The Freshman
The Atlantic|January - February 2022
After January 6, Peter Meijer thought he could help lead the GOP away from an abyss. Now he laughs at his own naïveté.
By Tim Alberta. Photographs by Kholood Eid, Tom Williams, Peter Meijer

Late at night on the second Tuesday of January, Peter Meijer, a 33-year-old freshman congressman from West Michigan, paced the half-unpacked rooms of his new rental apartment in Washington, D.C., dreading the decision he would soon have to make.

Six days earlier, Meijer had pulled a smoke hood over his face and fled the U.S. House of Representatives as insurgents broke into the lower chamber. They were attempting to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. Meijer had been on the job for all of three days. Once the Capitol was secured, he cast his vote to certify the election results. It was his first real act as a federal lawmaker—one he believed was perfunctory. Except that it wasn’t. The majority of his fellow House Republicans refused to certify the results, launching an assault on the legitimacy of American democracy.

That entire day—the vote, as much as the attack—had caught Meijer unprepared. His party’s leadership had provided no guidance to its members, leaving everyone to navigate a squall of rumor and dis information in one-man lifeboats.

The next week, when Democrats introduced an article of impeachment and promptly scheduled a vote, seeking to hold President Donald Trump accountable for inciting the mob’s siege of the Capitol, Meijer steeled himself for some tough conversations within his party. But those conversations never happened: Most of Trump’s staunchest defenders were too shell-shocked to defend him, even behind closed doors, and the Republican leadership in the House was once again AWOL. There were no whipping efforts, no strategy sessions, no lectures on procedure or policy. Barreling toward one of the most consequential votes in modern history, everyone was on their own.

For Meijer, the stillness was unsettling. He felt that impeachment was warranted—“The vice president and the next two in the line of succession were inside the Capitol as it was being assaulted,” he says, “and for three hours the president was nowhere to be found”—but he longed for a dialogue. Growing up, he’d heard the legend of how a family friend, President Gerald Ford, had pardoned Richard Nixon in an act of mercy after Nixon had resigned to avoid the humiliation of being impeached and removed. Meijer’s first political memory was made watching the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Even as a kid, he sensed that it was trouble for the country. Now, after just over a week in office, he was bracing himself to vote to impeach the president of the United States—a president from his own party—without so much as a caucus meeting where competing cases might be presented.

Meijer felt angry and betrayed, “like I’d seen something sacred get trampled on.” He told himself that Trump needed to pay. But he worried that a rash impeachment of the president might unleash an even uglier convulsion than the one he’d just survived. And he knew that by voting to impeach he might be committing “career suicide before my career ever began.” In the days leading up to the vote, Meijer says, he barely slept.

“It was the worst 96 hours of my life,” he says.

Whatever his final decision, Meijer didn’t want to blindside the people back in his district. So he began making calls. The conversations did not go well. Meijer remembers one man, “a prominent business leader in Grand Rapids,” arguing that the election had been stolen, that Trump was entitled to a second term, that Meijer was a pawn of the “deep state.” The man went “full QAnon,” spouting conspiracy theories and threatening him with vague but menacing consequences if he voted to impeach. Meijer was well acquainted with that kind of talk; one of his own siblings was fully in the grip of right-wing conspiracies. Even so, the conversation “shook me to my core,” Meijer says, “because the facade had been stripped away. It showed me just how bad this had gotten.”

After Meijer hung up, he leafed through a copy of The Federalist Papers, hoping for an epiphany. He texted with friends. He talked with his wife. Finally, he consulted a list he’d compiled of like-minded members with whom he wanted to compare notes. It was a short list, and Meijer had already talked with most of them: Liz Cheney of Wyoming; Adam Kinzinger of Illinois; Fred Upton, who represented a neighboring district in Michigan. But there was one he had yet to connect with: ANTHONY GONZALEZ, a second-term congressman from Ohio.

When Meijer reached Gonzalez on the phone, the call turned into a therapy session. Meijer kept debating with himself; meanwhile, Gonzalez, who had also been ambivalent, grew ever more adamant that Trump must be impeached. Meijer asked his colleague to explain the source of his certainty. “I can convince myself not to vote for impeachment,” Gonzalez said. “But if my son asks me in 20 years why I didn’t vote for impeachment, I couldn’t convince him.”

The next morning, January 13, Meijer received an encrypted message just as he was arriving at the Capitol. It was from a senior White House official, someone who’d heard he was on the fence, urging the new congressman to vote for impeachment. Meijer was stunned, but he’d already made up his mind anyway. Later that day, he joined Gonzalez and eight other House Republicans in voting to impeach Trump. Meijer was the only freshman among them—and the only freshman in U.S. history to vote to impeach a president of his own party.

