The Liz Cheney effect: Brian Kemp gets cold feet over testifying against Trump

Georgia's governor stood up to Trump during the 2020 coup, but now resists turning over evidence to the Fulton D.A.

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 18, 2022 1:36PM (EDT)

Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Tuesday night, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming lost the Republican primary by 37 points to Harriet Hageman. Cheney has drawn relentless fire from Donald Trump for being one of two Republicans on the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection.  Hageman, on the other hand, ran on a platform of advocating Donald Trump's lies about the 2020 election and denouncing efforts to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Late Tuesday, Trump gloated about Cheney's loss, posting that "Cheney should be ashamed of herself" for standing up against Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The very next day, Georgia's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, filed a 121-page motion asking a judge to reject a subpoena to testify in a case investigating Trump's efforts to steal the state's electoral votes from President Joe Biden in the 2020 election. 

On the surface, these two events may seem unrelated. The timing, however, is likely not a coincidence.

Kemp has gained an undeserved reputation as a "moderate" since Trump's failed coup efforts in 2020, largely because he refused to void out Biden's win in Georgia in 2020 and declare Trump the winner instead. But Kemp's resistance to Trump's anti-democracy efforts has been reluctant, at best. Cheney's primary defeat was expected, but there can be no doubt that the size of it sent a chilling message to the rest of the party: Stand by Trump or else. With his refusal to testify against Trump, it seems Kemp got the message loud and clear. 

The Georgia case is being conducted by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is looking into Trump's extensive efforts to steal the election in Georgia. Kemp was subjected to quite a bit of pressure from Trump during this time. In early December 2020, the Washington Post reported that Trump personally called Kemp to demand that the governor "call a special session of the state legislature for lawmakers to override the results and appoint electors who would back the president at the electoral college." Kemp refused.

Cheney's primary defeat was expected, but there can be no doubt that the size of it sent a chilling message to the rest of the party: Stand by Trump or else. With his refusal to testify against Trump, it seems Kemp got the message loud and clear. 

In the months since, Kemp has been subjected to a lot of hagiography in the political press over this, casting him as a staunch defender of democracy. The likelier story, however, is that Kemp simply didn't think he had the power to do Trump's bidding. His concerns about the legal consequences have been subsequently validated by the existence of Willis' grand jury investigation. Throughout the entire attempted coup, Kemp's communications strategy was to portray himself as reluctant and hamstrung, not actually resistant to Trump. 

His official statement when he did certify the election results is emblematic of this: It focused almost entirely on the repeated efforts to "audit" the election, announced yet another slate of efforts to make it harder to vote, and validated Trump's lies with language about the supposed "discrepancies" in the election. Only in the final paragraph did he say, "I have the solemn responsibility to follow the law" to explain why he certified the election. 

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Despite Kemp's efforts to portray his stance as "I would if I could," he's been subjected to months of public bullying from Trump. While Kemp, unlike Cheney, beat back his Trump-endorsed primary challenger, it appears he still has concerns that attracting more Trump abuse ahead of the November election could drive down voter turnout and make it easier for Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams to win. Kemp's court documents heavily focus on his election fears if he actually answers the grand jury's subpoena. The filing accuses the district attorney of engineering "the Governor's interaction with the investigation to reach crescendo in the middle of an election cycle" and arguing that the testimony could be put off until after the election. Kemp's team is so worried that this subpoena could impact his re-election, in fact, he openly accuses Willis of "election interference." 

Kemp is smart to worry. Republican leadership believes, with good reason, that the surprise victories of Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia on January 5, 2021 were due in large part to Trump's Big Lie. That election happened while Trump was all over the news, falsely declaring that elections were "rigged," which Republicans feared would drive down turnout among their own voters, who might actually believe Trump's lies. A similar situation could happen to Kemp. If he testifies against Trump, it's near-certain that Trump will explode with public vitriol, causing some Republican voters to stay at home rather than vote for someone Trump deems a traitor. 

Willis has not pulled her punches in reaction to Kemp's stonewalling, writing, "You repeatedly referring to it as a politically motivated investigation does not make it so. In fact, you repeating it so many times only proves you have become very comfortable being dishonest." She reminded him that the testimony he gives would not be public. 

She added that the investigation "will not be derailed by anyone's antics."

Kemp's team has been cooperative in the past, turning over 138,000 pages of information, most of it voluntarily. Indeed, he had been scheduled for a voluntary interview in July, before he pulled out. Georgia's Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, had testified publicly before the House committee investigating January 6 just weeks prior. While Raffensperger seems to have escaped the political black hole that is Trump's rage, the same cannot be said of Republican Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who also testified against Trump that day. Bowers then lost his primary at the beginning of August

Trump's public gloating over Cheney's primary loss isn't just a reaction from a man who is famous for his emotional incontinence. It's a signal to anyone else in the Republican party who is facing down a choice between defending democracy or standing by Trump: If you do the former, he will do everything in his power to destroy you. Kemp, as one of the main targets of Trump's ire in the past year and a half, no doubt knows Trump's love of making threats. Few in the GOP want Cheney's fate, and Trump is using that to control them. 

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By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Analysis Brian Kemp Donald Trump Fulton County Liz Cheney Republicans Trump's Big Lie