Peter Meijer: GOP Shirking Blame for Jan. 6 'Fundamentally Un-conservative'

Representative Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican, made history within 10 days of officially being sworn in as a House member, becoming the first freshman lawmaker to vote to impeach a president of their own political party.

Meijer didn't envision facing such a momentous decision when he ran for Congress, but he ultimately joined with nine other House Republicans and all House Democrats to vote to impeach then-President Donald Trump. The GOP lawmaker will now face off against a Trump-backed opponent, John Gibbons, in an August primary.

Despite that consequential vote coloring his tenure in Congress, Meijer has strived to address government's "dysfunction" despite the heightened political polarization. He told Newsweek that's he's "focused on trying to go beneath the symptoms and focus on how" lawmakers can "begin to tackle some of the underlying causes, and some of the reasons why our federal government fails at its job."

"There's understandable frustration from all Americans that things aren't getting done in Congress," he explained.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Republican says he doesn't have any regrets about his vote to impeach Trump after the events of January 6, 2021. He thinks politicians need to stop putting "their jersey on first." However, he also is skeptical that the House select committee investigating the violence of that day will be successful at changing many voters' views of what occurred.

Rep. Peter Meijer
Representative Peter Meijer, a Republican from Michigan, called the GOP shirking blame for January 6, 2021, a "fundamentally un-conservative position" to hold. Above, Meijer speaks with a reporter as he leaves the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on November 16, 2021. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Newsweek spoke to Meijer by phone on Thursday morning, prior to the first public televised hearing of the House select committee. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You've been in Congress about a year and a half. What is your assessment of that experience so far? And are you optimistic about the direction politics is going?

I think there's room for optimism. I think one of the challenges is, it's hard to fix a lot of governmental dysfunction in a politically polarized moment. At the same time, I think that government dysfunction has bred political polarization. There's understandable frustration from all Americans that things aren't getting done in Congress. Yet some of the ways in which those frustrations vent themselves make it harder to fix the underlying issues.

I've been focused on trying to go beneath the symptoms and focus on how can we begin to tackle some of the underlying causes, and some of the reasons why our federal government fails at its job, some of the reasons why it's hard to get things done. That has expressed itself in my efforts to reassert the legislative branch's primacy in areas of war and peace through the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act, trying to tackle the growth of the emergency powers claimed by the president through one of the titles in that act. Those are things that we can at least make progress on in a bipartisan way. And then hopefully laying the groundwork to begin to have a better balance between federal government action and state government action ... Trying to move the needle so that we, at the end of the day, have a government that can be, as functional and as affective to its goal of serving the citizens of this country. Frankly, as we should expect as a superpower.

One of the most consequential votes you took was in January 2021, when you voted to impeach Trump. Nearly a year and a half later, do you see things at all differently today compared to how you did then? Any regrets?

No. I think it's essential that we have politicians who don't put their jersey on first. My goal has been to operate in a non-hypocritical manner. I grew up watching The Daily Show where Jon Stewart would play a clip, and it didn't matter if it was a Republican or a Democrat—you know, played a clip of the same individual arguing against a four-years-later version of themselves. Because whatever they were criticizing the administration of the other party over, they were excusing what their party did.

I think that pervasive hypocrisy, you know, "My side can do no wrong and theirs could do no right," I think has led to a general dissatisfaction with our elected officials. I think in order to stop that trend, folks need to be honest and not just tell their constituents what they want to hear and not just play to the crowd, but have some fundamental principles rather than viewing everything as a subjective matter. If it had been 2012 and Barack Obama had lost that election, and had his supporters storming the Capitol, I'm pretty sure there would have been a few more Republicans voting for impeachment.

Trump supporters attack U.S. Capitol
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they violently attack the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Because of that vote, you're facing a Trump-backed challenger. When you speak with voters in your district, what do you tell them sets you apart from John Gibbs?

