Rep. Peter Meijer (R–Mich.), the Republican successor to the retiring Libertarian Justin Amash, has had quite the week. On Sunday, the 32-year-old Iraq/Afghanistan veteran and supermarket heir was sworn into office. On Tuesday, he joined a dozen GOP lawmakers, including such Amash pals as Reps. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.) and Chip Roy (R–Texas), in objecting to Republican attempts to delay or oppose the certification of Joe Biden as president-elect. ("To unconstitutionally insert Congress into the center of the presidential election process—would amount to stealing power from the people and the states," they wrote.)
And on Wednesday? "Definitely didn't expect to be donning a smoke-inhalation hood and having to get down under some chairs because there were concerns that they might start shooting into the House chambers," Meijer told me in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.
The congressman has withering words for elected Republicans who have spent the past nine weeks filling protesters' ears with false conspiracy theories and unfulfillable hopes.
"They were being lied to. They were being misled," he said of the demonstrators. "Some of my colleagues in Congress, they share responsibility for that. Many of them were fundraising off of this Stop the Steal grift. I don't understand how you can look in the mirror and go to sleep at night without that weighing on your conscience, I fundamentally do not. I'm just at a loss for words about how some of them have acted in ways that are just knowingly, provably false. And they know they're lying, too."
That critique extends to President Donald Trump as well. We spoke an hour or two before the president's surprise concession, which Meijer had been calling for, and on a day full of discussion about impeachment and the 25th Amendment. Asked about the latter, the congressman said, among other things, "It's very clear that that how the president acted towards this whole scenario, his actions leading up to yesterday and especially his unwillingness to come to grips with the reality, is continuing to perpetuate this fraud, this deception that is rankly unfit."
An edited transcript of our conversation, including Meijer's desire to "end the endless wars," is below:
So how's your first week been?
Peter Meijer: The first week has been one to remember. We live in interesting times. Definitely didn't expect to be donning a smoke-inhalation hood and having to get down under some chairs because there were concerns that they might start shooting into the House chambers, getting evacuated from the House chambers and running around corridors to try to find a secure location, not knowing what was going on, who was where, and what was happening. So obviously it was chaotic on that front, and then just the fact that finding pipe bombs all over the place—I think there were several of those at the DNC, RNC, I think one on the Capitol grounds. Dudes breaking in with zip ties—you bring zip ties to take hostages, right?
I spent three years in between Iraq in the military and in Afghanistan, where my job was to basically be paranoid about all the ways that humanitarian aid workers could die, and try to protect them from those worst-case scenarios. So I tend to have a pretty dark imagination in terms of the possibilities that could occur. But that's not how I wanted my first week to be as a member of the House of Representatives.
How was the sense of panic or fear level among your colleagues and even you? Was it a chaotic scene? Were people freaking out and losing it? Or was there some professionalism?
There was definitely a good amount of professionalism. We saw some real leaders step up in that moment. There were some folks who stayed on the floor and helped the Capitol Police barricade the doors. A couple of my colleagues actually from the freshman class—Pat Fallon, Troy Nehls, Tony Gonzales—were all kind of down there, all former military. I think having been in chaotic situations before—and I did disaster relief work as well, and was doing search and rescue and other missions in Hurricane Sandy as the storm was coming in—and the thing you have to always do is [realize] that freaking out doesn't help anything. And to be the calm, cool, and collected voice, to have somebody to just have that reassurance, because otherwise it just snowballs and a loud voice becomes louder and louder.
By and large, we saw some order. But this is manifestly clear: There was an utter breakdown in security and protocols. And we did get to some places throughout the day where all of a sudden a group of 30 or 40 lawmakers, and we'd look around and realize that there were no Capitol Police. There was no nobody, no law enforcement folks with us. OK, this isn't good.
So I think by and large folks kept their calm, but in that moment you don't know what may happen. And then, frankly, it obviously had a tragic ending. Besides just the assault on our democracy and then four people dying, dozens of law enforcement personnel injured, several still in the hospital in serious condition, it could have been a lot worse. And that was, I think, the outcome that we were fearing.
Do you get a sense, even a preliminary sense, of what the breakdown was on the part of the Capitol Police, who obviously were in a stressful situation, they were overrun and possibly outmanned? Do you have a sense of what went wrong from their point of view?
