Q&A with Dr. Fiona Hill on Putin, Trump, and 2024

A conversation with the former president's top Russia adviser and impeachment witness, who found herself knowing more about the machinations in the Kremlin than those in the Trump White House.

Dr. Fiona Hill is the Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She began working there in 2000. She served as National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama from 2006 until 2009. She co-wrote a psychological biography of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin." 

She served in the Trump Administration as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 until 2019. In 2019, she testified before Congress in the impeachment hearings over President Trump's attempt to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on the president's political rival, Joe Biden. 

She is the author of a new book, "There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century." In the book, Dr. Hill reflects on her childhood in postindustrial Britain, her education and government service in the United States, and frequent travels to decaying post-Soviet Russia, reflecting how forgotten places in the three countries are fertile grounds for populist movements spawning Brexit, Trump, and Putin. She holds a doctorate in history and a master's in Soviet studies from Harvard University where she was a Frank Knox fellow, and a master's from St. Andrews in Scotland in Russian and modern history. 

I spoke with her Tuesday over Zoom. Our conversation follows, condensed and edited for clarity.

Luke Johnson: I think many Americans who watched your impeachment testimony know that you're from the U.K., but have no idea where you're from in the U.K. or why that might even matter. In the book, you talk about how the question "where are you from" is really a loaded one. Can you explain to readers where you're from, what the economic and social climate was like at the time, and why it's really not an innocent question?

Fiona Hill: The region that I grew up in was County Durham, in the middle of the northeast of England, south of Hadrian's Wall. The biggest city in the area outside of the county is Newcastle-on-Tyne. People mostly don't know much about this area, because it's the classic equivalent of the old coal mining regions anywhere else -- the Saarland in Germany, or in the United States, Carbon County, Pennsylvania in the Lehigh Valley. 

County Durham in the period which I was growing up was experiencing the kind of industrial decline that all of the old manufacturing areas of Europe and the United States did. From the time that I was born in 1965 through the time I was leaving school, every major industry closed -- the coal mines just successively closed down. By the time I got to the end of high school in 1984, the whole place was one huge center of unemployment and deprivation. The name of the book, "There's Nothing For You Here," is taken from what my dad said to me when I was contemplating leaving school and where to go.

Class was the dominant social sorting exercise. What people were trying to figure out when they ask where you are from, is what that would tell you about your social background. Everybody associated the northeast of England with big smokestack factories. It was like saying, "I'm from Flint, Michigan," or "I'm from Detroit" -- people have a certain image in mind. They would go from there and ask you, "What does your father do?" My dad had been a coal miner. After every other attempt to find a job in industry, he ended up being a porter in the local hospital, which was the lowest of the low on the economic rung. The third question was, "What school did you go to?" That was trying to put you further in a box, because we had a hierarchy of schools in the U.K., where I went to was the generic state school. 

People are looking at me answering these questions, and they've already made all of these decisions about me before I've even started having a conversation with them.

LJ: You got a fellowship in 1989 to study the Soviet Union at Harvard. Was it a relief not to be judged by those standards?

FH: It was. I came to the United States, and people did not know what my father did, or where I had gone to school. [Americans would think,] "You're from England, fantastic." People would certainly say things like, I can't understand the words you're saying, but I could listen to you speak all day. People would guess you were British, Australian, Irish, or even South African. There was all kinds of other forms of discrimination. But for me coming to Harvard in 1989, it was immediate acceptance.

LJ: In the book, you draw a comparison between Trump and Putin; you call them both populists. What are some areas you think that they're similar? I don't automatically think of Putin as a populist, and perhaps only recently people started calling him that.

FH: I actually thought he was a populist very early on because of the way in which democracy became short-circuited in the latter phases with him. If you think of the essence of populism, it's a direct connection between the populist leader and the people, with no intermediaries. At first, when Putin came into office, there were intermediaries there, though he wasn't, strictly speaking, the leader of the United Russia party. 