I think one of the sad realities that have come of this moment—I've attended many events where very little of policy substance was discussed. I think we should have policy-oriented conversations rather than a conversation—rather than a politics whose goal is to channel the anger of the electorate in a way that best benefits the candidate personally.

My focus is, frankly, on running on our results, what we've delivered to the district so far, what we have been able to accomplish, even in a polarized political environment, where I have tried to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but try to at least drive what improvements and what positive action we can in this toxic environment today, while connecting that to where we need to be.

My goal is to make our government work. And that requires deep diagnosis, that requires deep analysis. That also requires being realistic about the political moment, rather than just nodding in agreement to whatever the crowd wants to hear. I think that it's easy to be the populist. It's much more challenging to encourage people—to say, "Your emotion, your frustration is 100 percent valid, and here's how we do something productive with it," rather than keep spinning in circles.

In Michigan, there were a number of prominent Republicans like yourself, Congressman Fred Upton, and several others at the local and federal level that pushed back against the 2020 election misinformation and what happened on January 6. But now the Michigan GOP has put forward a number of candidates, such as [secretary of state hopeful] Kristina Karamo and others, who embrace this misinformation. As a Michigan Republican, how do you assess the direction that your party is going in the state?

I view politics as a way of being able to implement the policies you believe in, that you believe will be able to move the country or the state in a better direction. In order to do that, you actually have to win. You have to take office. You have to be in a position of power. You have to earn the trust of the voters to be able to implement the policies that they have sent you to Lansing or to Washington to deliver. That's where I'm deeply concerned that the policy takes a total backseat. Everything boils down to, again, understandable emotion and frustration, but emotion and frustration where it's more of a, "I will say what you want to hear in order to get your vote," rather than, "This concern of yours has a factual basis, and here's my plan to tackle it," as opposed to, "I'm going to tell people what they want to hear."

I think that runs entirely contrary to any notion of leadership. A leader doesn't run to the front of the parade and grab the baton. They operate based on persuasion and trying to do that. It's been two decades since Michigan had a Republican senator. We recently had a Republican governor [through 2018]. I think it's deeply worrisome when the former elected officials who successfully won statewide in a state like Michigan, when you have a party that actively seeks to purge them. That doesn't seem like a recipe to enact significant—you know, that's not a winning recipe.

You previously said that you see right now that Republicans see "no alternative" to Trump. Do you see a potential alternative emerging?

That was one of the most annoying, out of context quotes. There's a difference between an explanation and excuse. [NBC News' Meet the Press host] Chuck Todd was asking me why there had been a reversion back [to Trump], especially when many of the individuals who had been outspoken in their denunciation and criticism of January 6 and of the president's role in that, in the days that followed. And then very quickly did some polling and said, "Well, this is the easiest path."

I'm not saying there shouldn't be an alternative. Frankly, I think the focus on Donald Trump, either pro or anti, I think a lot of that misses the picture. I could go down the list of all of the fantastic policies that administration implemented. And frankly, some energy that Donald Trump brought to the Republican Party was very needed to a party that had grown listless. I'm more than happy to talk about the good.

I think it's also foolish to not recognize that over the course of Donald Trump's presidency, he became the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose the House, to lose the Senate and the presidency. That's something we need to reckon with. At the same time, if the Republican Party is going to be the party of limited government, of law and order, of local control, we can't only believe in that when it benefits us politically.

I see candidates running who say, "Well, no, to hell with that. We want to control the federal government so we can grow its power and punish our political enemies." I think nothing could be further from core conservative principles. We're again, just like a lot of progressives, it becomes we want the state to be the central organizing entity—except we want to control it. Rather than recognizing that the individual, the families, the communities—that is what makes up this country. That is what gives power and control to the government, rather than the government, rather than being first and foremost subjects. No, we are first and foremost determinants determining how we are governed.

This evening [Thursday], the January 6 House select committee will start public hearings. What are your thoughts on that? And do you think any evidence could be brought to light that will actually impact the views of voters regarding what happened that day?

