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Former White House Russia expert Fiona Hill warns the U.S. is on a path to autocracy

Russia expert Fiona Hill warns that American democracy is under attack — from within.
In November 2019, Hill became one of the key witnesses at then-President Donald Trump's first impeachment hearing, where she condemned the false narrative that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election, and described the Trump administration's parallel policy channel in Ukraine to get dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Fiona Hill, was one of the key fact witnesses at President Trump's first House impeachment hearing. In November 2019, after having given closed-door testimony, she gave public testimony, which began with her opening statement, in which she made it very clear where she stood on Russian interference in the 2016 election.


FIONA HILL: Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country and that perhaps somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.

GROSS: Fiona Hill has a lot more to say in her new memoir about Russia, Ukraine and what it was like behind the scenes in the Trump administration. She worked in the Trump White House in the National Security Council from 2017 to '19 as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs. From 2006 to 2009, she was national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, serving under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. She's also the co-author of an earlier book that offers a psychological portrait of Putin.

The first part of her new memoir is about growing up in northeast England in coal country. Her father started working in the mines when he was 14. By the time Fiona Hill graduated high school in 1984, the mines had closed, and there were few, if any, job opportunities for graduates. Her father urged her to move to Europe or the U.S., insisting, there is nothing for you here. She took his advice and now has used what he told her as the title of her new memoir, "There Is Nothing For You Here."

Fiona Hill, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you decide to make it clear in your opening remarks that the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, was interfering in the election was a fictional narrative and you wanted to say that right from the start?

HILL: Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Terry. Well, first of all, by the time I got to the testimony in November, I'd already been subjected to a lot of very intense questioning on October 14 of 2019, during some closed-door depositions that were the precursor to all of the public hearings. And it was during those sessions that I heard from members of Congress from the Republican side of the aisle that they were clearly trying to press the idea that Ukraine - the government of Ukraine, the state of Ukraine - had interfered in the election in 2016 to divert attention away from what Russia had done in that timeframe. And so I came out of those hearings particularly disturbed by the turn of events, the direction of all of the questioning. And it really impressed upon my mind that I had to correct the record because it was clear that they were preparing to roll this out, sort of testing it out on me and others behind the scenes for the public hearings. And I knew, of course, that they were doing this for their own domestic political purposes. But this was going to have serious national security implications.

GROSS: So another memorable moment in your testimony was - and I should mention again that you were overseeing Ukraine policy at the National Security Council. You testified that Gordon Sondland, who was then the ambassador to the European Union, was performing a domestic political errand for Trump - whereas you were working in national security, foreign policy, and those two things had diverged - that Sondland was operating a parallel policy channel. What was the - remind us of what the goal of that parallel policy channel was?

HILL: Well, the goal of that channel was to make sure that the Ukrainian government and President Zelensky announced investigations into the activities of Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, who had gone on to the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma. And the Ukrainian energy sector, like many energy sectors in former Soviet republics, including in Russia, is notoriously corrupt. And so the whole point of this exercise was to suggest that Hunter Biden had been involved in something nefarious and also by extension, that former Vice President Joe Biden had also been engaged in the same because the argument that they were trying to push forward was that Joe Biden had basically permitted Hunter Biden to do something that was a massive conflict of interest, that he was also in some way benefiting from all of this. So the whole idea was to taint Vice President Biden, the putative candidate, for the 2020 presidential election and also to tie him up in knots in trying to defend his son, Hunter Biden, and his conduct.

GROSS: So when you realized that there was a parallel policy channel that not only weren't you part of, that was designed to undermine what you were doing, how did you respond to it? Did you talk to anybody and object to it? Would that have accomplished anything? Like, what was in your power to do? And also, how did you emotionally react to knowing that not only you were being undermined but the truth was being undermined?

