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How Brian Kemp Resisted Trump’s Pressure to Overturn the Georgia Election Results

In late 2020, as Donald Trump launched a last-ditch effort to pressure state legislatures and governors to stop the certification of the vote that had made Joe Biden the president-elect, Trump set his sights on Georgia. Of all the Georgia Republican officials on Trump’s wrong side, none was as much a target of the president’s fury as Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

The two had a long and complicated relationship, dating to the president’s surprise decision to endorse Kemp in the middle of a heated runoff back in 2018. At a rally three days before the November election that year, Trump paid Kemp his ultimate compliment, telling a crowd of thousands thronged at a middle Georgia airport that a vote for Kemp was the same as a vote for him. Ever since that endorsement, Trump had claimed credit for Kemp’s victory over Casey Cagle in the runoff — even though polls indicated he would have won regardless — as well as for Stacey Abrams’ narrow defeat in the general election.

In conversations I’ve had with Republican officials in Georgia over the past year, they gave the full, behind-the-tweets version of how Kemp and Trump’s relationship deteriorated, and the tensions that split the Republican party in Georgia in late 2020. The pressure from Trump was enough to make Sen. David Perdue, up for a tough reelection, wonder what he, Kemp and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler could do to pacify Trump’s growing outrage over his Georgia defeat. And several Georgia lawmakers were split between their political concerns about losing Trump’s support and their fears of unleashing endless litigation if they were to do as the president asked. Ultimately, it was Kemp’s firm leadership on the issue that held together all the disparate and flagging members of the party.

At the time, Trump told aides the governor owed him. He urged Kemp to use “emergency powers” to block the certification of the results and demanded that the governor call a special session to overturn the election results and name a slate of Republican electors to award him the state’s 16 electoral votes. Each time he was rebuffed, Trump leveled a new wave of vicious attacks at Kemp on Twitter and to aides, ultimately calling for the governor to resign. And each time Trump’s advisers cautioned him to tone it down, he kept going back to the November 2018 rally that he headlined for Kemp.

“They were there for me, not for him. They didn’t know who he was,” Trump later said in a radio interview. “And then when I ask him for help on a special session for election integrity, ‘Sir, I won’t be able to do that.’ I say, you’ve got to be kidding. One thing has nothing to do with the other. He’s a disaster.”

Each time Trump blasted him, Kemp refrained from returning fire, careful not to antagonize the president. He was determined to absorb the president’s rage, hoping it would prevent Trump from punishing Loeffler, a Republican, who was facing a tough challenge from Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock, and couldn’t win without the president’s full-fledged support.

When I asked him directly how he dealt with the misinformation efforts, Kemp would speak only in broad brushstrokes, saying he told deniers, “Look, I’m telling you the truth, I’m being honest with you, but I can’t make you believe me,” before acknowledging that “some people are not at the point where they can believe that yet.”

The fact that Trump was very clearly one of them made the pair of runoff elections — one between Loeffler and Warnock, the other between Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff — a nightmare for the governor. Kemp formally signed off on Georgia’s results on Nov. 20, just as then-Vice President Mike Pence was wrapping up a campaign stop for the two Senate incumbents in north Georgia. The veep’s motorcade had gone in the wrong direction on I‑285, heading eastbound on the busy highway instead of westbound to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, snarling traffic as far as the eye could see.

As the cars trailing Pence sputtered along, Kemp told me in a phone interview he had no other choice but to uphold the law, despite Trump’s push. “I understand why he’s frustrated. He’s a fighter. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to follow the laws of the constitution of this state and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

A former state election official, Kemp knew he lacked the legal power to overturn Trump’s defeat, and he didn’t want to leave any wiggle room for the president and his allies to think otherwise. Some of Trump’s aides urged the governor to “grow up” and cede to the president’s demands. But Kemp knew that if he were to summon lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special legislative session, it would turn the statehouse into a made-for‑TV media circus with the potential for violent demonstrations.

Just a week after the election, the governor issued a joint statement with Lieutenant Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, both fellow Republicans, that any effort to reverse the election results through the legislature would lead to “endless litigation.” Kemp and his aides had been told that both Loeffler and Perdue were on board, but as the pressure on the senators intensified to “fight for Trump,” Perdue pushed Kemp to reverse course, in part because he hoped it would fire up the base.

Ahead of a Dec. 3 fundraiser at Truist Park, Kemp called a meeting with the two senators and three of their top aides to hash the matter out. His office had been communicating with the senators’ campaigns on a daily basis about the legal problems with a special session. Perdue said his deputies didn’t always speak for him. He wanted to meet in person and talk it over face to face.

They gathered into a cramped room on the fringe of the stadium, a windowless event space with a few couches and a small bathroom. Like so many other instances in the runoff, the Republicans in the room felt that Trump had put them in an impossible bind.

After some idle chatter, Perdue made his position clear. The campaign aides who indicated he didn’t want to summon legislators back to the Capitol didn’t represent his stance on this issue, Perdue said. Looking Kemp directly in the eye, the senator told the governor that he wanted a special session to prove to the party’s base that their elected officials would go to the mat for the president. Trump could say whatever he wanted since he didn’t have a runoff to worry about, but Perdue still had a campaign to wage. He viewed a special session as a way to prove his worthiness to the GOP base without joining the ranks of the conspiracy theorists.

Kemp took it all in, then presented his own view. State lawmakers can’t retroactively change election law after a vote to help a candidate, he said. Not only was it constitutionally problematic to call a special session, he told them, but it would also put tremendous pressure on the state’s 236 lawmakers — and shift attention away from the Senate incumbents already struggling enough with internal party divisions.

“I have no problem being the bad guy,” he told the two senators. “I’ll take the arrows to make sure y’all win.”

