Fiona Hill Doesn’t Think the Russians Had Anything on Trump
But the daughter of a British coal miner does think the son of a Queens real estate developer had a bad case of “autocrat envy.”
Fiona Hill’s unflinching testimony about President Trump using Ukraine for a “domestic political errand” to undermine a political rival made the British-born scholar an instant feminist icon. One of the final and most memorable “fact witnesses” in Trump’s first impeachment trial, she shone a light on non-partisan public servants like herself as she set out in riveting detail the parallel tracks of a White House going through the motions of advancing the nation’s interests while exploring deals to advance Trump’s self-interest and ensure his re-election.
“Essentially, he was promoting national security for his family – and a foreign policy to fit his own personal ambitions and world view,” Hill says. “It’s not We the People – it’s Me the People,” a phrase she invokes repeatedly in her new memoir, There Is Nothing for You Here, a title that draws on her experience growing up in an impoverished town in northern England, the daughter of a coal miner.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Hill called the ex-president “a counter-intelligence and national security risk because he was so vulnerable to manipulation based on the fragility of his ego.” She recalled Trump’s “nasty list,” a growing number of people who ticked him off in ways large and small. She was shocked that a man raised in such luxury, who’d never been denied anything, could be so insecure. “Anyone could induce him to do something by raising the specter of someone insulting him—or by praising him. His ideology was idolatry,” she said.
She dismisses the widely held belief that animated much of our politics for four years, that Vladimir Putin had some damning revelation on Trump that prompted the American president’s wildly excessive deference to his Russian president.
Before Trump met with Russian President Putin in Helsinki in July of 2018, he asked Hill if she thought Putin would like him. “But I never had the time to answer before he was on to something else,” she said. “From Putin’s view, what’s not to like? What Putin had on Trump is what everybody else had—recognition of his extreme vulnerability to manipulation.”
Various foreign leaders, from France’s Emmanuel Macron to the Saudis, figured out early how susceptible Trump was to flattery, she said. Trump suffered from “autocrat envy,” pandering to Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, China’s Xi Jinping, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “He also really liked kings and queens,” she adds. And Putin of course, whom Trump wanted to call to thank personally after the Russian president said something nice about him on television.
Fiona Hill was an unlikely recruit for the Trump team. A highly credentialed academic from working class northern England with an advanced degree from Harvard, she had spent the day after Trump’s inauguration at the Women’s March in Washington. She was as surprised as her colleagues at the Brookings Institution, an elite Washington think tank, when the job offer came via K.T. McFarland, a Fox News personality who was deputy national security adviser for the first four months of the administration. They had met a handful of times in the Green Room at Fox and now Hill would be senior director of European and Russian Affairs on the NSC.
She had never encountered Trump before going to work for him in April 2017, and when they met in the Oval Office, it didn’t go well. It was Hill’s first day on the job, and she had been up most of the night with her young daughter who had a stomach flu, and in the scramble to get to work on time she had left her dress shoes behind in a bag. No worries, she told herself, the first day on a new job is routine paperwork and introductions. But there was H.R. McMaster, her boss, the national security adviser, summoning her to an impromptu meeting in the Oval Office to brief the president about a terrorist attack on a train in St. Petersburg, Russia.
It was the first she’d heard of the attack, but that wasn’t the problem. It was her shoes—black sneakers. McMaster told her to keep her feet under the chair and out of Trump’s range of sight. That would have worked if Trump’s daughter hadn’t entered the Oval in a dazzling white outfit and sporting spike heels. Ivanka sat next to Hill, taking notice of her foot attire. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. “She shot me a look,” says Hill, who went out during lunch to buy a pair of heels to keep at the ready.
McFarland said not to worry, that she would arrange another meeting with Trump, telling Hill, “He doesn’t necessarily remember the people, but he remembers the dresses,” and that she should wear something different. “She upgraded my dress code,” says Hill, laughing. But that only went so far. When K.T. formally introduced Hill to Trump as his Russia expert, Trump replied, “Rex does Russia,” Rex being then-Secretary of State Tillerson, who the president later dismissed as being “dumb as a rock.” Trump never warmed to Hill, mistaking her for a secretary at one point. After she seemed to balk at writing up a statement, which wasn’t her job, then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus tagged her with the moniker, “Russia Bitch.”
Asked about that nasty nickname, she said, “I was a woman doing my job, and I wasn’t one of them.”
Hill was in the White House a little over two years, long enough to get a subpoena to testify about what then-National Security Adviser John Bolton had described to her as a “drug deal” that Rudy Giuliani and other Trump allies were cooking up over Ukraine. She describes in her book the careful preparations she made from reading all the previous depositions to practicing pushing the balls of her feet into the floor to keep from shivering in the overly air-conditioned hearing room. With the help of a lawyer friend and his female colleagues, she had everything correctly gamed out, including primetime television makeup and a dark blue suit that the Washington Post’s fashion critic described as “reassuringly dull.”
She became an overnight sensation, the coal miner’s daughter speaking truth to the pinnacle of power. It was almost exactly 30 years since she had left her home in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, to attend Harvard on a scholarship for her graduate degrees. She thinks of herself as the exception that proved the rule, the one that made it out from crushing poverty while so many others were left behind without a future in her downtrodden blue-collar town, the same phenomenon of despair that laid the ground for Brexit in the U.K. and Trump in the U.S.A.
She dreaded the three questions people would ask to place her on the social scale. Where are you from? What does your father do? And what school did you attend? Many years later, when she was in her forties, she encountered former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of elites. He asked the same questions. And after learning her father had been a coal miner who became a hospital porter after the mine closed and that she attended comprehensive school, which is the equivalent of public school in the inner city or rural America, “He was shocked that I had made it from where my social setting indicated I should be,” Hill said.
“How did you get here?” he asked. “I made a joke. I said I got here (Aspen) by plane.”
How far she traveled to get where she is professionally is the core of Hill’s book. She tells the story of her own family, the “clever lasses” that excelled beyond expectations, and the grievances of those left behind in a changing economy by leaders who don’t listen. She was an eyewitness to the devastation growing up, and she saw the same patterns in the working-class communities outside of Harvard’s bubble. Many in her husband’s large extended family in the Midwest voted twice for Barack Obama and at least once for Trump. “The lack of opportunity is fuel for populism,” she says.
She expects Trump will be the candidate in 2024, or the kingmaker. “He wanted to be king. He still wants to be king and regain his throne,” she says, agreeing with her colleague at Brookings, Robert Kagan, that we are watching fascism unfold as Trump refuses to accept that he lost the 2020 election.
“I agree with that, but you stick a label on this and it’s another source of division. You need to be very careful not to label people—they’ll say ‘I’m not a fascist. My grandfather fought Mussolini.’ Labels are not useful.”
In an afterword to her book, which is a primer on how we got here, she lists practical ways for everyone to get organized in some way in their own communities. “If we wait for politicians to get their act together, we’ll be waiting for a long time.”