An Ousted Trump Target on Leaving Congress

Outgoing Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler reflects on the forces that ended her 12-year term, and what might have been different.

A photo-illustration of Jaime Herrera Beutler
Tom Williams / Getty; The Atlantic

Updated at 2 p.m. ET on January 4, 2023

Among the things Jaime Herrera Beutler remembers about January 6, 2021, is that her husband managed to turn off the television just in time.

He was at home with their three young children in southwestern Washington State when the riot began. It had taken him a few moments to make out the shaky footage of the mob as it tore through the Capitol. Then he started to recognize the hallways, the various corridors that he knew led to the House floor, where his wife was preparing to break from her party and speak in favor of certifying the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden. He grabbed the remote before the kids could register what was about to happen.

It was a few moments later that Herrera Beutler, huddled among her Republican colleagues, heard the door. “I will never forget the pounding,” she told me recently: Boom, boom, boom.

Before January 6, Herrera Beutler was a purple-district congresswoman who had spent most of her 12-year tenure removed from controversy, passing legislation on bipartisan issues such as maternal health and endangered wildlife while maintaining a social conservatism that kept her in good standing with the base. In the weeks that followed the insurrection, however, when she and nine other House Republicans voted to impeach President Donald Trump, the 44-year-old found herself the pariah of a party whose broader membership, for most of her career, had not precisely known she existed. Today, when the 118th Congress is sworn in, she, like all but two of the Republicans who voted to impeach, will find herself out of office.

In an interview with The Atlantic about her six terms in the House and the Trump-backed primary challenge that ousted her, Herrera Beutler remained convinced of Trump’s culpability for the events of January 6. Yet she appeared still bewildered that a crisis of such magnitude had come to pass, and that not even her own constituents were immune to Trump’s propaganda about the 2020 election and the insurrection itself. “I didn’t know that I had so many people who would be like, ‘What are you talking about? This was a peaceful protest,’” she told me. “I had no idea the depth of misinformation people were receiving, especially in my own home.”

Throughout our conversation, it was clear that the insurrection’s fallout hadn’t changed Herrera Beutler the way it had Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger, the two Republicans who sat on the January 6 committee and who have publicly committed themselves to keeping Trump out of office. These and other Republicans who retired or lost their seats after voting to impeach Trump have seemed liberated to speak about the GOP’s widespread delusion over election fraud. But Herrera Beutler is different: refusing to say that the forces of Trumpism have triggered a fundamental shift in her party, even as her own career was upended by them. Despite two years of hindsight, she seems to have rationalized her party’s continued promotion of lies concerning January 6 as a function of tactical error—believing that had Republicans and Democrats agreed to proceed with witnesses during Trump’s impeachment trial, and had she communicated the stakes differently back home, her base would have rejected the conspiracy theories and accepted Trump’s guilt. “I know a majority of the Republicans who disagree with me on impeachment, had they seen and talked to the people that I had, and had they seen what I saw—I have no doubt about where they would have come down,” she said. “I really don’t.”

That Herrera Beutler has arrived at this conviction might seem naive but is in many ways understandable. For the better part of 12 years, she has been reinforced in the idea that the Republicans in her district are ideologically independent, cocooned from the national party as it leaps from one identity to the next. In her first bid for Congress, at the height of the Tea Party wave, she easily beat challengers from the right to become, at just 31 years old, the first Hispanic to represent Washington State in Congress. She had barely unpacked before the media christened her the future of her party. To the disappointment of the Republican leadership, however, the young and charismatic statehouse veteran wasn’t terribly interested in developing a national profile. Over the next several years, Herrera Beutler instead oriented her office around the hyperlocal work her constituents seemed to prefer—efforts such as expanding the forest-products industry and protecting the Columbia River’s salmon and steelhead runs from sea lions.

On January 6, Herrera Beutler’s career moved onto alien terrain. Immediately after the insurrection, she directed her staff to start making calls, to find out where Trump had been during the rioting and why. Late that afternoon, she texted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows for answers—“We need to hear from the president. On TV,” she sent, to no response—and, on January 11, two days before the impeachment vote, she privately pressed Kevin McCarthy for his impression of Trump’s culpability. During their conversation, the House minority leader confessed that the president had refused his pleas over the phone to call off the rioters—that as they smashed the windows of McCarthy’s office, Trump accused him of not caring enough about purported election fraud. For Herrera Beutler, it was enough to prove Trump’s guilt. In a press release the next day, and later a town hall back in her district, she invoked the conversation with McCarthy to explain her decision to vote to impeach.

At the time, she hadn’t thought twice about airing the details of the Trump-McCarthy call. In the context of the various other things that she and the public had learned by that point, she told me, “I didn’t think it was unique or profound.” In fact, for McCarthy’s reputation, it was. The California Republican would soon make something of a penance visit to Trump at Mar-a-Lago, despite having been, according to Herrera Beutler and other (anonymous) Republican members who were privy to details of the call, terrified and livid at the height of the insurrection, acutely aware of Trump’s real-time recognition of the danger and refusal to do anything about it. Before long, Herrera Beutler’s revelation about the Trump-McCarthy call became the lead story on CNN. Jamie Raskin, the House Democrat managing Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, suddenly wanted to know everything about this congresswoman he had hardly heard of.