I don't. I watched the president's speech earlier that day. I have fielded phone calls from folks back in the district who knew people were coming out here, who knew folks who were coming out here who were armed. The Capitol Police were aware. I'm really scratching my head. There will be a thorough investigation here; there's already been a bipartisan call for that. The rank-and-file Capitol Police did an excellent job at helping keep members safe. But in terms of the overall security plan, it failed. The first time that we've had the Capitol be overrun and outside of our control in over 200 years.
I see a lot of words being used to describe this. You were in the building, you're a Republican. You see words like sedition, insurrection, coup, incitement on the part of the president. Do those words fit? What words do you use to describe what happened yesterday, and how that fits with the president's own involvement in it?
Well, in terms of the people who stormed the Capitol, I think coup gives a sense of strategy and intelligence and forethought that none of the people involved deserve. Insurrection in terms of trying to disrupt the functioning of the government, sedition in terms of acting in a way to try to violently overthrow: Those terms fit. When it comes to the president's behavior, again, he certainly bears a share of the responsibility for what happened.
I was sitting in my office watching the speech that he was giving to the crowd, encouraging them to come to the Capitol, where he continued to talk about how this was a landslide election and that it was stolen from him. He believed that the outcome on November 3 could be reversed by Congress. And I talked to a number of folks who believed that. And they believed that because they were being told that, right? They were being lied to. They were being misled. Some of my colleagues in Congress, they share responsibility for that. Many of them were fundraising off of this Stop the Steal grift. I don't understand how you can look in the mirror and go to sleep at night without that weighing on your conscience, I fundamentally do not. I'm just at a loss for words about how some of them have acted in ways that are just knowingly, provably false. And they know they're lying too.
I mean maybe I'm coming in here with too naive an expectation of human capacity and decency, but I also was an interrogator in Iraq, so it's not like I'm a Pollyanna.
Did you get any kind of visceral sense from some of those people that they maybe thought about it a little bit differently yesterday afternoon as opposed to yesterday morning? Did people get shook by seeing the consumer results of their rhetoric?
I mean, we saw a number of senators and a handful of members of Congress change their perspectives. And I guess that's good, but it's not ideal. But what to me was the most bewildering was folks giving speeches that were written that morning as if we weren't in a body that had windows broken in just a few hours earlier, law enforcement drawing weapons. As if a woman hadn't been shot and killed 100 feet from where they stood, right? There was still dried blood out there. And they were giving the exact same speeches, the exact same arguments, telling what they thought their people wanted to hear rather than telling them what they needed to hear.
There's a lot of talk today, and we're talking on Thursday afternoon, about a 25th Amendment solution maybe. Nancy Pelosi's talking about possible impeachment. Where do you stand on those? And also the president is saying that he's considering, or at least there is reporting towards this, that he's considering a self-pardon. Where do you stand on those ideas?
I mean these are very heavy things to be considering a mere 92 hours into my congressional career. I'll be honest, this is something where I think the conversation is evolving. I know that a number of Democratic senators, including leadership, a number of Democratic representatives, including Speaker Pelosi, have all called for one outcome or the other, or some means of removing President Trump from office before January 20. And including Rep. Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois. This is something that I don't want to presage what may happen, but I think it's very clear that how the president acted towards this whole scenario, his actions leading up to yesterday and especially his unwillingness to come to grips with reality, is continuing to perpetuate this fraud, this deception, that is rankly unfit.
You'd indicated to me previously that there's at least a small, perhaps growing caucus of GOP members like yourself who aren't having this anymore. Describe that a little bit, and then how that might fit into a post-Trump Republican Party.
Yeah, this is something that we are grappling with. We are 24 hours into a new reality. Tuesday I signed on to a letter that was authored by Chip Roy, Ken Buck, Thomas Massie, the Freedom Caucus guys. And then there were plenty of moderates in that mix, there were establishment folks. This ran the gamut, it crossed every sort of internal little caucus division. You had Problem Solvers, Freedom Caucus, and everybody in between. I don't know where that's going to lead, but I was really proud to see a number of folks vote on their principles, taking the heat from constituents, but again, telling them what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. Exhibiting some leadership.
And then one of the saddest things is I had colleagues who, when it came time to recognize reality and vote to certify Arizona and Pennsylvania in the Electoral College, they knew in their heart of hearts that they should've voted to certify, but some had legitimate concerns about the safety of their families. They felt that that vote would put their families in danger.
