Before Fiona Hill even finished addressing Congress in the impeachment investigation into Donald Trump, she had become a global talking point.
In explosive testimony, the former White House Russia expert chastised lawmakers for helping Moscow to sow discord by entertaining a “fictional narrative” about Ukraine interfering in the 2016 election.
On the specific charges faced by Trump, she went on to recount how John Bolton, her boss at the National Security Council, had described the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani as a “hand grenade” who would “blow everyone up” as he pressed Ukraine to find dirt on Joe Biden.
What made her appearance stand out even more was how far she was from the archetype of a White House official. Avoiding jargon, she peppered her account with the self-deprecating humour she developed growing up in a coal-mining family in north-east England. At one point, quizzed about her background, she told a lawmaker of how a classmate had set her pigtails on fire in school, prompting her mother to administer an unflattering bowl haircut: “For the school photograph . . . I look like Richard III.”
Amid such light relief, she had a chastening message for the country of her birth. The US “offered for me opportunities I would never have had in England,” she said. “I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional development.”
Six months on, Hill joins me for an on-screen lunch from what appears to be Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, courtesy of the Zoom feature that allows people to alter their background. After teleporting briefly to the harem at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, she reverts to her home study in the leafy Washington suburb of Bethesda, where the 54-year-old lives with her husband and teenage daughter.
I remember the compelling briefings Hill gave at the White House before her resignation in July 2019, and am hoping she will be even more candid today. I have many questions about US-Russia relations, including the extraordinary 2018 Helsinki summit at which Trump sided with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over the evidence of his own intelligence services.
But we start with coronavirus gallows humour. Hill’s mother recently paid upfront for her own funeral after Hill mentioned that an elderly neighbour had died. “The next thing she’s talking about the Grim Reaper and the Four Horsemen,” she jokes. “I said, ‘Mum, you’re not supposed to pay the ferryman until you get to the other side.’ ”
She swivels her screen to reveal the miso soup, seaweed salad and eel and avocado sushi she has ordered from Satsuma, a Japanese restaurant. I’ve made salmon rolls, helped by my half-Japanese daughter, who charged $10. Hill is drinking “Q” ginger beer; I am armed with Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin and Japanese barley tea.
Studying Russia is the thread that runs through her adult life. She came to the US in 1989 to study Soviet studies and Russian history at graduate school at Harvard. She made her way to Washington as a think-tanker and, after becoming a US citizen, eventually became a senior intelligence officer for Russian affairs.
She was hired to join the White House in 2017 by Michael Flynn, the retired general who was Trump’s first national security adviser. But in a sign of the turbulence that would come to plague the Trump administration, he was fired after just 22 days in post — and before Hill even started.
She started at the National Security Council under Flynn’s successor, HR McMaster, a three-star army general, and then worked under his successor, Bolton, a foreign policy hawk known for his fondness for regime change. Many friends were stunned when she joined; some acquaintances no longer speak to her. “I worried about it for all the reasons that are obvious,” she says, but explains that she felt a strong “call to duty”.
She was anxious about the dismal state of US-Russia relations and the potential for confrontation. She says she hoped that her experience and knowledge of Russia, coupled with the fact that she had practically “met every Russian in the current Russian government” during her peripatetic career, would help improve the situation.
We are suddenly interrupted by a loud bang, which Hill thinks is probably a bird hitting the window. “Or a stone being thrown by a passing agent from the Russian security services,” she jokes.
Given her down-to-earth demeanour, I am curious about whether she was surprised at the reaction to her testimony; #FionaHillFanClub became a hashtag on Twitter. “I was shocked,” she says. “I expected actually a very different reaction given some of the experience I’ve had being trolled.”
She received death threats during her time in the White House, and is frequently inserted into conspiracy theories involving Russia, which she believes is partly because her biography is “so improbable”.
Hill says the most revealing part about the hearings was learning what other officials had been doing without her knowledge. “I knew more about what was going on in the Kremlin than what was going on in the White House.”
Hill was neither a Trump acolyte nor a Never Trumper; her resignation came, she says, after she completed the two years that she had told herself she would serve. I ask whether she thinks she had a better understanding of the president because she grew up in a coal-mining region that had been hard hit by the closure of pits — the kind of area that voted strongly for Trump in 2016.
“I do,” she replies, and shifts the subject to Putin. “It also helped me to understand Putin a lot better as well, because Putin was an outsider.” Putin’s parents were not party members, and the closest that anyone in his family had come to Soviet power was his grandfather, who had served as Stalin’s cook. “I don’t think that’s really a job you’d want to have,” she laughs.
So how would she describe Trump, I ask? “There’s not much of a difference between the private and the public,” she responds, cautiously. I approach from a different angle. What was he like to work for? “About like you would expect,” she replies, again guardedly.
“This is one thing I don’t really want to get into,” says Hill. “I don’t want to have this . . . becoming a dog’s breakfast . . . rather than an actual FT lunch.”
But she is willing to say that Trump “came into office on the back of a revolution” and has been “massively disruptive”. Warming to the subject, she says she got to experience Russian history — inside the White House. “I kept thinking ‘Bolshevik Revolution’,” she says, pointing to the infighting. “I had always wondered what it was like . . . and then I found myself in the middle.”
She recalls how Steve Bannon, the “America First” nationalist who served as chief White House strategist for Trump, compared himself to Lenin. “I kept thinking . . . he’s a bit more like Trotsky, because he’s like the permanent revolution guy who doesn’t quite fit in.”
One conclusion Hill reached during her time was that America was scoring own goals against Russia, which was “exploiting all this infighting”. So was Putin successful in his election meddling, I ask? “The GRU guys probably give themselves a big pat on the back . . . and are asking for bonuses,” she says of Russia’s military intelligence service. “The question is, to what end?”