You know, I voted and supported—and think it would have been just unquestionably more beneficial to the country if there would have been an independent, bipartisan investigation. Take it out of the hands of politicians. Have there be solid recommendations so we can improve security at the Capitol complex, that we could make sure that the violence that occurred on January 6 never happens again.

Frustratingly, because I don't know why, honestly. Maybe it's because it was easier to let the Democrats go down the path that they were going to go down in the absence of anything independent. We're now at this point where, frankly, I don't know who—I'm not sure whose mind is not already made up. I talk to plenty of people who say there was no violence or if there was violence, it was the FBI. Or you know, the Capitol Police invited people in. People almost seem committed to whatever absolves the people they identify with of any responsibility.

I think trying to shirk responsibility is a fundamentally un-conservative position. At the same time, I've seen Democrats perpetuate falsehoods and exaggerate, and also miss the boat on the need to not be kind of playing with fire here. So my frustration is that I kind of feel like there's a pox on both houses here. Nobody has bathed themselves in glory or esteem. When it comes to political violence, if there's ever a moment when we should step back and say, my first thought shouldn't be, "What's best for my side?" As an American, as somebody who believes in this republic and swore an oath to the Constitution, we are going down a very dangerous path that we need to turn around right now.

We also saw yesterday [Wednesday] the gentleman who showed up with weapons and an expressed an intent to try to assassinate [Supreme Court] Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh. We need to be focusing on political violence in a sober, level-headed way, rather than excusing it when it comes from our side. Whether that's the Democrats and the violence we saw over the summer of 2020 or Republicans and the violence on January 6. We shouldn't be looking at this first and foremost through a partisan lens. It should be first and foremost as Americans who denounce and refuse to condone political violence.

You've been talking about the need for bipartisanship and the polarization. You've been very critical of Biden and Democrats for not being more bipartisan. But one thing you voted against was the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that had significant bipartisan support in the Senate. That bill also would have provided some $7 billion for highways in Michigan and over $500 million for bridges. That seems like a bipartisan win, but you voted against it. Why did you vote against that?

I do not deny that we need to improve our infrastructure. My biggest frustration is it did not do nearly what was needed in order to constrain the rise of costs. It didn't tackle why it is so much more expensive in this country to build infrastructure than in any other developed nation in the world. Some of that has to do with just unnecessary regulatory constraints and permitting restrictions, the rise of the old, extortionate kind of lawsuits so that everyone's palms are greased as the project goes along.

We can allocate all the money in the world from the federal government. As we've seen in Michigan, where we're putting more and more money toward some of these projects, and the more you're putting the money toward them, the more the cost is going up. You can authorize a million shovel-ready projects, if you don't have people to hold the shovels or if you double the funding, but those projects double in cost, you're not moving the needle, right? You're staying in place. I think it was a worthwhile effort. I just think ultimately, at the end of the day, the bill had shortcomings in terms of what it needed to address so that we can afford to build the projects that we need to.

Another area where there's talk in the Senate of potential bipartisan agreement is on guns in the wake of these mass shootings. Yesterday the House passed a gun bill. You voted against it, as did most Republicans. Do you think that this is an issue where Democrats and Republicans can find any common ground?

I think there's room. Especially around how do we deal with mental health in this country. You know, how do we make sure that proven and effective means of reducing violence are implemented at the level of government that they have been shown to be most effective. It's been frustrating how a lot of—not a single American saw what happened in Uvalde and wasn't utterly heartbroken. And then the horrors that we saw in Buffalo. I mean, just this proliferation of mad men intent on—with evil designs. It's frankly evidence of a deeper cultural sickness. The government is downstream, not upstream, of culture.