For Herrera Beutler, the attention was unlike anything she’d experienced. “I wasn’t trying to insert myself into the national conversation,” she told me. “I wasn’t trying to be the, you know …” She trailed off, seemingly trying to say something like the truth teller. She was open to testifying in the impeachment trial and contacted Nancy Pelosi’s counsel about how to proceed, according to reporting by Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian in Unchecked, yet the House speaker’s attorney never relayed the message to Raskin and his staff. (After publication of this article, Herrera Beutler called me to say that she had contacted Pelosi’s counsel, but only to understand her legal options as Democrats started publicly floating her as a potential witness.) With zero surefire commitments from Republican witnesses to Trump’s conduct during the riot, and facing pressure from his own party not to gum up the 46th president’s honeymoon period with proceedings against the 45th, Raskin rushed the trial to a close.

If Herrera Beutler had pushed more publicly to testify, would Raskin have charged ahead and subpoenaed others? Would it have changed the final vote in the Senate? It’s impossible to say. But for Herrera Beutler, the outcome remains bound up in regret. She said it was “overwhelming” when she began to realize “that good people, honest people, amazing people that I knew” believed, for example, that antifa had orchestrated the riot. “Because, at that point, what could I do?” In retrospect, she believes that pushing ahead with a full trial, before public opinion about January 6 could “bake,” as she puts it, might have plugged the flow of conspiracy theories in her district and elsewhere. The implication, left unsaid, is that it also might have changed the outcome of her primary. “Had we made everything as public as we could at that moment, I think that we could have come to a better agreed-upon actual history of what happened,” she said. “That’s the only thing that I wish I had known—I moved into this thinking we all had the same information, and we didn’t.”

Though she said she appreciates the “sense of duty” of the lawmakers on the January 6 committee—whose final report was published just before we spoke—Herrera Beutler was pessimistic about the resonance of their work. “The challenge for me with the committee was that the 70 million people who voted for Trump are never going to get anything out of that,” she said. “And that’s who I wanted to move.”

This past August, a Trump-backed Republican and former Green Beret named Joe Kent, who had promoted the former president’s lies about the 2020 election, defeated Herrera Beutler in the Third Congressional District’s jungle primary. (Two months later, Kent narrowly lost the general election to Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, who will be the first Democrat in the seat since Herrera Beutler took office in 2011.) On the one hand, Herrera Beutler seems clear-eyed about the forces behind her loss. “It’s just turned into such a tit-for-tat on personality things, and I think my base has definitely at times wanted to see more of that from me,” she said. “And that’s probably part of why the guy in my race made it as far as he did, because that was his oxygen—scratching that itch and making people feel justified in their ideas.”

On the other hand, Herrera Beutler at various times in our conversation expressed an optimism about the future of Republican politics that seemed unmoored from the fact that her party’s base had rejected her. In criticizing both Republican and Democratic lawmakers she called “members in tweet only,” she said she often wondered what their constituents think “when they don’t get anything done—like when they can’t help a local hospital with a permit, or when Grandma can’t get her spouse’s disability payment from the VA.” “I don’t know if they just speechify when they go home,” she said, “but I know that the American people are going to get tired of that. It’s just a question of when, and under what circumstance.” The broader results of the midterm elections, in which numerous Republicans in the mold of Kent ultimately lost to Democrats, would seem to prove her point. But the results of countless Republican primaries, including the victories of election deniers such as Kari Lake in Arizona, indicate that the “when” is likely still far off.

Perhaps one reason Herrera Beutler insists that a “restoration is coming” for the Republican Party: She’s probably going to run again. She won’t say so definitively; she told me she’s looking forward to living in one place with her family and “just being functional.” “I mean, would I be shocked if I ran for something? At some point in my future? No,” she said. The sheer possibility might explain her unwillingness to speak candidly about her party’s current leaders, even two years after the cumulative letdown of January 6. Reports have suggested that her long and friendly relationship with McCarthy, for instance, ruptured after she inadvertently exposed his two-faced response to the insurrection. Bade and Demirjian have written that the House Republican leader exploded at Herrera Beutler, making her cry. (In a joint statement, McCarthy and Herrera Beutler denied that this happened.) When I asked Herrera Beutler for her thoughts about McCarthy’s current bid for the speakership, she demurred, saying, “I don’t want to be the one who comments on that.”

It wasn’t her place, she reasoned. She no longer has a voice in how the House Republican conference chooses to lead. And in the end, even if she is reluctant to acknowledge it, few things constitute more of an indictment of her party than this. All of the qualities that once fueled Herrera Beutler’s rise are still there. She is still a young Hispanic woman in a party that skews old, white, and male. She still rhapsodizes about individual liberty, still considers herself a social conservative in a moment when the Republican stance on abortion seems as unpopular as it ever has. But in little more than a decade, Herrera Beutler has gone from being the future of the party to a casualty of one vote.

Three thousand miles away from Capitol Hill, she begins the work of moving on. She wants to continue to serve the public, she told me, but as a private citizen for the first time since her 20s, she’s still trying to figure out what that means. “I need a cause, something that gives me something to fight for,” she said. “And I just don’t know yet what that’s going to be.”