In Conversation with: Dr Fiona Hill
This article was originally published April 15, 2021.
In November 2019, the world watched as Dr Fiona Hill gave key witness testimony on Capitol Hill during the first impeachment hearings of President Donald J Trump. Her testimony “riveted the nation” as it reinforced the central charge of the inquiry - Trump had abused the power of the Executive Office by trying to enlist the Ukrainian Government to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, ahead of the 2020 election, thereby subverting US foreign policy for personal and domestic purposes. Subsequently, Trump was impeached by the Democratic-led House of Representatives, before being acquitted by the Republican-led Senate. A year later, St Andrews watched Dr Hill, once again, as the University’s alumna ran a compelling campaign for Rector.
An esteemed academic, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution, and member of the Council on Foreign Relations - who describes herself as a “nonpartisan, non-political national security professional focusing on Europe and Eurasia and especially the former Soviet Union” - Hill has contributed her expertise to the administrations of three US presidents. Under the administrations of George W Bush and Barack Obama, Hill served in the position of National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia, while, in 2017, she was hired as ‘Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs’ on the National Security Council (NSC) of the Trump Administration by then National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn. She assumed the role in April 2017 (by which time, General H.R. McMaster was the National Security Advisor) and, while Russia remained a central focus, she was also responsible for coordinating US policy for Western Europe, Eastern Europe, NATO, and the EU. During the first impeachment hearings of President Trump, Hill, in her opening statement, noted that she had accepted the role as both she and Flynn “thought that I could help them with President Trump’s stated goal of improving relations with Russia, while still implementing policies designed to deter Russian conduct that threatens the United States, including the unprecedented and successful Russian operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election”.
Now, no longer serving in a presidential administration, Hill is writing her fourth book entitled There Is Nothing for You Here: Opportunity in an Age of Decline. According to her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books & Media (HMH Books & Media), the book will “draw on Dr Hill’s deep expertise in the United States and Europe, as well as her personal experience on both continents, to explain how our current, polarized moment is the result of long historical trends - from imperial overreach to post-industrial decline”.
Furthermore, “Dr Hill will describe the origins and growth of deep, geographically concentrated opportunity gaps” to show both “how they have fuelled the rise of populism at home and abroad” and “how realizing America’s inherent promise—and stabilizing its democracy—depends on restoring hope and opportunity to all its citizens, not merely a privileged few”.
As HMH plans to publish this Autumn, we sat down with Dr Fiona Hill to discuss her work from St Andrews to the White House.
Dr Hill was born and raised in the traditional, Northern English mining town of Bishop Auckland, and was, herself, the daughter of a coalminer. We spoke about her opening statement, given during Trump’s first impeachment hearings, in which she had alluded to her upbringing when she stated that the United States had offered her opportunities that she never would have had in England in the 1980s.
“The class barriers were pretty acute in the 1980s,” she noted.
“I came to St Andrews against the backdrop of the Miners’ Strike in 1984/5 which, basically, broke the back of the National Miners’ Union. Ten years later, I think it was in 1994, the last of the deep mines in my region - County Durham - closed down. The whole mining culture totally disappeared.”
“It was really one of those profound times of economic and cultural change - bad hair, strange clothes. It was the deliberate policy of the Thatcher Government to transform the economy, to try to put it onto a more modern footing: to move the country from its reliance on heavy industry and big scale manufacturing into the new, emerging knowledge economy.”
“What happened, of course, was all the regions that had specialised in heavy industry lost hundreds of thousands of jobs overnight. In the North East of England, when I left school in 1984, I had something to go on to - I was very lucky to have a place at St Andrews - but 90% of school leavers didn’t have anything else lined up…The biggest manufacturing works for the town closed down just before I finished school - pretty much every job had disappeared and it had a big impact.”
“I really had to hope that St Andrews was going to work out. Education was supposed to be the door to new opportunity, especially for someone who was working class. Only 6% of students, overall, who were leaving school at that point went on to university. So, you can imagine the percentage going from a working-class background.”
“It was a bit of a culture shock when I got to St Andrews - an amazing place to be, but it had a social structure that I’d never been exposed to before. I felt like an outsider pretty much the whole time. I think that really spurred me on to build a close-knit network of friends and, also, to work very hard. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t just some sort of fluke - some kid who didn’t really deserve to be there.”
Hill graduated from St Andrews with a degree in Modern History and Russian. We moved on to discuss what had inspired her to study these subjects.
