‘To Hell with It’: A GOP Congressman Reflects on His One Term in Trump’s Party

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janvier 1, 2023

On a recent Wednesday afternoon in mid-December, Peter Meijer shuffled around the Speaker’s Lobby in the U.S. Capitol, finding a spot near the crackling fireplace as a cold rain from a winter storm encased Washington. His one similarly stormy term in Congress was coming to a close. He had cleaned out his office back in October but he still had votes to cast, though none of them as consequential as the one that quite probably cost him his seat.

Meijer had been a freshman representative for all of three days when the Jan. 6, 2021 riot happened. Seven days later, he cast one of his first votes in favor of impeaching Donald Trump, who spent the next 19 months vowing revenge against Meijer and nine other GOP members who supported the effort to hold Trump accountable.

Meijer, 34, a former sergeant in the Army Reserves who served in Iraq, made reforming war powers and veterans issues his top legislative priorities. Four of his bills were signed into law, including establishing a Department of Homeland Security trade and economic security council. And he made an unauthorized trip to Afghanistan to help evacuate Americans and Afghans during the hurried military pullout in August 2021. That trip earned him a scolding from the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But none of that compared to the onslaught from the ostensible leader of his own party, who backed Meijer’s primary challenger, John Gibbs, a Stanford-educated provocateur who pandered to Trump and peddled QAnon-style conspiracies. Gibbs ultimately lost to Democrat Hillary Scholten in the general election, just as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had hoped when it quietly promoted Gibbs’ extremist candidacy.

I spoke with Meijer as he ducked in and out of the House chamber to vote on a series of rule changes. Meijer and I spoke about whether he could ever again support Trump, the wayward direction of the Republican Party and whether he could envision a return to Washington.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Adam Wren: How do you feel as your time in Congress comes to an end? 

Peter Meijer: Obviously bittersweet. There’s a lot of work that we were able to get done; but a lot more that we had hoped to be able to do. Being a freshman in the minority, you’re kind of fighting and running uphill. You’re trying to convince the majority to bring something to the floor.

A lot of other folks gauge their metrics by just bill introductions. Our goal was, if we’re going to be working on something, it should be toward the end of having it signed into law at the end of the day, rather than doing something only for messaging. I’m proud that the prior record for the number of bills signed into law by a freshman in the minority was at two, and now we’re at least four — I would argue five.

Wren: As a veteran who served in the U.S. Army Reserves in Iraq, and as an NGO operative in Afghanistan, one of your key goals was to reform the War Powers Act. How would you evaluate your progress on that?  

Meijer: I think we substantively advanced the issue in the National Security Performance and Accountability Act of 2021 that we introduced in the spring of last year. It was the most bipartisan, most thoroughly fleshed-out approach, including bicameral conversations and conversations with the White House. Obviously, we weren’t able to get that signed into law. But that’s also the type of long-term reform where you have to have an understanding and an expectation it will be probably chunked out with an idea of giving folks more comfortable, very substantive change.

Wren: What do you think your biggest accomplishment was in Congress?  

Meijer: Being part of the team that passed the Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act of 2021. Folks who are suffering the consequences of that exposure can be diagnosed and treated and have better outcomes.

Wren: You said your departure from Washington and Congress is “bittersweet.” I take that to mean there is part of you that is happy to be leaving here.

Meijer: Definitely not on the policy side. I think one of the challenges on the politics side is you just have to spend a lot of time reacting in some areas where there may be valid concerns, but where the factual basis of those concerns is lacking.

Wren: Such as?  

Meijer: There was this big hubbub about these amendments to the World Health Organization’s pandemic preparedness. Everyone is worried that “our sovereignty is going to be stripped away; don’t do anything.” And half the time, you don’t really have any authority over that. But our sovereignty is not going to be infringed on by the World Health Organization.

Wren: You’re talking about a one-world government kind of conspiracy?

Meijer: There were initially amendments that were proposed by the Trump administration because of China’s lack of transparency. And then that led to a delay in the international response. It reminded me of the time my mom thought she saw a UFO in California; it took her 30 seconds: “I saw a UFO.” But it took me 45 minutes to figure out that it was a B-2 stealth bomber. It ends up not being the most productive exercise.

Wren: As the scion of the Meijer supermarket franchise, you could be next in line to take it over. Has there been recent talk about a succession plan?  

Meijer: I obviously have a deep love and a vested interest in the long-term success of our family business. But I think in the short term, my focus is much more policy.

Wren: You’re worth more than $50 million. What’s the biggest splurge you’ve made?  

Meijer: I don’t know if my Chevy Colorado counts. I also have a boat that I bought for $5,000 on Craigslist.

Wren: Will you go back to Michigan?  

Meijer: Oh, yeah. Michigan is home. I don’t have a visceral hatred of Washington that some do. It’s a place like any other. But it’s not home.

Wren: How would you describe the state of the Michigan Republican Party today, post-midterms? 

Meijer: Highly uncertain. The midterm elections were a bloodbath in the state. We lost control of the state house and the state senate for the first time in 40 years. We don’t have any prominent statewide elected offices at all. All the Democratic incumbents swept, obviously. West Michigan will have its first Democratic representation in Congress since Watergate. It’s a pretty bleak outcome. In a moment that should force a lot of introspection, I’ve seen a lot of folks who are responsible for the debacle only rising in stature.