“Of the 10, I’ve got the most respect for Peter—because he was brand-new,” Kinzinger, one of the GOP’s anti-Trump ringleaders, told me. “There were other freshmen who talked a big game, but the pressure got to them. Honestly, on the day before the vote, I thought we’d have 25 with us. Then it fell apart; I’m surprised we wound up with 10. But what I recognized with Peter, during our conversations, was that he never talked about the political implications. And that was rare. If someone brought up the political implications, that was a good indicator that they weren’t going to vote with us. But the people who never brought it up, I knew they would follow through. And Peter was one of them.”

Meijer figured there could be no turning back. And he was fine with that. The country needed a come-to-Jesus conversation about political extremism. The Republican Party needed an intervention over its addiction to Trump. He was going to help facilitate both—even if it meant forfeiting his career. He might lose his next election, he thought, but at least his group of 10 could offer “hope for some who wanted to [see] the Republican Party get past the darkness and the violence and that sense of foreboding and doom.”

After the vote, Meijer’s congressional office—still barely staffed—was inundated with calls and messages. His cellphone throbbed with furious texts and emails. Meijer knew he had to get away. January 6 had ushered in a new era of political mayhem, and one week later, he had put a bull’s-eye on his own back. He rented a small place off the grid, packed his bags, and departed Washington with his wife. As he left town, something he’d said to Gonzalez earlier that day echoed through his mind.

“We’re in this together,” Meijer had told him.

PETER MEIJER DIDN’T RUN for Congress to fight for the sanity of the country or the soul of the Republican Party. If anything, he’d hoped to represent a cease-fire. Justin Amash, the congressman who represented Michigan’s Third District for a decade, had by virtue of his constant criticism of Trump worn out his welcome with many Republican voters. When Amash made it known in the summer of 2019 that he’d be leaving the party to become an independent, Meijer announced that he would seek the Republican nomination. Convinced that Trumpism was a distraction from the country’s most pressing problems, Meijer ran a campaign that reflected a certain strategic detachment. He pledged to work with the president wherever possible, and ignore him whenever necessary. He denounced Amash’s calls for Trump’s first impeachment—for soliciting Ukraine’s assistance in his reelection campaign—telling a local news outlet, “I think the American people deserve better than political theater in the House of Representatives.”

Meijer had been born into nearly universal name recognition in Michigan: His great-grandfather Hendrik Meijer had founded the Meijer grocery-store chain there, which his grandfather and father grew into a behemoth, with nearly 250 stores throughout the Midwest. As a teen, he tried to avoid the attention and expectations that came with his last name by spelling it Meyer at East Grand Rapids High School. He left home for Columbia University, where he interrupted his undergraduate studies to deploy to Iraq as an Army intelligence specialist. Later, after spending 18 months in Afghanistan as a conflict analyst, he finished graduate school at NYU and found work doing urban redevelopment in Detroit. By then—and, he swears, without meaning to—he’d compiled quite the political résumé.

When he was elected with a six-point margin in November 2020, Meijer had no plans to become a troublemaker. He hoped to prioritize economic competitiveness with China. He wanted more oversight and accountability for troop deployments. He saw himself as a sober-minded person, someone who wasn’t heading to Congress for the culture wars or the tribal showdowns.

And then he got to Washington. Freshman orientation was a blur of propaganda and innuendo and state-sanctioned conspiracy mongering. Meijer watched, from a hotel lounge, as the president’s lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell held a deranged press conference at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee. New members listened to powerful lawmakers leveling accusations that had no apparent basis in fact. They compared the crazed voicemails they were getting from friends and family members and swapped stories of the intimidation they were subjected to by voters demanding that they overturn the presidential-election result.

Dismayed, a group of freshman Republicans asked for a meeting with Kevin McCarthy shortly after their swearing-in. According to multiple people who attended that meeting, the House minority leader refused to give them advice, explicit or implicit, about how to vote on the election certification. Whereas Mitch McConnell was whipping furiously for certification in his Senate caucus, McCarthy left his new House members without a clue as to the party’s position on whether Congress should obey the Constitution. When they pressed him—one of the freshmen asked whether Trump was crazy enough to believe that decertification would somehow keep him in office— McCarthy replied, “The thing you have to understand about Donald Trump is that he hasn’t been in government that long. He doesn’t know how these things work.”

As word got around that the freshmen were up for grabs, a lobbying blitz commenced. Some of the House hard-liners who sought to block certification—Mo Brooks, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz—shared discredited YouTube testimonies and Fox News clips to emphasize how the issue was playing with the conservative base. Countering that influence were the likes of Kinzinger and Cheney, who sat down with rookie lawmakers for one-on-one conversations, warning them of the precedent they would set by objecting to the election results. Meijer remembers one longtime member—who confessed that he did not believe the election had been stolen but said he would vote against certification anyway—telling him: “This is the last thing Donald Trump will ever ask you to do.”

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