When Trump Is Watching, Governors’ Decisions Are Never Open-and-Shut

The president’s criticism of Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a Republican reopening the state amid a viral pandemic, sent a confusing message to governors considering similar moves.

Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a Republican, has had his decision-making questioned by President Trump in White House briefings this week.
Credit...Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

ATLANTA — When Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia announced this week that he would soon allow restaurants, barbershops and other businesses to reopen, the Republican governor’s plan seemed in tune with a president who had openly encouraged protesters of social distancing restrictions.

And the president did seem pleased. On Tuesday night, Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump, in separate phone calls, each expressed his support for the governor’s coronavirus response, said an official familiar with the calls who was unauthorized to speak about the matter.

That is why Mr. Trump’s criticism on Wednesday — “I think it’s too soon,” the president said during an afternoon briefing — has baffled Mr. Kemp and Georgia Republicans, whose first-term governor rode to victory on a Trump endorsement.

The president amped up his criticism on Thursday. “I want them to open,” he said of businesses, “and I want them to open as soon as possible and I want the state to open. But I was not happy with Brian Kemp. I will tell you that.”

Mr. Trump’s public scoldings of Mr. Kemp sent a confusing message to other Republican governors who are considering similar moves.

“You know you’re going to be left hanging out to dry if you make a call that’s at odds with Trump’s psyche or mood or thinking on a given day,” said Mark Sanford, the former Republican governor of South Carolina and a persistent critic of Mr. Trump. “And I think that in political terms, given the size of his base, that adds a level of complexity, particularly for red-state governors.”

The relationship between the president and the Georgia governor, two natural political allies, was already complicated. The president was irritated when Mr. Kemp decided to pass over Representative Doug Collins, a staunch administration ally, while filling an open Senate seat late last year, according to officials in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

Still, after Mr. Trump encouraged social distancing protests last weekend, Mr. Kemp’s plan to allow gyms, hair and nail salons, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors to reopen did not seem like a stretch. Those businesses were to reopen on Friday, and restaurants will be allowed to resume limited dine-in service on Monday. Movie theaters and other entertainment venues will also be allowed to reopen.

Mr. Kemp said the changes were crucial to helping business owners and employees get back to work. But they were roundly criticized by public health experts and mayors, including Atlanta’s, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said she was not consulted about the plan — and argued that Georgia’s largest metropolis was not ready to open for business. Many of the cases in Georgia have been concentrated in the Atlanta metropolitan area. The state has more than 21,500 reported cases as of Thursday, with 872 deaths, according to state health data.

The president’s criticism did not cause Mr. Kemp to adjust his plan, but the opposition to the governor’s order now puts Mr. Trump in the same camp as liberal Democrats like Ms. Bottoms. The president’s comments on Wednesday are just one shard of his seemingly contradictory series of positions regarding when to relax social distancing measures and reopen American businesses.

Last Thursday, Mr. Trump announced a careful, phased system for states to follow as they moved closer to normalcy. The next day, he unleashed a series of tweets encouraging protesters to “liberate” three states — Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia — where Democratic governors have imposed strict social distancing restrictions.

The president has also said in the past that he has “total” authority to impose his will on the states, a position he later appeared to reverse. Then his attorney general, William P. Barr, said that the federal government might sue states that put in place measures the White House disagrees with.

The result is that governors, even those allied with Mr. Trump, are all but forced to pay close attention to the administration’s guidance on the timing of opening up their economies.

And the guidance, critics say, is all over the place.

“The message is inconsistent,” said Jim Hood, the former attorney general of Mississippi who ran for governor as a Democrat last year. “The one thing that isn’t inconsistent is what the doctors are saying.”

Mr. Kemp moved earlier than other governors in planning to reopen, and with a more sweeping approach. And while he appeared to have the support of the president, Mr. Trump’s tone began to shift in a phone call with Mr. Kemp on Wednesday before the White House coronavirus briefing, the official familiar with the calls said. By that time, Mr. Kemp had taken a sustained beating from critics on TV news and elsewhere.