But at the same time, we should be focusing on what can we actually do that both protects our Second Amendment, is constitutional and will be able to be effective. Much of that may be incremental, but if those increments save lives, I think that could be worthwhile. Now what we voted on in the House were a lot of things that were just kind of dusted off, pulled off the shelf. There was no bipartisan input. Not only that, but also, nothing that ultimately is going to get passed into law. I vastly prioritize serious legislation that has bicameral, bipartisan input and has a chance of making it to the president's desk rather than something that's introduced just so that somebody can go home to their district to say they voted on it.

I do think there's room for an agreement. I think it has to respect the fact that our Constitution gives policing powers to the states, and it is honest about the reality that there's not one thing that's going to do everything. This is my frustration with a lot of one-size-fits-all approaches from the federal government. There's a lot of areas where having different states take different approaches, and being able to compare and contrast what has worked and what hasn't. That has tremendous value and allows us to pass legislation based on empirical data, demonstrated efficacy rather than talking points and assumptions.

I'm encouraged by what we've seen in the Senate. I think that there are some senators who want to get something done. In contrast to what we voted on in the House, where many of the underlying titles, individual senators had—individual Democratic senators had expressed reservations about and couldn't even support. I think it's important that we act and operate with an eye toward substance rather than what we've seen all too often under [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, [a California Democrat], which is a firm commitment to messaging and style, rather than something that will actually move the needle.

Peter Meijer
Representative Peter Meijer attends the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals on March 12, 2022, in Austin, Texas. Amy E. Price/Getty Images for SXSW

When it comes to bipartisanship, I found in a previous interview you did with Roll Call, you mentioned that Representative Ritchie Torres of New York is your closest friend across the aisle. I was wondering if you could just share a bit about those kind of relationships in Congress. Do you think it's a common thing for Republicans and Democrats to have close friendships across the aisle in the current polarized climate? How does that work?

I would actually say, a lot of the posturing you see on TV and social media is not necessarily reflective of many serious, sober-minded individuals who are not going to abandon their principles. But also, I think, frankly, view it as their responsibility as I do mine to not just throw up your hands and say, "There's nothing we can do." And at the same time, it's very easy for misunderstanding and suspicion to take root, which can be very well founded. But building personal relationships, I think, is a way of trying to diffuse some tensions and find areas of common ground that maybe you hadn't anticipated. I appreciate and I think it's important that both parties have diversity of thought within them.

I think it's a vitally important exercise to air disagreements, to not pretend that one party or one individual or one approach has all of the answers. Again, I'm a Republican because I look at what has been shown to work and has been effective and in making the American dream something that is an achievable reality for many Americans. Those have been conservative principles and those have been demonstrated and have been effective. But I also don't pretend that I have all the answers. I also really appreciate the opportunity to talk with individuals who, in good faith, have arrived at different conclusions, and be able to either defend how I arrived at my position or to gain a perspective, or getting information that maybe I didn't have.

If you're not having conversations, if you're not talking, if you're not able to realize at the end of the day that we may be of different parties but as with all Americans, there's far more that unites us as a people than divides us. If you're not coming in with that approach, I think you're ultimately not going to be able to get the support that you need and build the trust that you need in order to make a lasting, long term positive impact.

I think it was that same interview in which you mentioned Congressman Torres, you also said that you hate "every" breakfast food. And as a fellow Michigander, I've got to ask, does that include Kellogg's cereal?

I am a huge fan of cereal. It's my go-to snack. I used to be a skim milk guy and now I'm more of a 1 percent. But, you know, I'm a fan of and proudly support the Michigan dairy industry. I tend to drink some coffee in the morning, but I'm not a big fan of things that are only cheesy, only greasy or only salty. I think they need a little bit more of a complex flavor profile. I love egg on a burger. I'm a big fan of hard-boiled and even enjoy the occasional pickled egg at times. But I guess it boils down to I'm not a breakfast burrito guy.

OK. I was just worried because Kellogg's was founded and is headquartered in your district, so I thought that might be a bit controversial.

I don't view cereal as a breakfast food. It can be a fantastic addition, you know, either as a snack or as a lunch item or even sometimes dinner or, you know, a late night snack.