Did Trump Err in Criticizing Gov. Brian Kemp?

Did we see a serious political stumble by President Trump in his spat with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp last week?

While some may wonder, he seems over all to be handling the coronavirus crisis deftly enough. He’s been giving due deference to the medical brain trust of Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx -- perhaps too much, some fear.  At the same time, he’s hammering away at the need to limit the brutal economic consequences of the lockdown as soon as possible.  All this while parrying relentless attacks from the press and, of course, from an opposition party desperate to recapture the White House.

All of which gave us the phased reopening guidelines from the Fauci-Birx team, announced on April 17. Recall, by the way, that the President a couple of weeks earlier had expressed the hope that the lockdown could end around Easter Sunday, April 12. The usual media hysteria greeted that idea, so Trump followed up by clarifying, as if clarification was needed, that the hope was just that, not a firm date. The appearance of the guidelines gave proof that Trump was continuing to heed the advice of Dr. Fauci, et al.

Only three days after the guidelines dropped, Gov. Kemp announced that many businesses in Georgia, especially smaller businesses like spas, gyms, hair salons, and barber shops, could start reopening as soon as Friday, April 23. In doing so, he neglected to cross-check his plans with the Fauci-Birx team. His announcement was certainly consistent, however, with Trump’s repeated desire that the cure -- i.e., devastation of the nation’s economy -- not be worse than the disease.  Kemp’s explanation of his plan was a model of clarity and of respect for the common sense of his constituents:

The entities that I am reopening are not reopening for 'business as usual.' Each of these entities will be subject to specific restrictions, including adherence to Minimum Basic Operations, social distancing, and regular sanitation. Minimum Basic Operations includes, but is not limited to, screening workers for fever and respiratory illness, enhancing workplace sanitation, wearing masks and gloves if appropriate, separating workspaces by at least six feet, teleworking where at all possible, and implementing staggered shifts.

Common sense or no, the announcement brought the typical eruption of alarm in the news media, but with was no apparent effort to inform us of what jot or tittle of the Fauci-Birx guidelines that Kemp had supposedly violated. It was just enough that they could loudly call on Trump to say what he thought about it. At first the President sounded cautiously welcoming, but then he turned sharply critical. Surprisingly sharp, and even personal, saying at his April 22 press briefing (last Thursday):

I wasn’t happy with it.  And I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp.  I wasn’t at all happy, because -- and I could have done something about it if I wanted to, but I’m saying let the governors do it.  But I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp... I want them to open, and I want him to open as soon as possible.  And I want the state to open.  But I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp.  I will tell you that right now.

Poor Kemp. Several other governors in the same week announced similar plans to start reopening their states, but by going first Kemp took the brunt of Trump’s ire.  Or did the fact that Kemp is a Republican have something to do with the tone of Trump’s complaint? Possibly, I suppose. Colorado’s Gov. Jared Polis, for example, followed Kemp’s announcement almost immediately with one of his own. His reopening schedule was similar to Kemp’s but it drew nary a peep from either the media or the President. Polis is a Democrat.

One suspects that a very cagey kind of politics is what we see being played out here, and the stakes could not be higher. Trump knows that, post-lockdown, the press will hold up every new COVID-19 death as proof that he reopened the economy too soon. Never mind that he devolved reopening decisions to the governors of each state, quite properly, too, in keeping with the Constitution’s framework of federalism.

He also knows that the new House select committee set up by Nancy Pelosi to investigate his handling of the COVID-19, while nominally bipartisan, is guaranteed to produce a steady stream of anti-Trump headlines from now until the election.

With that as perspective, his harshness with a fellow Republican leader may merely be political shrewdness -- armoring up to ward off the coming onslaught. It gives him the ammo to point to his prioritizing of safety over politics.

But has he miscalculated?  Might his dump on Kemp lose him critical support from his heretofore loyal voting base?

Angelo Codevilla thinks so. From his perch as professor of international relations at Boston University, Codevilla’s commentaries have earned him high regard in conservative intellectual circles.  He worries that Trump may be forgetting “the fundamental question of all politics,” which is, “who is on whose side?”

“The political equation could not be clearer,” says Codevilla. “[T]he ruling class is on the side of enduring and growing control of ordinary people’s lives, to design a ‘new normal’, while ordinary people yearn to recover their freedoms.” He fears that ordinary people -- which is to say, Trump’s voters -- will perceive from the denunciation of Kemp that Trump “has condemned or declined to defend people on his side while hinting broadly that he is acting against his own better judgment.”

He adds, “these people don’t belong to Trump. It’s the other way around. Trump is the person for whom they voted because they expected that he would be on their side to protect them in situations like this.”

Whether prophetic or not, and only time will tell, Codevilla’s comments bring more insight into the brutally delicate balancing act that Trump is engaged in.   

Bill Dunne runs a communications consultancy based in Connecticut

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