Fiona Hill on Trump, Fox News, and Russia

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Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russia who has served as an adviser to three presidents, joined the administration of President Donald Trump in 2017, just a few months after she had protested his campaign at the Women’s March.

She had hoped that her expertise on Russia, as well as her experience serving as a national intelligence officer under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, would be of service in the wake of election interference by the Kremlin.

“I was deeply concerned about what had happened,” Hill told me on this week’s episode of The Interview podcast.

Members of the Trump administration who Hill knew urged her to join. They wanted her to sit down with Trump and deliver to him the kind of “blunt, no-holds-barred briefing” on Russia she had given to previous presidents and cabinet members.

But while she signed up intending to be an adult in the room who could guide the president on the fraught issue of U.S.-Russia relations, she soon realized that would be impossible in Trump’s White House.

She describes that period in her fascinating new memoir, There is Nothing For You Here, Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century. One passage, which perfectly captures her struggles to break through to Trump, describes an Oval Office meeting in which she and Jon Huntsman, then the U.S. ambassador to Russia, tried to prepare Trump for his 2018 summit with Vladimir Putin.

“Ambassador Huntsman was there to try to talk to President Trump about this very important encounter in Helsinki,” she explained to me. “And Trump doesn’t want to talk to Jon Huntsman about this. He wants to talk to Jon Huntsman about his daughter, Abby Huntsman, who’s a Fox News host.”

Trump actually ended up calling up Abby Huntsman, then a Fox & Friends host, in the middle of the briefing to gossip about Fox News.

“Abby Huntsman didn’t offer her thoughts on meeting with Vladimir Putin,” Hill noted. The meeting ended with no real progress.

You were probably first introduced to Hill during the first impeachment of Trump. As a foreign policy expert with decades of experience, she drew attention for her impressive and forthright witness testimony, as well as her strong northern English accent.

While her performance earned some unlikely praise on Fox News, the network’s pro-Trump opinion hosts went on the attack. I asked her what she thought of that criticism.

“It still doesn’t faze me. It’s kind of what I’ve come to expect,” she said. “Laura Ingraham famously said that I had a hoity-toity Prince Andrew accent. I thought, well, she knows nothing about the United Kingdom, does she?”

One fascinating argument in Hill’s book is her rejection of the theory, popular on MSNBC and CNN, that Trump was delivered the presidency by way of Russian meddling.

“It’s a bit of a cop-out to blame the Russians,” Hill said, “Because Trump is a product of our society. Trump is a product of all of the things that were happening in U.S. politics. I mean, the Russians didn’t select him in the primaries. Republican registered voters selected him in the primaries.”

She noted that while the “hack and release of the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s emails” was “incredibly damaging” in the general election, Trump voters “weren’t disaffected because of something Vladimir Putin did to them or said to them.”

“They were disaffected from what was happening in their communities.”

That disaffection is one of the driving themes of Hill’s book, a brilliant memoir of her journey from a childhood in the decaying, industrial North of England to America, where she would study at Harvard, become a citizen, and serve as a foreign policy expert under three presidents.

Her book traces the parallels between her experience in the U.K. as the daughter of a coal miner who lost his job at a time when bleak economic circumstances pounded working-class England, to the later post-industrial decline seen in Russia and the United States.

The resulting hopelessness, Hill argues, is what led to an embrace of populist leaders from Putin in Russia, to proponents of Brexit in the U.K, to Trump in the U.S.

Hill sees that embrace of populism as posing a serious long-term threat to democracies.

“The danger of these politics is, first of all, the showman, the populist leader, they’re playing for the crowd all the time,” she said. “They’re not implementing policies. They have to cover up the fact that they’re not really doing anything.”

“Nothing really gets done and people’s grievances increase. And then they’re looking for someone to blame for this not happening. And both Trump and Putin have always tended to blame others.”

That sort of grievance-based politics is what produces the chaotic aftermath of the 2020 election, in which a sitting president sought to throw out the results, and his supporters staged a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.

I asked Hill what she thought would happen if Trump were re-elected in 2024.

“Well if he’s elected, I mean, we’re done as a democracy,” she said. “Because he’s going to get elected on the back of a lie, and also no doubt on efforts to suppress the vote.”

“There will be a massive crisis of legitimacy,” Hill said.

Download the episode here, and subscribe to The Interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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