The White House’s best-known Russia hawk is already in Germany, in advance of Donald Trump’s high-stakes meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the G-20 summit. But whether Fiona Hill will be allowed in the room when the two presidents get together is still very much an open question.
According to two White House aides, senior Trump administration officials have pressed for Hill—the National Security Council’s senior director for Europe and Russia and the author of critical psychological biography of Putin—to be in the room during the president’s highly anticipated meeting with Putin.
If Hill is there, these officials believe, it will help the White House avoid the perception that the president is too eager to cozy up to the Kremlin. The hope is to avoid a repeat of Trump’s last meeting with top Russian officials, during which he disclosed classified intelligence to two of the country’s top diplomats—and was pictured by Russian state media looking particularly friendly with them.
"If she [Hill] wasn't there it would be pretty bad, this is the most momentous thing in her portfolio," said former Pentagon Russia policy chief Evelyn Farkas, who added that the only valid reason not to include Hill would be to make room for McMaster in a room with limited space.
A National Security Council official confirmed to The Daily Beast that Hill is already in Hamburg, awaiting the president’s Thursday arrival. Her early presence, and ongoing efforts to include Hill in the president’s meeting with Putin, signal that the administration is attempting to head off any sense that the Trump is treating the Kremlin with kid gloves during his first meeting with America’s chief geopolitical antagonist.
“We’ve clearly had an optics problem [on this issue],” one White House official said. "This would be one small corrective."
Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on these matters. The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Hill, who came to the White House from the Brookings Institution, previously served as the National Intelligence Council’s top intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia. Her 2013 biography, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, portrayed a corrupt and Machiavellian leader attempting to balance his various public personas in an effort to hang on to power.
Putin, has turned his skills as a former KGB officer into a unique brand of kleptocratic statecraft, wrote Hill and her co-author, Brookings’ Clifford Gaddy. The Kremlin leader installed friendly officials in high-level posts with influence over key levers of the Russian economy—and ensured they remain friendly through financial inducements and more sinister, if mostly unspoken, threats.
More recently, Hill has downplayed expectations that Trump’s public praise for Putin and his criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization might engender closer relations between the two countries.
But while Trump has repeatedly hailed the “strong” and “brilliant” Russian leader, Hill said she expected little change in longstanding U.S.-Russia tensions.
“I think it will come down to what it’s always been,” she told The Atlantic in November, “where the Russians will get all giddy with expectations, and then they’ll be dashed, like, five minutes into the relationship because the U.S. and Russia just have a very hard time … being on the same page.”
Internally, administration and White House officials are fretting about the prospect of a Trump-Putin meeting that bears any resemblance to the president’s May gathering in the Oval Office with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, Moscow’s ambassador to Washington.
During that meeting, Trump divulged sensitive details of Israeli intelligence surrounding planned ISIS terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe. Russian government photos from the meeting—American photographers were barred from the event—portrayed what seemed to be a friendly, even lighthearted, meeting between the president and Russia’s top diplomats.
A Wednesday report from the New York Times detailed concerns both within and outside of the administration that Trump and Putin might emerge looking like allies and friends, a sentiment that officials also relayed to The Daily Beast.
“Yeah, it’s a concern,” a third White House official, citing fallout over Trump’s May meeting, said of those potential pitfalls. “After Lavrov, it’s always a concern.”
Part of the concern stems from Trump’s tendency to shoot from the hip in tweets and public statements that frequently contradict statements from his own aides. That habit ensnared National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and his deputy Dina Powell in the aftermath of the Lavrov meeting, when they all-but-denied that Trump had divulged sensitive intelligence to the Russians, only to have the president tacitly confirm that he did hours later.
McMaster and Powell were both in the room for that meeting. And senior aides are pushing for Powell to join Hill during the president’s Putin pow-wow as well, according to administration sources. As of Wednesday, the list for those participating in the meeting had not yet been finalized.
But aides have been pushing to stack the meeting with officials who might help nudge Trump in the right direction—or at least present a more politically palatable front.
“The idea is to get as many adults in the room as humanly possible,” one senior administration official said.
—with additional reporting by Spencer Ackerman