Trump came to office saying he wanted to improve relations with Russia. How does Hill think he has done? She says tensions eased but overall it was tough. Moscow was not totally to blame. While Russia often lobbed grenades at the US, Washington was mired in toxic partisan politics related to the Russian election interference. But she says the administration also made life hard for itself. “You needed a coherent, consistent policy, which became difficult when every horse got changed in midstream. And sometimes they didn’t even get to the stream.”
Hill says it was critical for Trump and Putin to set the tenor of the relationship, but any talk of a meeting would send the media into a frenzy. “Not pointing fingers at anyone,” she adds with a smile.
It reminded her of the 1966 Zero Mostel farce, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “All these crazy things would happen and we never actually got there.” But, I point out, the two leaders did hold a summit in Helsinki. “We did. But then there was the press conference,” she rues.
8003 Norfolk Ave, Bethesda, Maryland 20814
Eel avocado roll
Homemade salmon rolls
Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin
Japanese barley tea
Total (inc tip, not drinks) $37.64
She said the meeting about arms control had gone well. But at the news conference Trump stunned everyone by accepting Putin’s denial of interference in the US election and dismissing the conclusions of US intelligence. My impression at the time was that Putin was smiling because he could not believe his luck, but Hill thinks he was more stunned. “He even tried to smooth things over at one point . . . like he saw it all unravelling . . . I remember thinking, ‘Oh, he’s trying to help him out.’”
Hill has watched Putin for years and co-authored a book on the former KGB officer. How has he changed? “He has kind of got himself in a bubble . . . He was much more attuned to the world around him.” But she stresses that he is flexible, and gives him 50/50 odds of staying in power until 2036, after a court ruling made that possible. “He’s somebody who you should never write off, because he does learn from his mistakes.”
I am interested in her journey from Bishop Auckland, particularly because of her comment about the lack of social mobility in the UK. Her accent has faded over the years, but it is still strong enough to draw comment occasionally. She recalls the former British Labour prime minister Tony Blair asking, “How did you get here?” after hearing her speak at a foreign policy event in Aspen. “I came on a plane,” she told Blair, who was perplexed that she could be a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution.
Hill’s family had no car, no telephone and no TV until she was in her teens. “We often had the electricity shut off because we couldn’t pay the electricity bills,” she recalls about her childhood.
She jokes that she sounds like one of the “Four Yorkshiremen” in the Monty Python skit. But she was smart and had ambitions beyond Bishop Auckland. Once, she told a friend that she wanted to be UN secretary-general. “You’re mad, you are,” the friend had replied. “You’re just gonna get knocked up and go and work in a shop like everybody else.”
As she tucks into her avocado and eel rolls, she describes her unusual path to the pinnacle of American power. Her school urged her and two others to apply to Oxford university. She alone took the exam, and failed.
Yet something must have suggested talent, because she was called for an interview to Hertford College. She arrived in clothes her mum had sewn and felt intimidated. “I started trying to talk to the girls, and they were all like, ‘Oh my God, we don’t understand a word you’re saying.’ ”
“It was like Billy Elliot,” she says, referring to the film about the son of a coalminer who wanted to be a ballet dancer. She had never experienced such blatant discrimination back home. “I knew we were working class, but everybody was working class.”
The interviewer took pity on her after hearing the other girls give her “a rough time”, but offered that “I don’t think this is really the place for you.” He suggested St Andrews, which was already on her list to study Russian, and that is where she ended up as an undergraduate.
Why Russia, I ask? She explains that it was partly growing up in the UK in the 1980s amid fears about nuclear war, particularly after the US deployed Pershing II missiles in Europe. She was also swayed by Uncle Charlie, her grandfather’s cousin, who had been rescued by the Soviet Navy when his ship sank during the second world war. He was “fixated” on how wartime allies became cold war enemies. “He was always telling my dad that I was good at languages and . . . should learn Russian and try to figure it out. So that kind of planted the seed in my brain.”
Hill arrived in Moscow from St Andrews as an exchange student in 1987, the year Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. When the leaders met in Moscow in 1988, she experienced the event at NBC television, where she had a part-time job doing everything from translation for the crews to being a “hairspray girl” for Tom Brokaw, a veteran correspondent.
She laughs as she points out how things came full circle last year before she left the White House. “I’m with the Trump administration and [then national security adviser] John Bolton, where we pull out of the INF because the Russians have been violating it all this time.” Days after our lunch, Trump announced he also would withdraw from Open Skies, another cold war-era arms-control pact.
Hill has finished her eel rolls and switched to her seaweed salad, which, she laments, “sticks in your teeth”. I have polished off my salmon rolls.
We zigzag around a wide range of issues, including Russian military activity. Russian fighter jets had recently entered Irish airspace, which she says shows that Moscow is “stuck in the 20th century”. Putin’s Russia, she adds, is trying to demonstrate global reach particularly because it is worried about China.
Hill suddenly interrupts our discussion to point out that I am on the beach — thanks to the virtual background feature in Zoom, though I am perplexed because I have not pressed anything. “The Chinese are saying, ‘Come on, get to the beach, man,’ ” jokes Hill, who had quipped earlier that it was a good thing our lunch was on the record because she assumed it was being listened to anyway.
As we wind down, I suggest that she is almost unique in having left the Trump team with an enhanced reputation. “I’ve got a few shrapnel wounds and scars,” she jokes. She says she survived the White House trenches by reminding herself of her grandfather.
“If this little guy from the north of England can have gone through all this crazy shit in world war one, I can do this,” she recalls thinking. “Because nobody was actually shooting at me.”
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s Washington bureau chief
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