One day, Katie Hill was a media-savvy 31-year-old congresswoman from a swing district in California who'd arrived in Washington and immediately found herself in the House leadership. A few months later, she was a piñata for the conservative media—her life in tatters, her office resigned, her challengers delighted.
Like so many of the women villainized by the right, Hill’s story is complicated—and hers more so because it has elements of #MeToo in the form of a relationship with a staffer. The circus that followed involved an unsurprising cast of right-wing operatives, personal photos, and an angry husband. For the conservative media ecosystem in the age of Trump, it was the perfect storm, a chance to take down a swing-district Democrat by weaponizing the most sensitive aspects of her personal life against her, nearly driving her to suicide, as she shared in a New York Times op-ed Sunday.
When we spoke at a busy breakfast restaurant in midtown Manhattan on a Saturday morning, she dressed casually. Probably one of the most telegenic young members of Congress, one can see how she ended up featured on Vice News and in the movie Bringing Down the House. Hill spoke of her experience clearly. She told me some of how she’d found herself pushed into that dark state of mind in the first place. Katie Hill’s story begins with, as she tells it, her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Kenny Heslep.
“I was 16 when I got together with him and he was 20,” Hill said as she recounted how she had wanted to leave him before the campaign but he had threatened to “ruin her.” As soon as she got to D.C., she made a conscious decision that she had to end it no matter what that meant. Being away from Kenny made it clear to her that she had to get out.
After she ended it, Red State, a conservative website that had evolved from being a center-right blog to an avenue for Trumpian propaganda and oppo research, published a tranche of messages and intimate photos exposing the couple’s relationship with one of her campaign staffers. The reporter of that piece had previously been a Republican political consultant who had worked at one time for Hill’s Republican opponent. The Daily Mail then published more messages and photos, including nude shots of Hill that had been posted online.
Hill was on some level ready for it. “I wanted out, and he threatened that if I tried to leave, he would ruin me. At a certain point I decided I had to anyway. I knew what he meant by ruin me,” she says. “He had taken the pictures and posted them to the wife-swapping website without my knowledge. I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t know shit about it.”
Heslep—who has reportedly denied being the source of the photos and whose father has said that his son believes he had been hacked—and his lawyer did not respond to requests from The Daily Beast for comment.
Hill told me that, “I had a feeling it was coming because we started hearing more rumors about how, you know, someone had these photos. But I kept thinking, like, no one's going to publish them. And then my communications director ran into my office and was like, ‘There's pictures.’
“And I’m like, fuck. And they reveal the identity of [the young campaign staffer who Katie and her husband had been in a relationship with]. This isn’t even me taking the photos. My own hesitation was there is this complication because I had a relationship. They saw me as a threat. I was a very high-profile congresswoman. It was a relationship. It was real. It was not an affair. It was a long-term thing. She was fucked over by this. I feel horrible for her, this was exactly what she was afraid of.” A House ethics investigation soon followed—one, that Hill says "was literally based on my husband’s Facebook post.”
Hill doesn’t cry but I see in her vaguely pained expression how horrible and strange it is to go back through all this stuff that has been used by the conservative media against her. In her resignation speech, Hill talked about “the forces of revenge by a bitter jealous man, cyber exploitation and sexual shaming that target our gender.”
And she was derailed in a weirdly tragic, almost Shakespearean way. Writing about someone who’s been through this is always incredibly difficult because asking a woman to go through and recount a story like this often feels vaguely exploitative, especially since so much of this material has been repurposed and used against her.
“It’s hard for me to reconcile how I was—and I think still am—a role model for some young women. But I was in this situation (the marriage) for so much longer than I should have.”
She went on: “It was horrible. This basically was an enabling and a continuation of the abuse, and when you're with somebody so long, you're not able to identify toxic behaviors, you think it's normal. You don't have anything for comparison.”
I ask her about the revenge porn aspect, and she says "you want to call it cyber-exploitation. Revenge porn implies that you did something wrong and yeah, that you made porn. We’re suing the Daily Mail and Red State” for running the photos. “This is a precedent that can’t be set.”
A lot of people have told me that they think she was wrong to resign. I asked her, and was a little surprised at just how little self-pity or doubt she had about her decision.
“No, no. It was horrible for my family. I knew that it was just going to keep coming, and I knew that I wasn't going to be able to be effective doing the things that I felt were important for me which was being a voice for the freshman class. I couldn’t keep doing that when I became kind of a liability to a lot of the freshman, so I'd have to resign my leadership position. I’d become just a vote; the community would be distracted, and they’d be able to use me as a distraction when what matters is impeachment.”
But just because she resigned doesn’t mean Katie Hill is going away. In fact, she was extremely clear to me that she’s not going away. “This is part of why I'm not going away. I know that they wanted to silence me, right. I'm like, you can't do that. Whatever. Whatever it is that I end up doing, I will not be quiet.
"I know that comes with risks. Every time that you say something you take a risk, especially when they think they defeated you. Their goal was to break you, and there was a while where physical safety was a concern.”
Hill talked about the death threats, and her sister’s business being doxxed. She wrote in the New York Times “that my dad drove around our hometown pulling down huge posters of his baby girl in a Nazi uniform with the text “#WifenSwappenSS.”
I pressed her on the Iron Cross tattoo seen on her hip in one of the photos posted by the Daily Mail. She would only say that it’s been covered, and referred me to a cease-and-desist letter to the Daily Mail saying that she had no Nazi symbols on her body.
“An Iron Cross in isolation (i.e., without a superimposed swastika or without other accompanying hate symbols) cannot be determined to be a hate symbol,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, which notes that “Care must therefore be used to correctly interpret this symbol in whatever context in which it may be found.”
Finally, I asked her if she was as shocked as the rest of America when Matt Gaetz defended her.
“I wasn't shocked, because he and I had a good rapport. We were on Armed Services together. He’s like a millennial. You know, at the end of the day, it meant a lot, and it helped keep some of the nasty at bay, and I think he might have played a part in why Trump himself didn’t come after me.”
After a couple hours, Katie had to go and she grabbed her enormous black hiking backpack and struggled to put it on. I could see her crushed by the weight of it. As she walked around the corner I could see her blond silhouette being dragged down.