how it plays out, he said.
“If it works, he’s going to be a conservative hero,” he said. “But, at the same time, the risk he runs is that even if we have a little uptick in cases, a little uptick and hospital occupancy, there’s going to be a national media backlash.”
Kemp’s relationship with Trump had already begun to fray before the coronavirus crisis.
Trump remained miffed that Kemp did not pick Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) to fill an open Senate seat, and instead chose Republican Kelly Loeffler, according to two people close to the president, including one senior administration official. Both of these people said Trump now likes Loeffler but thought Kemp’s decision was disloyal when the president preferred Collins, and that Trump has since complained about it.
“The real story is Trump’s never gotten over that,” one of these people said, an assessment echoed by the second person.
Kemp’s allies have pointed out that the governor’s order includes strict safety guidelines for what various establishments should do before opening their doors. Those guidelines include screening employees to make sure they are not sick, enforcing social distancing and enhancing sanitation.
Asked about Kemp’s order and Trump’s criticism, Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R) cautioned against making sweeping generalizations.
“This is about very small incremental steps,” he said Thursday in a radio interview with conservative commentator Erick Erickson. “And I think details do matter, in a day and age where it seems like five-second sound bites dominate decision-making in too many places.”
Trump has also talked to other allies in Republican states that neighbor Georgia, hearing complaints about the impact of Kemp restarting so many businesses so quickly.
“I talked to him last night — talked to him yesterday morning — we talked about the Georgia situation. He thought massage therapy and barber shops were a bridge too far,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on Thursday. “I didn’t have to lobby him.”
During a meeting of the White House coronavirus task force on Thursday, Birx said she was glad other states were sending the government reopening plans before they executed them but was surprised by how many southern states like Georgia wanted to keep their salons open.
“It must be the wives,” she said, according to two people in the room, before adding, “I don’t get it.”
Fauci, who is 79, joked that he was waiting on his next tattoo.
While Trump has sided with Fauci and Birx in opposing Georgia’s actions, he could eventually swing back toward Kemp’s position, Robinson said.
“Kemp could come out of this really good, and I think President Trump would be amongst the first to praise him,” he said. “I think Kemp could lead and get a convert from the president.”