(Kemp’s aides dispute this account, saying Perdue never directly asked Kemp to call a special session.)

Three days later, the governor delivered a similar message to a room full of state lawmakers at a training session in Athens, Ga., making a point to let his words to the gathered Republicans sink in.

“This is not an option under state or federal law,” Kemp said. “The statute is clear. The legislature can only direct an alternative method for choosing presidential electors if the election was not able to be held on the date set by federal law.”

Some Republican legislators welcomed the attempt to shield them from fallout. Ralston, the House speaker, told fellow legislators that same day he understood why they might be “very suspicious” of the election process. “I would remind people if we overturn this one, there could be one overturned on us some day.”

Others were incensed. At a closed-door caucus meeting, Republican state Sen. Brandon Beach demanded that his colleagues try to call a special session themselves, a gambit that was sure to fail because it would require the approval of three-fifths of the legislature. As well as seeking to invalidate Trump’s defeat, Beach wanted lawmakers to get rid of drop boxes and impose stricter absentee requirements for the runoff — restrictions that would have triggered an immediate court challenge.“If we don’t make a change,” he told his colleagues, “we’re going to have the same result and we’re going to lose two U.S. Senate seats.”

The governor’s straightforward approach only pushed his relationship with Trump to a new breaking point. If loyalty is paramount to earning Trump’s trust, then disloyalty is the ultimate sin. And people close to Trump kept telling the president that “Kemp is ungrateful.” Some senior Republicans tried to get the two men in a room together to work out their differences, but the logistics never worked out.

There was talk of a compromise: Maybe Kemp would embrace Trump’s narrative that there was a rash of fraudulent mail‑in votes without endorsing his broader conspiracy theories. One Republican close to Trump urged the governor to phone the president daily. “I sound like a broken record,” he told Kemp one day, “but this thing is going to go from bad to worse unless you do that.”

There was nothing to indicate that Trump would be placated by half measures, though, and when Kemp didn’t comply with his demands to reverse his defeat, the name-calling ramped up. He called the governor a “moron” in a phone call and “hapless” in a Twitter attack, along with declaring himself in a Fox News interview “ashamed” that he had ever supported Kemp. He also fumed about Kemp to the two senators, pondering in a call with Perdue the idea of recruiting a Republican challenger to run against Kemp in 2022, when the governor would be up for a second term. “He would be nothing without me,” he told the senator, according to a GOP official. Perdue relayed the president’s fury to Kemp, urging him to find some way to appease Trump.

Even as Georgia Republicans fretted about Trump, the two Senate incumbents sorely needed a late push by the president in heavily conservative parts of the state. Each day it was becoming clearer to Republicans that their problem wasn’t converting voters in the suburbs, it was turning out voters in rural Georgia.

Perdue spoke with the president daily, patiently listening as he vented about how angry he was at the governor and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, before making his own ask. Just before Thanksgiving, Perdue pleaded with Trump to schedule another visit to Georgia, his first campaign rally since his election defeat. So did Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, who floated the idea that he could claim credit for the Senate runoff victories in January if he visited in December.

As Trump prepared to fly to the town of Valdosta in the southern part of the state, friendly conservative territory just north of the Florida state line, Georgia Republicans faced a moment fraught with promise and peril. Would he vouch for the two senators? Or would he continue to harp on his own grievances? A group of Georgia GOP elders, including former governor Nathan Deal and former Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, issued a statement days before the event calling on Trump to avoid a tirade about his defeat. “If he wants his legacy to remain,” Chambliss told CNN at the time, “then he needs to ensure that we win both these seats — and he needs to say that in no uncertain terms.”

The president offered a hint of his direction the morning of his Saturday visit with a phone call to Kemp, opening the conversation by asking the governor how he was doing. Answering honestly, Kemp told the president it had been a “rough 24 hours.”

So, Trump bitingly suggested, Kemp had seen his latest poll numbers?

“No,” the governor sighed in reply. “We lost a close friend of the family.”

The day before, Loeffler aide Harrison Deal had died in a traffic accident while on his way to a Savannah airport to prepare for the Pence visit, and Kemp and his family were in the throes of mourning. The lanky 20-year-old with an easy smile and humble upbringing was the longtime boyfriend of the governor’s middle daughter, Lucy.

Not long before the accident, Deal had posted on Facebook how proud he was to stand by Kemp; after his death, the governor abruptly canceled his appearance with Pence and rushed to console Deal’s parents at their home in Statesboro about an hour west of Savannah. Unfortunately, Deal’s death also quickly became fodder for malicious Trump supporters who somehow blamed Kemp for the accident, so much so that even Abrams’ aides, standing on watch for threats against the Democrat, were alerted to the high level of poisonous conspiracy theories surrounding the auto accident.

The president briefly offered his condolences to Kemp — and then launched into a series of familiar demands, ranging from a special session to a statewide audit of all signatures on mail‑in ballots. To each point, Kemp countered politely but firmly that he couldn’t help. He repeated to Trump what he’d said days earlier — that any attempt to change the election laws before the runoffs would result in “endless litigation.” The president’s tone grew more acrimonious. He warned that Kemp would lose a reelection bid if he didn’t comply. The governor bluntly told him no again without any equivocation. If there had been any sliver of hope of repairing the relationship, it was dashed when the call abruptly ended.

As Air Force One pointed south, Kemp decided not to be anywhere near Trump’s rally. The tragedy of Deal’s death had put in perspective for the governor what mattered most — his family, his duties and his loved ones — and what did not. He told friends that he paid no mind to Trump’s tongue-lashing that morning.

“I didn’t give a shit about what he had to say,” Kemp told them.

From FLIPPED by Greg Bluestein, to be published on March 22, 2022 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Greg Bluestein.

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