The rise of Rep. Scott Perry: The most dangerous insurrectionist you've never heard of

He doesn't breathe fire or hog the limelight like other Trump loyalists — but that's Scott Perry's secret weapon

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published February 12, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) leaves from a meeting in the office of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the U.S. Capitol Building on November 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) leaves from a meeting in the office of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the U.S. Capitol Building on November 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

How does a Republican congressman from central Pennsylvania — who is currently facing a federal investigation after allegedly spitballing ideas for a "paperwork coup" on behalf of Donald Trump — wind up with a committee seat that could allow him to see open Justice Department files about himself? Meet Rep. Scott Perry, the retired Army National Guard brigadier general who is now one of the most powerful members of Congress. He didn't get there alone.   

Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers -- including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, of California -- voted unanimously to prevent the Justice Department from accessing Perry's cell phone contents in its wider probe of Donald Trump's 2020 election-subversion efforts.  

That's only the latest turn of good luck for the embattled Perry, who's fought the DOJ's effort since the FBI seized his cell phone last August. On Jan. 5, a three-judge appeals court panel -- including two Trump appointees -- put a hold on a lower court's ruling, delaying DOJ access further.

But the House's latest move to back Perry against the DOJ highlights the fact that, unlikely as this may seem,  both the far-right House Freedom Caucus he now leads and the Democrats he views as his sworn enemies paved the way for his rise to power. 

Sewers to swamps 

It seems improbable now that Perry, whose record of wide-swinging claims goes back well before 2020, could have climbed the party ranks so quickly. 

Perry once recklessly suggested, on live air, that ISIS was responsible for the 2018 mass shooting in Las Vegas. On another occasion, he accused then-CNN host Chris Cuomo of fabricating the extent of devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017

In a 2017 town hall meeting, Perry reportedly once blamed pollution on the almighty. While defending proposed budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, Perry criticized the agency's Chesapeake Bay cleanup plans, claiming only certain polluters were targeted while other culprits were unfairly ignored. 

"If you are spiritual and you believe in God, one of the violators was God because the forests were providing a certain amount of nitrates and phosphates to the Chesapeake Bay," he said

That claim, unsurprisingly, was debunked by experts who note that water-side trees provide pollution runoff protection. But his divine deflection may have been less surprising to his constituents. 

Perry once blamed pollution on God, blamed ISIS for the Las Vegas mass shooting, and blamed Chris Cuomo for exaggerating Puerto Rico's devastating hurricane.

Perry was running his family's business, Hydrotech Mechanical Services, in 2002 when the company was caught dumping sewage sludge onto the banks of Stony Run Creek in south-central Pennsylvania. The state charged Perry with altering chemical-monitoring documents and he narrowly avoided a felony conviction. Instead, his company paid a $5,000 fine and Perry completed the state's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition in what he called a "last-minute, at-the-courtroom deal that was never supposed to happen, but it did." 

It wouldn't be the last time Perry would face accusations of hiding evidence. 

Fireside chats

In the months after Trump's 2020 electoral defeat, former chief of staff Mark Meadows kept his office fireplace well-kindled. The fire was lit first thing in the morning by staff, his former aide testified, then heaped with logs throughout the day. And every so often, Meadows would walk over to his fireplace, remove its covering, and throw a few documents into the fire

Meadows had been the chair of the House Freedom Caucus until 2019, a post Perry now holds, and the two men knew each other well. Perry had begun having meetings with Meadows that December, the aide said, arriving with physical papers and PowerPoint presentations to discuss former Vice President Mike Pence's role in certifying the 2020 election results — and what Perry "believed could happen on Jan. 6." 

Eventually, Perry brought a few others to meet with Meadows, the aide said. With the fireplace lit and a room full of warm bodies, Meadows left his office door propped open. The aide saw Perry and the others inside, and saw Meadows again burning documents.

Perry's spokesman has denied he was ever part of these discussions, citing a Jan. 6 tweet from the congressman condemning the violence at the Capitol. But just hours after the attack, Perry joined other Republicans on the House floor in a failed attempt to prevent his own state's electoral votes from being counted. Perry would then spend months parroting Trump's baseless claims of election theft, arguing that Pennsylvania's 7 million votes should be thrown out. 

Ultimately, the same aide who saw Perry leave Meadows' office amid the presumed or apparent destruction of documents  would testify that Perry was among several members of Congress who had asked for her help in securing a preemptive presidential pardon. Perry has denied this, although not under oath.

Perry's Democratic hall pass

Eventually, members of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 events developed a clearer picture of Perry's role in Trump's failed bid to overturn the 2020 election results. 

In a trove of texts leaked in December 2022, Perry and Meadows' 2020 exchanges surfaced, illuminating an array of schemes and outlandish notions aimed at reversing Trump's defeat. Perry sent YouTube conspiracy-theory videos about election-meddling Italian satellites, asking Meadows why the Italian government couldn't help the group's cause. Perry suggested seizing voting machines with a "cyber forensic team" after the election, and putting them under lock and key. 

Perry went on to urge Meadows to get Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen replaced with a Trump-friendly figure in the DOJ, Jeffrey Clark. After Trump ordered Rosen to declare the election corrupt, Rosen refused. Trump responded by threatening to replace Rosen with Clark, who'd concocted a plan to help overturn the election results, but the then-president backed down from after a fiery meeting where several DOJ officials and Trump's own White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, threatened to quit in response. Those exchanges are now part of the reason the DOJ wants access to Perry's cell phone contents. 

But back in July of 2022, House Oversight Committee members knew significantly less about Perry's role. They subpoenaed Perry, who responded by denying the legitimacy of the committee he now sits on, and refused to testify. 

Perry may have been behind the push to fire Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replace him with a pro-Trump underling, one of the darkest moments of the coup attempt.

The committee's chair at the time, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., had the authority to file contempt charges against Perry. But as CNN's Manu Raju reported, Raskin seemed to have "little appetite to refer House Republicans who defy subpoenas to DOJ on contempt charges -- saying it could lead to 'wild goose chases.' 

"I don't know that Congress can take a member of Congress to court under the speech or debate clause," Raskin said, referring to Perry's defense that his cell phone conversations were immune from collection. "But our point here is not to come up with, you know, a dozen new dazzling theories to end up in a lot of wild goose chases all over the land."

"Our point is to bring back a report to the American people to Congress about what happened to us," Raskin told Raju.

Rather than facing contempt charges, Perry was referred to the House Ethics Committee, along with other members who refused to obey subpoena orders. But with a Republican majority in the House and Kevin McCarthy holding the speaker's gavel, both the Ethics Committee and the House ethics review office have become partisan chokepoints. 

These days, Raskin sees Trump's indictment as imminent.

"We think there will be charges probably on some things we didn't even have, because we don't have all of the prosecutorial resources that the Department of Justice has, and so we think they probably collected a lot more evidence than we got," he told MSNBC on Friday

Even if Raskin's prediction is correct, Perry's role in Trump's Jan. 6 plans may remain under a shroud of congressional secrecy. The party whose subpoenas he once dodged now, for its own reasons, has Perry's back in his tug-of-war with the DOJ. 

On Feb. 23, the DOJ will get its chance to ask an appeals court in Washington for access to Perry's phone contents. House Democratic leaders will once again fight to keep Perry's evidence from coming out at all. 

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Donald Trump House Freedom Caucus Jan. 6 Mark Meadows Reporting Republicans Scott Perry