Really? You heard that?
Wow. That's pretty striking.
Let's talk about you a little bit, your ideological positioning. When I check out your campaign page, it's not, shall we say, much out of step with your predecessor Justin Amash: a lot of school choice, debt and deficits, federalism, Constitution, "end the endless wars." So how would you describe your politics and how are you different than Justin Amash?
There's a lot of things I respect about Rep. Amash. At the end of the day, you're going to be your own person. I think much of my approach is guided by my experiences overseas. I was fully uniformed, a through-and-through combatant in Iraq; I'd do intelligence operations. That gave me one vantage point. When I was working in disaster response efforts around the world, you—not literally, but kind of—parachute into an area, whether it was the Philippines or South Sudan, domestic response for tornadoes and hurricanes. You have to make a little bit of order out of the chaos. And then when I was in Afghanistan later for a couple of years, as a conflict analyst for the humanitarian aid community, that was a very different perspective, too. But I saw a sense of, how do things fall apart and how can they be rebuilt?
And that core grounding was, okay, well, what actually works? Because you can't fool yourself. I think the thing that frustrates me with politics is the ability to backward-rationalize, or ultimately avoid any sense of accountability. You can be up in the dais, you can co-sponsor the bill, you can make grand sweeping claims. All of the electoral political benefit is front-loaded, but nobody ever stops to reflect a few years later. Was that money actually well spent? Occasionally there's an audit, occasionally there's a report that gets buried somewhere. But the incentives for election, the political incentives, are way out of step with the governing incentives. So how do we bring that into alignment?
Because I think if we don't, we wind up risking the missed opportunities in this world. We wind up empowering folks like China and Russia. The sense of just momentum, getting to the endless wars too.
There's not a single person that has spent significant time on the ground in either of those conflicts that thinks either of them are winnable, but they just continue off of a sense of momentum. And getting back to that lack of accountability, not actually having anything be aligned to an objective, nobody could say what winning looked like when I was in Iraq. Our job was to run out the clock, turn off the lights, and close the door. In Afghanistan, same thing. The endless wars notion is just that these wars will continue to go on, because at the end of the day they're not our wars to fight. We've inserted ourselves into the middle of civil wars; we've taken sides. Sometimes those sides switch. In Iraq, we're backing the Sunnis one time, we're backing the Shia the other. In Afghanistan, it becomes a shifting set of alliances.
Ultimately I think that erodes something at the core of our national soul that we kind of paper over. That's something that I'll have to sit on a therapist's couch to better understand.
Joe Biden has a career as an interventionist, but his role in the Obama administration, at least in that context, was often as the biggest skeptic of, for instance, going to Libya, going to Syria. And when he campaigned, he talked about at least bringing people home from Afghanistan. What is your sense, hopes and fears, about his policy about the endless wars?
My fear is that this is just going to be a third term of the Obama administration. One of the reasons why I'm not supportive of a waiver for Gen. Lloyd Austin for secretary of defense is because the exact same conversations we were having in 2010 and 2011 about the rise of Sunni militants, about the empowering of Shia entities, and then a Sunni purge within the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military during the withdrawal period. We all knew where that was going. The rise of ISIS, which went from Al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq, to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, to just the Islamic State: That was not a surprise to anybody who had been in the region at all. And in their second term, the Obama administration continually downplayed that. They continually had these rosy projections because it didn't fit the domestic narrative.
There's a little bit of a contradiction here because I was supportive in general of the withdrawal, but this idea that you go from zero to 60 and then 60 to zero, all it's doing is perpetuating the same processes and leaving room for further and further instability, rather than saying the world isn't a bunch of problems to solve, it's challenges to manage. And you can't just shift your gaze and forget about what's happening in one place. The fact of the matter is, when I say "end the endless wars," I mean wars and occupation are not in our best strategic interests. They do not promote our national defense. They weaken it. They give our enemies recruiting tools. They give our enemies plenty of opportunities and targets to attack.
I drove around in million-dollar armored vehicles that could be destroyed by $150 improvised explosive devices that the Iranians were cranking out by the hundreds. The whole sense of, this is a way for us to project power? You're undermining it. So that's something that deeply worries me under a Biden administration. We're seeing the same cast of characters being trot out. There's no innovation. This is just a caretaker continuation of an operating mindset that had no vision whatsoever.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.