He doesn't seem to want to rule Russia within an established political framework apart from the Constitution, which frames the presidency, and he's not really ruling it through Parliament. There's a parallel system set up alongside the Russian state. He doesn't reject it [the state], but he's ruling in parallel with a small circle of confidants and his own people in some key positions. 

He's constantly looking at popular opinion. He's governing, ruling, and making decisions according to his own popularity ratings. Putin is going out there wanting to be everything for everyone, as a KGB agent, somebody who's used to masking himself, and also somebody who was a recruiter, trying to make the people who he was trying to turn into assets engage with them. Putin did that masterfully on the Russian stage. He is everything from a James Bond figure with his aviator sunglasses, the suit and tie, being an airline pilot and putting out forest fires...it was a crazy set of performances.

That's where you can see the parallels most distinctly with someone like President Trump who is a performer, entertainer, and a showman. They're still both out there trying to entertain and make a direct connection with the public, checking opinion polling, not really paying much attention to the party. Trump, at this point, he said, there is no Republican Party apart from him. It's become a movement; a charismatic figure with a grouping of people around him.

LJ: Trump's relationship to Russia was a politically explosive question in 2016. Before the election, Trump asked Russia publicly to hack Hillary Clinton's emails. In being offered a role as Russia advisor, did you think you'd be able to accomplish anything in that context and given the attack [on the U.S. election]? And that it [Trump's ties] were so publicized?

FH: Initially, yes, because there were people behind the scenes, who had come in from the broader conventional Republican process of getting involved in campaigns, people being detailed from across the government that I've worked for previously. I worked with a lot of the people who were then having to come in to fill in the Trump administration, because his campaign was bare bones.

There were two people on the campaign that I'd met previously in very different settings. One was General [Michael] Flynn, who I hadn't had any contact with since I'd left the National Intelligence Community. He had gone on to be the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. I had worked with him really closely over that time period, when I was an intelligence officer. He was a very different person in that capacity than the one I saw out on the campaign trail.

LJ: Chanting, "Lock Her Up!"

FH: Yeah, my mind was blowing, but I thought, okay, this is all part of campaigning, and this does not comport with a man that I knew. 

K.T. McFarland, who was on Fox News, had worked under multiple previous Republican administrations. I knew her through the Council on Foreign Relations. I appeared on her show, talking about the Putin book. And both of them, and many others, reached out to me and said, look, could you give us some advice, or we'd like you to sit down with the president and give him the spiel about Putin like you have for previous presidents.

Well, reality struck fast. That was not going to happen. By the time I got into the administration, Flynn was long gone and some of the other people that we brought in with him that I knew from the DNI had gone as well, though some were still there. K.T. McFarland was also on her way out. I never got properly introduced, and he [Trump] had zero interest, it became apparent right away, in hearing anything from me.

The inevitable question was, "Why did you stay?" I was working very closely with other cabinet members and National Security Advisor [H.R.] McMaster and then {John] Bolton and other people across the whole of the government, especially my old stomping grounds of the intel community, all trying to push back against what the Russians had done in 2016, to try and make sure it wouldn't happen again.

LJ: How did that go? I think most both people would say we only know about Fiona Hill from the impeachment hearings, and did you accomplish anything you set out to do?

FH: I think actually, we did. Some of it, you can't really talk about, we did manage to shore some things up, I also had all of Europe in my portfolio -- it wasn't just Russia. I was working very closely with European counterparts on pushing back on many things. We were trying to kick the wheels on the NATO bus, for example, there were a lot of other things going on behind the scenes, a lot of it was worthwhile doing in the service of the country, and national security. Then, everything that everybody saw came out in the impeachment. By my second year there, it was obvious that this was not going to pan out well.

LJ: Meaning your tenure or the personalized Ukraine policy?

Well, the personalized Ukraine policy. In terms of my tenure,  I've been warned very clearly, by many colleagues, "Look, you could really get tainted by all this, you shouldn't be doing this." I did take all these warnings on board. All the warnings were, if you are becoming part of a problem, not part of a solution, you should leave. I had given myself a hard stop of two years, which was a standard detail of what people have been sent from across the government to work in the White House National Security Council. I did stay a little bit longer now than those two years, because I was trying to make sure that I could pass it on to someone else.