“It was at the peak of the Cold War, just before Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, came into power. In 1982/3, the United States and Soviet Union looked like they were on the brink of a nuclear confrontation. The United States was stationing Pershing missiles in Western Europe, including in the UK, and Russia was retaliating by positioning SS20 missiles in Eastern Europe - mostly in East Germany. Where were they going to hit? Probably, St Andrews, Bishop Auckland…” she half-joked.
At the time, there was a campaign for nuclear disarmament: people out on the street protesting; tying themselves to fences at air bases like Greenham Common - one of my cousins was doing that. I thought ‘well, what can I do about this?’ It just all seemed pretty grim, the 1980s: no jobs, no prospects, maybe we’re all going to get blown up. What was the point of everything? But I had another relative – Uncle Charlie - who was in the Arctic Naval Convoys during World War 2. They were supplying the Soviet Union, actually, during the War when we were allies. He spent a lot of time puzzling over how we’d gone from being wartime allies in WW2 to the Cold War, on the brink of blowing each other up. Then, one day, my dad ran into him in town and my uncle said to my dad: ‘you know Fiona’s good at languages, maybe she should study Russian. Figure out what’s going on’. I thought ‘Oh, maybe I should’.”
“So, I was sort of challenged [to study Russian] by Uncle Charlie, but also by the time.”
“Then I had to figure out, well, where could I study Russian? It wasn’t offered at my school - my school barely offered anything really. So I was looking for places I could start Russian from scratch - St Andrews was one of them. I wrote away for all the brochures and when the St Andrews brochure came in the mail it was in colour! A cunning marketing ploy - everything else was in black and white and really boring-looking. St Andrews had all these pictures: the beaches, the Scores, the Castle, the Cathedral. It looked like a tourist brochure, and I thought ‘I’d really like to go there’”.
“I came up for a day trip with my mum and my sister. As soon as we got out of the bus, we ran into one of the professors from the Russian department - by total and utter coincidence. He’d just dropped off a relative at the bus stop and he’d heard us talking. He was also from the North and immediately took us to tea, showed us the Russian Department, gave me all this advice, and that was that.”
We asked Dr Hill what she found most memorable about her time at St Andrews.
“The magic of the place itself. I saw the northern lights multiple times when I was there. Eventually, I lived in student flats on the Scores and, sometimes, I’d walk out the door at night and there would be the northern lights behind the castle. And, there was a seal colony at the end of West Sands. I just loved walking along the beach and around the town. Then, of course, there was the education: the quality of teaching. I had a lot of interactions with the professors. I got to know them well and they were really helpful. Just recently, one of my History professors, Geoffrey Parker wrote to me out of the blue! He had been my writing tutor. (He’s a professor at Ohio State University now). We had writing workshops that were quite rigorous. I really credit being a good writer to them. I don’t think I’d be able to do the things I do now without those tutorials. So, that was a great experience.”
“One thing, I have to say, that I really benefited from, was the fact that I didn’t have to take on any debt. I really worry about all of you, today. I had my entire undergraduate education paid for by my local education authority - it wasn’t just because I came from a low-income background. At that time, local education authority grants were available to most people. Now, the idea you have to take on all this debt - I don’t know whether I would have come to university [if I’d had to] and that worries me because education is such an amazing opportunity”.
We move on to discuss her time at the White House, asking if there was a notable difference in atmosphere or environment between the three presidential administrations she had worked under.
“There clearly was,” she laughed.
“My jobs were quite different. My first position as the National Intelligence Officer was much more focused on analysis rather than policy. So, it was very much a non-political position. As a result of that, it didn’t really change that much from the Bush to the Obama period. I had to do briefings for both. Obama and Bush are two very different people; very different styles. Bush was very chatty - a funny guy, very warm and friendly. He had a very interactive way of listening - his briefings would go on for ages because he just got very interested in people and having a chat, really, while he was soliciting information.”
“Obama was kind of the exact opposite, he would sit like this [Dr Hill made a pensive expression].”
“You’d talk and you’d think - uh oh, is he listening? Am I talking rubbish? And then you’d finish your spiel, and he would ask you two or three really incisive questions. He’d been completely laser focused on you the entire time and he’d also read everything. So, it was very different - a bit intimidating.”
“Then we have Trump. He was all over the place, let’s just put it that way. Not at all interested in anybody briefing him and that was, technically, my role. The job was, supposedly, to give him advice, to synthesise information he was getting from my previous counterparts at the National Intelligence Council, pulling it together with policy recommendations. But, he had zero interest in getting advice from pretty much anybody unless they were a close personal friend or somebody he considered a peer. I figured that out pretty quickly. I decided that I would focus not on trying to advise him, but work as closely as possible, at all times, with my immediate boss, the National Security Advisor, as well as with other cabinet officials.”