Mr. Kemp’s messaging throughout the pandemic has not strayed from that of other conservative state officials. At first, he was among the governors, many in the South, who resisted adopting a statewide stay-at-home order, citing concerns about worsening the economic fallout.

And in moving to ease restrictions, he has echoed other governors who have described their efforts as proceeding with caution, calling the changes gradual and aimed at protecting public health.

Seventeen states have stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders that are set to expire at the end of the month, and several governors from both parties have said they have no plans to extend them.

A patchwork of strategies has begun to emerge, state by state. While Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, a Republican, will not extend her order, she said she planned to follow her state task force’s recommendations of first reopening small retailers, restaurants and other businesses with protective measures in place.

Colorado’s governor announced this week that he would not extend its stay-at-home order, which will expire on Sunday, while the governors of Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, all Democrats, announced extensions of their orders.

Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee announced on Thursday that many restaurants across the state could resume limited dine-in service on Monday, but he said cities including Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville were excluded.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has been close to Mr. Trump, gave members of a task force until Friday to issue recommendations on how to reopen the economy.

“We need people to have confidence that what’s going on economically is being done safely and with an eye to making sure people are protected,” Mr. DeSantis said on Thursday.

In television and radio appearances on Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas heralded a major announcement coming as early as Friday, in which he would detail plans for reopening “massive amounts of businesses.” The plan appeared in many ways similar to Georgia’s, with movie theaters and hair salons to return to operating and restaurants to offer limited dine-in service. Mr. Abbott has already opened state parks, permitted some elective medical procedures and allowed for what he described as “retail to go,” essentially takeout for a wide range of consumer goods.

Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina also moved this week to reopen some retail businesses, taking the step after putting into place his “home or work” order just over two weeks ago. State health officials said that South Carolina, with more than 4,700 cases of the virus, has not seen a consistent decline.

Mr. McMaster’s plan has been praised in his state, with Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, lauding him in a tweet this week for pursuing a “small reopening of our state’s economy with a focus on social distancing.” Yet he was also critical of Mr. Kemp: “I worry that our friends and neighbors in Georgia are going too fast too soon.”

Some governors, in moving to relax restrictions, have displayed an eagerness many Americans do not share, as polling has found stay-at-home measures have broad support across the country and that people prioritize public health over the potential economic fallout. Mr. Hood noted that where he lives, in a deeply conservative pocket of rural northeast Mississippi, many were embracing social distancing.

“Believe it or not,” he said, “as cynical as we are, we try to trust our leaders will start making the right decisions.”

In Georgia, the disagreement between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kemp goes beyond the lifting of social distancing restrictions. It has also been strongly felt in this year’s race for the Senate seat, which Mr. Kemp temporarily filled with Kelly Loeffler, an Atlanta-area businesswoman. The president repeatedly tried to interject himself in the appointment process, but his entreaties to pick Mr. Collins were ignored, according to Republicans familiar with the outreach.

Mr. Collins is now running against Ms. Loeffler, who has taken great pains since her swearing-in in January to show her fealty to Mr. Trump, given his popularity among the Republican base.

Mr. Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Kemp in the 2018 Republican primary was a major factor in propelling him to a thin victory, a fact Mr. Trump mentioned on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of good feeling between myself and Brian Kemp,” Mr. Trump said. “I like him a lot. I happen to disagree with him only in timing.”

More generally, Georgia Republicans see no reason to highlight any fissure that might exist between Mr. Kemp and Mr. Trump, both of whom have proven they can excite G.O.P. voters with pro-gun, anti-illegal immigration rhetoric.

“I hope that our governor’s right, and I hope the president’s right,” State Representative Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican, said on Thursday. “Actually both of them are right in that we’ve got to get the economy going. I just don’t know the timing of it.”

Reporting was contributed by Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin from Washington, Patricia Mazzei from Miami, and Vanessa Swales from New York.