I did not want to get involved in the campaign. Of course, I learned pretty quickly that the campaign never stopped. It became apparent to me in very early 2019, that Ukraine was part of the campaign. I just couldn't figure out for quite a while how, and, to what extent, different individuals were involved in it. I've said publicly that I knew much more about Kremlin intrigue and politics than I did about the same around the White House.

LJ: For you, the impeachment hearings must have been to you almost like news, putting all the pieces together.

It wasn't news, but it was like after 9/11, we had the 9/11 Commission. People suddenly pieced together that the FBI has information over here at headquarters, FBI operatives in New York had information, the CIA had information over here, CIA operatives on the ground, all kinds of lights were flashing off, but no one was connecting them. The 9/11 Commission tried to address that by creating the Director of National Intelligence that I served and, I was part of that effort afterwards to try to work across the intel community. 

“We're in the same situation. I'm like one of those Russian state officials who knows nothing about what's going on inside the Kremlin.”

But here we had a whole operation inside the White House and family circles around Trump, friends, informal actors, people with no accountability to anywhere in the system, doing all of these things. And then people like myself in this parallel universe of the state. 

It is very similar, again, to Russia, where all kinds of churn happens around the Kremlin, the people in the middle of the various foreign ministries and defense ministries in Moscow have no idea what's going on either. Some of them are not even allowed behind the Kremlin walls, as I know from personal experience.

We're in the same situation. I'm like one of those Russian state officials who knows nothing about what's going on inside the Kremlin.

In this case, it's the other side of West exec, this corridor that goes between the National Security Council building on the West Wing, and there's all these people coming in and talking to the President on the phone with him or on Fox News. They're all talking about Ukraine, and what is it that they're actually doing? In reading the [impeachment] depositions and the testimony, it clicked.

LJ: You explicitly reject the idea that Trump was a kind of secret candidate for Putin, whispering in his ear. But do you have kind of a different description of what you think the relationship was?

FH:I think that Putin loved having Trump, because he's a chaos agent, from the Russian perspective, and their ultimate goal was to discredit the United States, and to sow confusion and discord. To be very clear, the Russians have no doubt got something on President Trump and Secretary Clinton, and every other actor in the U.S. system, possibly ourselves included, anybody who's been to Moscow, they've got something on you, because this is a full surveillance state. 

With Trump, what he wanted more than anything was business interests in Russia. It wasn't just the Miss Universe contest, but it was building Trump Tower, it was all self-evident that he wanted something out of Russia. But the Russians are always looking about what they can do to manipulate people, it doesn't mean compromising information and blackmail. The thing about Donald Trump is there's so much compromising material about him out there anyway. He's hidden his tax returns. He's got all kinds of weird investors in his companies. He's had multiple affairs, multiple wives. Everybody's got information about him.

“The thing about Trump is Trump never did anything for anyone. He said this himself about Russia. Why would he do something for the Russians? He wanted to be president for himself. He wanted to crush Hillary Clinton for himself. He was very willing to take any information that was out there, including from Russia. But he was doing it for himself. He wasn't doing it to be Moscow's candidate.”

I don't think this is a man who was concerned about blackmail, but he's somebody who was incredibly susceptible to flattery and also negatively susceptible to criticism. One of the ways in which the Ukraine case played out, for example, was these Ukrainian-Americans who were associated with Giuliani telling Trump that his ambassador in Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was out to get him, [she was] telling everyone he was going to be impeached. This was untrue. But Trump's immediate reaction was that somebody insulted him -- they have to go. He reacted like that all the time. Putin would never criticize. He would always say things that sounded like they could be praiseworthy when they were translated into English. Every single time he would try to win Trump over by flattery, even at the same time as he was trying to push his buttons. I saw him do that with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, on multiple occasions. 