“And, of course, the atmosphere in the Trump White House, as you might imagine, was chaotic. At my own office, the people that I worked with, we had our act together. But it was kind of like being in a fox hole during wartime.”
On the topic of the working environment, we asked Dr Hill if she agreed with the assessment of an anonymous White House Official who’d been quoted in The New Yorker, stating that Trump was “rougher with women…He has a problem with women”. Hill replied:
“He’s a guy’s guy. He’s also from a different era. He’s very much a 1980s man, and the 1980s were quite the time. Women are just not in his league, as he thinks about it. I think there were women who worked for him within his [personal] company, whom he’d worked with for a long time, that he respected but, otherwise, women were just not on his radar.”
“I think Kellyanne Conway, and some other people, did have some traction with him but he did still treat them pretty roughly. They knew how to handle themselves because they’d worked with him for a long time. I knew that he just wasn’t particularly interested in women - I mean, anybody really - from outside his immediate circle who he didn’t feel any kind of affinity with.”
“He was pretty sexist and misogynistic. I doubt that he really knew my name. Everyone was always ‘honey’ or ‘darling’...I mean, he wouldn’t call men ‘honey’ or ‘darling’. Although, he wasn’t particularly nice to many of them either. He yelled at several people and tried to humiliate them in front of me many times. His whole attitude was like that. He is exactly in private what you see in public and, once you know that, you just have to figure out how to deal with it.”
After the impeachment proceeding, The Guardian wrote that Dr Hill had emerged as “a national heroine, for her mastery of facts and argument, and her coolness under pressure”. We asked her how she had managed to ‘keep her cool’ during such an historic occasion, broadcast to millions.
“I didn’t think about the ‘being broadcast to millions bit’, which is, probably, just as well because that [coverage] was all quite a surprise to me. I just thought that I had to prepare for a grilling by Congress, and I just had to figure out how to hold my own.”
“But, being at the Trump White House, every day was an adventure, and every day you thought you might be sacked or something unpleasant might happen. So, this [the impeachment] was, in a way – to use Trump’s favourite golfing analogy - par for the course. I kind of figured there would be moments like this - that it was possible that I would be called up before Congress. I was quite surprised by the response [from the media] because I just went there to try and do my job and explain the situation as best I could.”
“I think that came across in the testimony because I was trying to explain a complex series of events to people. That’s what I’ve been trained to do, both in my work at the Brookings Institution and going back to Geoffrey Parker and my tutorials at St Andrews. There’s a long thread of preparation that gets you to a certain point.”
“I had had to testify in front of Congress before, but behind closed doors, in my intelligence position. [This time] I knew I was in the line of fire because I was working on Russia - a subject that brings a lot of baggage and difficulty with it - and danger!”
“I also did my homework for the hearings...I carefully read all of the other people’s depositions, once they were made public, and I listened to every single one of the other testimonies, to make sure that I had everything clear in my head: about what everyone else was saying and how they were reporting on what they did. To be frank, in the real time of these events, I didn’t always have all of the information necessary to form complete analysis or to conclude what was going on. I was groping around in the dark a bit because information was in the hands of multiple different people. It was only really in the moment of the testimonies when lots of things became clear and I had those eureka moments – ‘Ah, that was what was going on!’ and ‘So, this is why they were doing that!’.”
We asked Dr Hill what advice she would offer President Biden, today, regarding his approach to US-Russian relations.
“I mean, obviously, the relationship [between Russia and the USA] is in a pretty terrible state right now. This is, once again, a period of confrontation. Russia made the decision in 2016 to intervene directly in the US election by trying to influence public opinion. They had a huge impact in terms of stirring the pot, exploiting divisions, and trying to increase the sense of polarisation in the United States. They were targeting certain politicians: Hillary Clinton and then, in 2020, Joe Biden… - clearly trying to undermine Biden and take advantage of the fact that Trump and people around him were also interested in doing the same, acting in parallel.”
“So, that has set a pretty negative turn in the relationship - as well as all the other actions that Russia has taken over the last several years: the annexation of Crimea, trouble still brewing there; war in the Donbass; intervention in Syria; and all the assassinations. There’s a lot to contend with.”
“The nuclear threat has not gone away either. So, what we need to have is a comprehensive view of Russia: a proper assessment of all of the different ways in which Russia is acting and interacting. One of the mistakes of the Obama Administration was to think of Russia as a purely regional power and a power in perpetual decline. The fact is that Russia is a multi-regional power…It has a lot of aspirations towards promoting its own interests in multiple different arenas - including in South America which is pretty far afield from where people traditionally think of Russia’s focus as being. And, of course, it has intervened in Syria and the Middle East. It sees itself as a major player there…So, Russia needs to be looked at in the global dimension, first of all.”