Wren: Who? Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon?  

Meijer: I think Tudor did the best with what she had. She was in a very unenviable position. And I think it was really unfair that the state party threw her under the bus. She was the only statewide candidate who was actually elected in a primary.

At the end of the day, there’s been such an echo chamber on the right. It doesn’t help [Michigan held] very late primaries. So everybody was just being forced to walk the tightrope, increasingly away from where the persuadable voters they needed were [ideologically]. And then incumbents don’t have that disadvantage.

Wren: Do you have a 2024 Republican presidential candidate in mind who you’d like to win?

Meijer: My strong bias is for a Republican nominee who could win.

Wren: Would you support Donald Trump if he were the nominee in 2024 after voting to impeach him last year?  

Meijer: I have no idea how I would do that.

Wren: No idea?  

Meijer: Yeah. I want someone to demonstrate a track record of being able to win. Hillary Clinton was probably the worst Democratic nominee of my lifetime. If he was outlining a positive agenda and speaking of the things that were started and hoping to be completed, if his message was about pointing the country in a better direction, it would be very different than what we have right now, which is just like the pettiest of petty grievances. I think he had a very negative impact on both candidate selection in terms of endorsements, but also just the amount of quality candidates in competitive seats. I think there’s a constructive role that he could be playing, and I have yet to see him make an effort, so to hell with it.

Wren: To hell with what?  

Meijer: With the idea of running at this moment [against other Trumpist candidates]. What is required from a purity test standpoint — folks know they need his endorsement, and then what they end up doing to get that endorsement ends up being disqualifying.

Wren: This dynamic played out with your Republican primary opponent, John Gibbs, the far-right conspiracy theorist who criticized women’s right to vote and propagated the idea that Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta participated in satanic rituals. Yet you went to a unity rally with him. That surprised me.  

Meijer: I was surprised at the media reaction to that. In my mind, not going to something like that is a sore loser move. The least I can do is wish him congratulations and best of luck. It’s funny there were a lot of kind of anti-Trump and Never Trump folks who trashed me for that. I was like, “Oh, do you want me to act the same way [Trump] did? Do you want me to deny that I lost? Do you want me to be a sore loser? Come on.”

Wren: You were upset about the Democrats interfering in your primary by boosting your challenger.

Meijer: I don’t know that I’d say upset. The hypocrisy was so transcendent, just the cynicism. I think my rule of thumb is Republicans should probably not pick the person the Democrats want to be the candidate. If the Democratic incumbent is popping a bottle of champagne when they realize who their opponent is going to be, we probably didn’t make the right choice.

Wren: Would you run for the seat again in 2024?  

Meijer: I’m not going to foreclose any possibility.

Wren: You took an unauthorized trip to Afghanistan with Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, a fellow veteran, to Kabul in August of last year during the chaotic withdrawal of troops. It was widely criticized. The White House, the Pentagon and Speaker Nancy Pelosi said your presence there diverted from the withdrawal mission. Do you have any regrets?

Meijer: If I have a regret, it’s that we probably could have been there for a week and nobody would have known. The only reason why they were aware is because I thought the right thing to do was to just kind of announce ourselves, don’t ask for any support to take up any resources, contrary to a lot of the White House trying to tar and feather us out of their own sense of embarrassment.

I just think back to talking to some of the folks who were on the ground, they were like, “It’s awesome you came.” They just felt like they were working in this crucible.

Wren: Your office, by virtue of your NGO and veteran experience, became a command center in helping to get people out. How many did you help evacuate?   

Meijer: We’ve gone back and forth on whether or how we can quantify that. It was very much a team effort. Our office handled thousands of cases. And we’re still working on casework for those who are back here.  

Wren: Do you ever wonder if all the events of your life might have been leading up to that specific moment?  

Meijer: It is hard to imagine how I could have been better positioned to try to make the maximum impact. This is why I’m continuing to stay engaged on Afghanistan. It’s rare for somebody who worked in Afghanistan to be in Congress. It’s even more rare for somebody who worked and lived by themselves in downtown Kandahar City — I just have a unique perspective and personal network.

Wren: Where do you think the Trump fixation in the Republican Party is headed?  

Meijer: I think in a lot of the media there’s such a Trump fixation. He tapped into something that predated him and that will remain after him. In some places, he delivered, but the positive-to-negative ratio started to shift pretty dramatically, giving into some of the most unchecked impulses. We don’t really have the moderating effect of the water cooler in American life, right, where you’re like, ‘I think this thing is important out there.’ I don’t think there’s a race of lizard people who are controlling our lives.

My frustration is [conspiracy theories] lead folks on the right to go down these rabbit holes and chase their own tails. Meanwhile, some of the really serious, severe things that are critical for us to get ready for the future of the country: competing with China, dealing with our deficit, dealing with entitlement reforms. These are not easy things that we can like, manage in bite-sized chunks.

So much of the energy is ultimately expended down avenues that are just hamster wheels. I think that gives Democrats a tangible advantage. We saw that electorally, when they can at least pretend to be speaking to issues and not seem crazy, even if they are unwilling to change their policy outcomes that are not making those issues better. At least rhetorically, they seem to be coming from a more reality-grounded place.

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