The thing about Trump is Trump never did anything for anyone. He said this himself about Russia. Why would he do something for the Russians? He wanted to be president for himself. He wanted to crush Hillary Clinton for himself. He was very willing to take any information that was out there, including from Russia. But he was doing it for himself. He wasn't doing it to be Moscow's candidate.

LJ: I'm thinking about the broad set of insider memoirs -- there's people who are still very positive about Trump people who have switched from a positive to negative view. Where do you see yourself in these Trump books? You're quite unsparing in your depiction of Trump.

I didn't go into the administration to serve Trump; I went in because I was worried about Russia. I came out the other side, including the post-administration experience of being deposed, and then giving testimony as a fact witness in an impeachment trial. I had seen as an observer firsthand, what Trump was doing in service of himself, to damage the fabric of not just the U.S. government and our institutions, but the fabric of our democracy.

Trump was promising a lot of things to people. He's charismatic, he was appealing to his base, he was a very clever retail politician who knew how to speak to people. He could have done a lot of things differently, but he didn’t. He could have done something positive, [such as] an arms control agreement with Russia. He was very concerned about arms control and the risk of nuclear confrontation. It was a genuine impulse for him. But it always had to be about him -- he squandered all kinds of opportunities.

LJ: Your decision to join was controversial. If you had to do it over again, would you have made the same decision?

FH: I would still have done it. Absolutely. For the same reasons that I did it. But I would have been much more attentive to who I was dealing with at all times on the domestic front, I would have done more homework on who were the people who were always; I was figuring it out as I was going along. I gave a lot of people the benefit of the doubt for who they were, when really, I should have done more sleuthing on how exactly what their angles were, why it was that they joined this administration, because they weren't all from the Republican conventional apparatus, the people I had worked with under the Bush administration, for example.

LJ: You write, "Russia is America’s Ghost of Christmas Future, a harbinger of things to come if we can’t adjust course and heal our political polarization." What are you watching as to whether a similar fate awaits the United States might avoid a similar fate as to what happened in Russia in 2000?

FH: We're not going to avoid it if people keep lying about what happened on January 6. I'm watching very closely what happens here. What are Mark Meadows and all these other people who were in the Trump administration going to say? Do they care about American democracy? 

“Putin always says that democracy is rubbish. From his point of view, it's who can shout the loudest and pay the loudest. That's where our politics has gone.” 

This is what happened in the Russian case in the 1990s. People who were part of politics were pushing back and then they capitulate because they want the perks; they want the power. 

I know the guys who get into the Russian Duma. It's not people who are trying to legislate and make change, but they're more interested in what perks they're going to get out of it. As we know from the Pandora Papers, [they’re] stashing Russian taxpayers money away in envelopes of cash that they get from the Kremlin -- I saw that happen right in front of me when I was on a visit to the Russian Duma. We're doing that, too. People are stashing cash away, as we know from the Pandora papers, here in the United States.

Putin always says that democracy is rubbish. From his point of view, it's who can shout the loudest and pay the loudest. That's where our politics has gone. Where's people's conscience? 

I'm not a member of a political party. I'm a nonpartisan person. I'm politically engaged. But, I'm not in this polarized world. That was not the America I came to in 1989. This has been coming for a long time. We're now in full blown populist politics, like a plebiscitary democracy. It's all about the personality cult of one person, here with Trump, a party that has found itself enthralled to him.

We're in a full-blown constitutional crisis. It wasn't until 2020 that Putin amended the constitution with the help of his people in the Russian parliament. The person who put forward the amendments to the Russian Constitution was Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, an iconic figure. 

President Trump on January 6 tried to stop Vice President [Mike] Pence from certifying the election results. [Republican senators] Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz are now denying that anything happened. They continue to do this even after a mob that he had incited and suddenly encouraged to go fight went up and stormed the building. When did you last see the storming of a major building in the United States? This for me was like the storming of the Winter Palace during revolutions, or the storming of the Bastille. People have to wake up to see that this is what's happening. If we say nothing happened here on January 6, move right along, we're headed down a path paved with lies. Our democracy is done if Trump comes back on the basis of all of those lies.

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