“The second thing is that the Russian Government, Putin and everybody around him, see the United States as a threat in terms of its capabilities and its capacity for action. The United States emerges as a nuclear threat, as well as a conventional military threat and, of course, it is a threat insofar as it often tries to constrain Russia’s room for manoeuvre. And Russia doesn’t want that. So, Russia is always interested in trying to expand its room for manoeuvre and pushing the United States back. A lot of Russia’s [recent] actions are attempts to mentally weaken the United States, discredit it, and decrease the United States’ leverage internationally.”
“The third thing is Vladimir Putin, who is still essentially a KGB agent and who has specialised in dirty operations. He is very ruthless and will do anything to stay in power and press Russia’s interests. We see that with the poisoning, and now imprisonment, of Alexei Navalny and the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, the former Deputy Prime Minister. This means that you can never underestimate Russia and write them off because you think they’re in decline…they’re always going to be a force to contend with. We have to figure out a way not to provoke them unduly, so I worry a lot about the harsh rhetoric and threats because if we’re not going to follow through on those, the Russians tend to pre-empt them. They have an expectation that we’re going to do something, so they take action, and we then constantly get into this cycle of action and reaction: us saying something and them doing something, and then we have to react to what they’ve just done. It becomes a vicious circle that we have to figure out how we can break. Because there are going to be areas where we are absolutely going to have to cooperate with them: we should have been doing a better job [cooperating] during the Pandemic. Their Sputnik vaccine is going to be one of the solutions, along with all the other vaccines, to making sure everyone in the world is vaccinated. On issues like climate change, it is inevitable that we are going to have to work with the Russians in some way, so we need to find a way of managing the potential nuclear stand-off.”
“What I would be advising is: take Russia seriously, think of them globally, remember that they’re completely ruthless and, basically, a security threat, so they will try to find a way of getting around the constraints we’ve put in place. But, we have to find some method of changing their calculus in terms of incentivising them to want to work with us in such a way that they will eventually try to take down the temperature of the relationship. So, that’s going to take a rather sophisticated and multi-pronged approach - we just can't take our eyes off them. That’s what we’ve done in the past: discounted them, taken our eye off the ball, not taken them seriously, tried to marginalise them - and none of that’s going to work.”
“For the time being and for the foreseeable future, Russia’s going to have to be one of those priority issues that Biden and his team will have to focus on.”
We conclude the interview by discussing an article Dr Hill had written in the aftermath of the events that took place in the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, entitled “Yes, it was a coup attempt. Here’s why”. We asked if she could offer insight into why so many House and Senate Republicans declined to refute false narratives about the 2020 election and about what is needed to ensure instances such as those of 6 January don’t happen again.
“It’s all part and parcel of wanting to stay in power. Trump had 74 million people vote for him in the last election. He has a pretty tight grip on the base of the Republican Party. In fact, the bulk of the people who support the Republican Party really support him. It’s certainly a solid core and the Republicans in Congress want to hold onto their seats. Unfortunately, it’s as simple as that. Trump doesn’t repudiate the myth that he won the election. He has become someone who deals in falsehoods and conspiracy theories - it’s a very similar pattern to what you see in Russia. He’s captured the Party. Unless they [Republicans in Congress] could coalesce in some form to push him out, they really feel that they have to go along with all this.”
“Although, we are seeing an awful lot of people deciding to leave the Republican Party. Some people in Congress are saying that they’re not going to run for additional terms and people at the grassroots level are quitting the Party. It’s certainly significant…the Republican Party is sort of ripping itself apart at the moment.”
“In terms of the larger elements of this – ‘the Big Lie’ and the conspiracy theories -, this is something that we have to work on at a societal level and it’s exactly what the Russians have exploited. The United States, unfortunately, has become very similar to Russia in terms of becoming a country that produces and disseminates conspiracy theories. Q-Anon in the United States has spread across Europe and elsewhere. This is going to be something that we have to work on in a very focused fashion. It’s going to have to be worked on in schools and colleges to get people to understand when they’re dealing with misinformation and disinformation, as well as at the level of the media and social media, in particular. There’s a big problem as most of these lies are being propagated through Twitter and Facebook, and [other] social media platforms. They are some of the biggest problems that we contend with right now, so there’s a limit to what the governments can actually do to tackle this.”
“Every single person has a role in this - it’s not something that can be done with a wave of a magic wand from the top. Everyone has to be more discerning and engage in some critical thinking about what they’re looking at and what they’re sending on to everyone. But, again, that has to be part of a national discussion; a national information campaign.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons