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Inside the ‘nasty’ feud between Trump and the Republican governor he blames for losing Georgia

Brian Kemp, then Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, walks with President Trump in 2018 as Trump arrives for a rally in Macon, Ga. (John Bazemore/AP)

The first major fissure in the relationship between President Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp came a year ago, when Kemp paid Trump a clandestine visit in the White House residence.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Kemp flew up to Washington to introduce Trump to Kelly Loeffler, an Atlanta business executive he wanted to appoint to fill his state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

But when Kemp and Loeffler finally got their audience with the president, Kemp presented Loeffler as a fait accompli — telling Trump that he wanted the president to meet the woman he was planning to name to the Senate.

Well, if you’ve already made your decision, Trump grumbled, then I’m not sure why you’re here, according to people familiar with the conversation.

Trump later complained to aides that Kemp was rude and impolite — never forgiving the Georgia governor for what he viewed as a major slight.

The Fix’s Amber Phillips analyzes how some of the rhetoric from Trump allies could depress Republican turnout ahead of the Georgia Senate runoff elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

The strain between the two Republicans has now boiled over into a full-blown feud in the aftermath of Trump’s 2020 electoral defeat, as the president has fixated on his loss in Georgia as a humiliation that he blames in large part on Kemp. Trump lost the solidly Republican state by approximately 12,000 votes and is furious with Kemp for not heeding his calls to question the integrity of the state’s election results.

In phone calls and conversations with allies and advisers, Trump has griped that Kemp was not pushing Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to do more to reverse President-elect Joe Biden’s victory; that Kemp was not defending the president on television; and, perhaps most indefensible in Trump’s mind, that Kemp moved forward with certifying the results of the election.

“Republicans fell into a trap by expecting Brad Raffensperger and Brian Kemp to cheat for them,” said Jordan Fuchs, a longtime Republican strategist in Georgia who is a deputy secretary of state under Raffensperger and who says the ongoing civil war in her party will have long-term consequences at the polls, including in the state’s two Senate runoff races on Jan. 5.

“The Democrats only have one, singular turnout model, and that’s the argument of voter suppression,” Fuchs added. “They say it in their litigation — it’s the number one poll-tested message they have. This has fed into the hands of Democrats.”

This portrait of Trump’s combustible relationship with Kemp — which portends a potential intraparty civil war in the coming months and years — is the result of interviews with 15 allies and advisers to both men, as well as Republican political operatives, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid details.

Since the election, Trump has personally berated Kemp in private phone calls, people familiar with the conversations said. In one call, the president told Kemp he was losing all of his popularity by not strongly supporting him, and in another, the president pointedly reminded the governor that he had endorsed him in 2018.

Election results under attack: Here are the facts

Trump has also called Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) — both of whom face runoffs on Jan. 5 — to complain about Kemp, though he has not given them any specific edicts beyond generally pressuring Kemp to support the president’s efforts to overturn the election results, one person familiar with the calls said. Loeffler and Perdue did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Maybe I should recruit someone to run against him,” the president said in one of these calls, this person added. “Your governor is horrible. He would be nothing without me.”

'Worse than a Democrat'

Trump emissaries have warned Kemp that the president plans to continue to relentlessly attack him and will publicly criticize him when he returns to the state on behalf of the Republican Senate candidates, possibly on Saturday. The president has attacked Kemp on Twitter, lambasted him at a rally in Valdosta, Ga., earlier this month and went after him again during an interview that aired Sunday on Fox News.

“We won Georgia by a lot,” Trump falsely claimed to “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade. “We have a governor, a Republican governor, that’s worse than a Democrat. He’s terrible. And he’s hurting Kelly and David very badly, the senators, that are terrific people.”

The White House declined to comment on Trump and Kemp’s relationship.

Kemp, meanwhile, has told allies that he can’t spend his time worrying about Trump’s vindictive tweets and rhetorical broadsides, and that while he wishes the president would stop attacking him, he believes it would be illegal to do most of what Trump is asking. Instead, he said, he is focused on keeping Georgia open as coronavirus cases continue to rise.

“That’s exactly their strategy — to not engage and let it blow over,” said Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host based in Georgia. “If the president comes to Georgia, you would see the governor willing to meet him at the airport and shake his hand, even if he doesn’t go to the event.”

Erickson added that the few times Kemp has appeared on his show, “his people have told me in advance that I’m not going to get anything if I ask about the president.”

Although Kemp’s refusal to buttress Trump’s baseless election claims plunged the duo into open warfare, the relationship between the two men who should have been natural allies has long been tense.

At the core of the president’s displeasure is his belief that Kemp has not kowtowed to him enough.

In challenging election defeat, Trump cements his control over the Republican Party

“Kemp stood out as a Republican governor who didn’t seem to think he needed Trump,” said a senior White House official. “He’s never shown a particular need to play ball with the president, which I think really irked Trump, so that’s kind of the origin of it.”

The roots of tension between the two extend to Trump’s 2018 endorsement of Kemp in his Republican primary against Casey Cagle, then the sitting lieutenant governor. Trump believed Kemp had not been sufficiently appreciative of his support, according to people familiar with the episode.

But it was Kemp’s handling of his selection of Loeffler to fill Georgia’s empty Senate seat in late 2019 that particularly angered the president, culminating in the frosty White House meeting that November. Kemp never consulted Trump about the Senate seat when it first opened. And after Kemp created an online application process for the post, Trump complained privately that the Georgia governor was treating the process as if he was “hiring a truck driver,” according to an outside Republican in frequent contact with the White House.

The two men clashed again during the early days of the coronavirus crisis.

Trump initially was supportive of an April 20 executive order from Kemp aimed at opening up businesses in the state, which jibed with Trump’s own push at the time to reopen many businesses against the advice of his public health advisers. Kemp spoke to the president and the vice president the next day, and both told him they thought it was a good approach, according to a Kemp aide with knowledge of the calls.

Trump had a sudden change of heart, however, in the wake of fierce public criticism of the breadth of Kemp’s order. Trump called Kemp back and was particularly “agitated” about the decision to reopen salons and spas, according to White House officials and people involved in the governor’s race. At a White House briefing, Trump said, “I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities.”

In addition, much to the irritation of Kemp’s aides, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Kemp directly to urge him to revoke the order.

“Just how absolutely ridiculous that is,” said one GOP official. “Who . . . does she think she is, telling the governor — essentially dressing him down on the phone.”

McEnany did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump has been blasting Georgia’s election system. Many Republicans plan to vote in the Senate runoffs anyway.

But Kemp’s biggest alleged sin, in Trump’s view, came in the aftermath of the president’s disappointing Election Day showing. Several local Republican strategists speculate that the root of Trump’s recent anger with Kemp is simply the fact that he lost Georgia — a conservative state where those below him on the ticket fared better than he did and where Stacey Abrams, the state’s top Democrat, is credited with building the organization that led to the president’s defeat.

The irony is that Kemp is among the Republican officials in the state who worked relentlessly on Trump’s behalf, said one Republican official in Georgia, noting that the governor held rallies, other appearances and phone recordings with Trump family members.

“No one worked harder to reelect Donald Trump in Georgia than Governor Kemp,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said in a statement. “Since Election Day, the governor has called for a signature audit three times, demanded all allegations of fraud to be fully investigated, and supported the President pursuing legal options afforded him under Georgia state law.”

Still, Hall added, “There is no basis in state law for the governor to overturn the results, interfere in election administration or overrule the constitutional authority of our elected secretary of state.”

'It was nasty'

On Saturday, Dec. 5 — the morning of Trump’s trip to Valdosta — Trump spoke by phone to Kemp. The call vividly revealed just how single-minded the president has become, not just in pressuring fellow Republicans to help him overturn the election, but also in attacking those who refuse.

At the start of the contentious phone call, Trump asked Kemp how he was doing, according to someone briefed on the exchange. Kemp was in the midst of a family tragedy after Harrison Deal, a family friend and Loeffler aide, had died in a car crash the previous day. He replied, “It’s been a rough 24 hours.”

The president then incorrectly surmised that Kemp’s low mood must be because of recent poll numbers showing the governor’s approval rating slipping.

No, we lost a close family friend yesterday, Kemp replied, this person said. Trump then offered his condolences.

In the call, Trump demanded that the governor call a special session of the legislature and pressure lawmakers to change state law to allow them to assign Republican electors and reverse the outcome. He also demanded an audit of ballot signatures, which he has claimed without evidence were not properly matched against signatures on file.

Kemp explained that, for numerous legal reasons, he could not do either of those things.

Kemp’s office declined to comment on the exchange, other than to confirm that the president offered his condolences. Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh declined to comment on the conversation.

Analysis: Republican officials have followed Trump along his dangerous and destructive path

But numerous people with knowledge of the call said the conversation was openly hostile, with Trump effectively threatening the governor and arguing that Kemp would lose reelection if he didn’t cede to the president’s demands.

“It was nasty enough for Kemp to say no to all of the asks,” said one Republican strategist. “I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to Kemp, but he’s politically kind of squishy. He never says yes or no to something. He’ll say something cute and funny, and he pushes it off, but it’s never like a flat ‘No.’ And he said, ‘No.’ He told the president, ‘No’ — twice.”

Later that day, at the rally in Valdosta for Loeffler and Perdue, Trump praised Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) for leading the effort to argue that there was fraud in the state. In private, one Republican said, Trump has floated the prospect of Collins challenging Kemp for the governorship in a 2022 GOP primary.

“Where’s Doug?” Trump said during the Valdosta rally. “Thank you, Doug. What a job he does. You want to run for governor in two years? Yeah. Good-looking governor.”

'This is what it looks like when your party is losing'

The tensions have surprised Republicans in Georgia, many of whom assumed for much of the year that at least some of the apparent chill between Trump and Kemp was staged because the governor did not want to appear to be too close to Trump ahead of a potential rematch with Abrams.

Kemp clearly has had his eye on his reelection bid all year. Kemp’s narrow win over Abrams in 2018 was dominated by the debate over voting rights and voter suppression. Abrams characterized Kemp, then secretary of state, as an architect of the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Georgians, mostly people of color, through an extensive culling of the state’s voter roll.

Raffensperger said in an email statement that Trump’s loss was simply the result of “changing demographics,” which have made the state more politically diverse and competitive. He also stressed that the Republicans’ full focus now should be on holding the two Senate seats.

“This is what it looks like when your party is losing: scapegoating, finger-pointing,” Raffensperger said. “All we see is a group of individuals who got too cocky and thought Georgia would be a layup shot. It’s time for the Georgia Republican Party to step up and deliver a win, which they failed to do in the general election for President Trump.”

As the feud has exploded into public view, Kemp has defied the counsel of some in his circle, who have urged him to stay in regular contact with the president. One person familiar with their conversations estimates that they have spoken only several times in as many weeks.

But Nick Ayers, former chief of staff to Vice President Pence and a Georgia native who is close to both Trump and Kemp, said he believes the differences between the two men are hardly insurmountable.

“A lot of this, probably all of it, can be resolved if every principal decision-maker — both national and local — gets in the same room, eye to eye, to discuss the facts and map out a path to achieve what everyone wants to achieve,” Ayers said. “But that hasn’t happened yet, and not much will change until it does. It is unfortunate because the goals are so tightly aligned, and the stakes are so high.”

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.