HILL: Well, first of all, it took some time to figure out what was going on. So, of course, my job in National Security Council was to look at what the Russians, Ukrainians were doing, you know, to work with our European partners on a whole host of policy issues. It wasn't to be keeping tabs on what was going on in domestic politics. But, of course, it became unavoidable - the recognition that something was afoot. And it was obviously something with pretty serious implications for U.S. democracy. I first became aware of it really in January of 2019, when there started to be a lot of reports about things that the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was saying about Ukraine and about these issues. And then it became crystal clear when there was the sacking of Maria Yovanovitch, our ambassador to Ukraine, under, you know, what was obviously very clearly circumstances where others were pushing for her to be removed. And it was all related to this effort to get the Ukrainians to push forward with these corruption allegations, which she clearly would have stood in the way of.

And so it took some time to piece things together. And then, of course, it became really quite shocking. And I went to Ambassador Bolton with my concerns. He had similar concerns. And, in fact, he expressed them quite vividly. You may remember from the testimony that I told everyone that he'd said to me that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up. On other occasions, he made it very clear that he wanted me to also relate to the National Security Council lawyers that he was not part of any drug deal that others were cooking up. In this case, that was Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and also Mick Mulvaney, the chief of staff in the White House.

So there was a lot of concerns all the time that others were doing things. We were basically piecing everything together. And I was making sure, certainly for my part, that I was reporting all of this to all the appropriate channels. Now, the question, of course, is, what did that matter? - because clearly this was not stopped and was not reined in because it became apparent that it was being directed by the president himself.

GROSS: And when did you become aware of that, that it was being directed by the president?

HILL: I would say after I left and in the course of the impeachment hearings - because it was only after I saw the transcript from the phone call that I realized the full depth of it. I have to say that initially I was more inclined to think that this was Rudy Giuliani and others pushing a particular line that they thought would be useful to the president. But then it became very clear from the phone transcript that I read along with everybody else that President Trump himself was very heavily involved in orchestrating all of this.

GROSS: One of the first things you describe in your memoir is how you were warned by a colleague that in the hearing room, it would be cold because the men in Congress make it cold so that they'll be comfortable in their shirt and tie and suit jacket and so they won't be seen sweating. But to prevent yourself from being cold, you should press your feet into the floor so that you didn't shiver and so that your teeth didn't shatter - chatter. You were also warned about clothes, that people would comment on what you were wearing, that you'd be judged by that and that was bound to be mentioned in the Washington Post style section.

I found it interesting that you kind of led with that in your memoir, and I have to say I related to it. There have been times when I've done a brief thing on TV when it's been freezing in the studio. And I thought, how am I going to get through this? It's really, really cold, and my teeth are going to shatter (laughter). It's going to be hard to, like, be, you know, a professional. So anyways, can you talk about the importance of that advice and whether you were cold and if you were afraid that you were going to be shivering?

HILL: Well, yes, I was cold, actually - I mean, at first. You know, I think once you got the adrenaline going and, you know, you start to answer the questions, you warm up in some respects. And it wasn't quite as cold. But of course, it would be a very strange image if, you know, people could see that I was shivering. I mean, whether they're thinking that I was nervous, that I was frightened, that I had something to hide. You know, so there's all these presentational issues that mostly people don't think about but that, you know, people do judge what you're saying by the way that you present yourself and especially for women.

And I wanted to lead the book off with these points because, for me, it was the kinds of things that really drew my attention at first when I was asked to testify. Immediately, the team of lawyers said, well, we'll need to have someone to do your hair and your makeup, and we'll need to kind of figure out how you look on the day. And I thought, really? You know, do they do this for men as well? I mean, it immediately brought back decades of memories as a professional person going all the way back, actually, to school and my childhood about the fixation that people have about how you dress and how you look.

You know, I have a daughter who's a teenager in high school. And, you know, obviously as a girl, there's a continuous obsession. And you know, I always thought when I was younger, thank God, you know, I'm not going to be 14 forever, and eventually this won't matter. And you know, you get to be 54, and it still matters, particularly if you're a woman.

GROSS: Did you press your feet in the floor to prevent yourself...

HILL: I did. And actually, I wish I'd known that trick earlier because, you know, in other times when I've been in those cavernous rooms, I thought, my goodness, my teeth are going to chatter. I'm going to be, you know, kind of making clinking noises behind the scenes here. And it's also a very good way, as Molly Levinson, the person who told me all this, who's been a veteran of TV, to channel the energy out so that you then focus on what you're saying and, you know, not what your body's doing. So I just also thought, well, this could be very useful information for people in the book. You know, maybe they'll take that away and go, oh, I better do that the next time I have to make a presentation or, you know, I need to do something important and, you know, I want to focus.

GROSS: Well, I appreciate it (laughter). So thanks for including that. I'm going to reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Fiona Hill. She was a key fact witness in Trump's first House impeachment hearing. She worked in the Trump White House and the National Security Council from 2017 to '19 as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs. Her new memoir is called "There Is Nothing For You Here." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Fiona Hill. From 2017 to '19, she worked in the Trump White House, serving as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. She has a new memoir called "There Is Nothing For You Here." She was a key fact witness in the first Trump impeachment hearing.

In your closed-door testimony before the House Judiciary Committee during Trump's first impeachment hearing, Matt Gaetz, a very conservative Republican congressman from Florida, came in uninvited and stared at you. And he is a very strong Trump supporter. What did you think that was about at the time, and what was your response that he was there? He wasn't invited to be there. He wasn't part of the committee, and he was staring at you.

HILL: Well, I just also want to make it clear that he did this again later for the closed-door deposition of another colleague from the Pentagon, disrupting her deposition for hours. In this case, it was for a much shorter time because it was the first time he attempted it, and the rest of the committee protested. And eventually, he was asked to leave through a formal ruling from the Office of the Parliamentarian at Congress. But it was clear that it was intended to be witness intimidation. It was kind of like a middle school or even grade school staring contest. And I'm quite a bit older than him. And let's just say I went to a pretty rough school. I can hold my own. And he was also basically making it very clear that I was nothing. He was kind of looking me up and down, looking - like, oh, look at this middle-aged woman here. Who does she think she is?

And after doing the staring contest for a period of time and I didn't drop my gears, he then proceeded to pick up a couple of newspapers and peruse these, all signaling all the time that I was nothing, that I, you know, shouldn't be paid attention to. So it was quite obvious. It was glaringly obvious what he was up to. It also made it seem like a game, which I, of course, didn't consider it to be.

GROSS: Was it distracting?

HILL: Not really - because in some respects, it helped make it clear that this was going to be the tone in part for these hearings. But again, this was political circus. Well, I thought it was deadly serious and was trying to get across the fact that this was an issue of national security. We couldn't have the privatization of national security. Our democracy was under assault from the outside, but now clearly from the inside. And in many respects, he prepared me for what was going to happen next.

GROSS: Which was?

HILL: Which was that we were going to have much - many more of these political games. So he intended it as distraction. He Intended to distract me. But really, what he did was focus me even more so on, look; I've got to use this opportunity to get across to people what a dangerous situation we're in. And if this is what they think they're doing, then they're wrong because they're making the United States exquisitely vulnerable to outside exploitation because this fiction about Ukraine, these games around trying to keep President Trump in power were all opening a door for even further Russian exploitation, intrusion and influence operations of the kind that we'd seen in 2016.

GROSS: What was it like for you to go from the behind-the-scenes Russia expert to an internationally known impeachment witness?

HILL: Well, that was a bit of a shock to the system. You know, I'd already been in Russian circles, reasonably well known, but I certainly wasn't quite prepared for millions of eyes to be on me during that process. And in fact, I didn't really think about it until after I'd testified because I was trying to be very focused on answering the committee's questions. I mean, I knew there would be a lot of press. I did not think that I would be on the front page of every imaginable newspaper in the United States and internationally, so that afterwards gave me quite a bit of pause.

GROSS: You were praised by a lot of people for standing up for the truth. Many women saw you as a hero because you held your own so well. But you also got death threats. Were you given any security after the public hearing?

HILL: I was not. I was given plenty of advice. I mean, I told a lot of colleagues who I worked with, who, you know, worked with the FBI and, you know, other security agencies, and they gave me some very good advice. But ultimately, I was on my own. I mean, I stopped answering my telephone, switched off the answering machine, got some security cameras. I was advised to seal up the mail slot on my door to make sure nobody put a pipe bomb or, you know, a packet of powder through it, as happened to so many public figures. I stayed off the internet because that was where all of the action was happening. I mean, I didn't have a Twitter account or a blog or anything like this. I already had a very minimal social media footprint, but I pulled that back even further.

So most of the threats - although I did have someone come to the house while I was out - were, you know, really out there in cyberspace. Also, I had all of my really wonderful neighbors on alert, looking for strange cars or strange people lurking around. But you know, it's just a word to anybody who's out there in the public sphere. There's limits to what you can do, and if somebody actually, you know, comes right to your door, and by then, it's too late.

HILL: Did you feel like you were actually living in Russia?

GROSS: I did. But I have to say that while I was working in the National Security Council, the White House had already formulated that opinion. I mean, I'd gone in there trying to do something against the intrusions by the Russians in our political sphere, trying to mitigate the damage they'd done and try to push back. And then when I got into the White House, it was scarily similar to the Kremlin. And in fact, I knew more about the Kremlin than I did about some of the domestic U.S. politics. But, you know, I was quickly apprised of how similar things were.

GROSS: When you accepted the position on the National Security Council under Trump, did you have any reservations about accepting the job, having seen his election campaign, having seen some of the, you know, mistruths and lies that he told during his campaign?

HILL: I did. I had a lot of reservations about him personally, although, you know, I was also prepared to go in with something of an open mind about what might be possible. I said in my deposition that I was agnostic, you know, to an extent because I wondered, you know, how much of it was campaigning and how much of it was real. But from my perspective, I was serving the country, and it was very important to me for public service. I didn't seek out joining the administration. People sought me out and asked me.

And the irony is that just before I'd been offered the job, I'd taken part in the Women's March. So I'd gone around with a friend, who actually felt - was pretty perplexed by the decision a few days later. I'd gone around the White House and, you know, in the protest march and then found myself called in to ask if I would take the position. And I resolved to do it because it was obvious that we were acutely vulnerable. And Trump himself was a massive counterintelligence risk because of his vulnerabilities and the fragility of his ego that something, you know, had to be done to try to stop the - you know, the Russians from pushing the issue even more and many others as well.

And I was, of course, you know, I think, in retrospect, somewhat naive about how much one could actually get done in that domestic context. I kind of thought that more people would be fully appreciative of the national security crisis that we had on hand and realized that for suddenly rather a lot of people around Trump and for Trump himself, this was all just a big political game and one for personal benefit.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Fiona Hill. She became famous after testifying at the first Trump House impeachment hearing. She's written a new memoir about her life and serving in the Trump administration. It's called "There Is Nothing For You Here." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to my interview with Fiona Hill. She went from behind-the-scenes presidential adviser to international fame after testifying at Trump's first House impeachment hearing. She talked about how Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and how the narrative that it was Ukraine that interfered was pure fiction. From 2017 to '19, she worked in the Trump White House, serving as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. She has a new memoir called "There Is Nothing For You Here."

I want to ask you about your first meeting with Trump, which you write about in your book. You had a horrible night (laughter) then...

HILL: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: ...Before that first meeting. Just give us a short description of everything that went wrong.

HILL: Well, I think, you know, for most mothers - or parents, actually - you know, across the board - you know, you're just about to start a big job that you're, you know, pretty worried about for all of the obvious reasons. And my daughter got food poisoning, you know, the night before - I shan't say - the (laughter) establishment, you know, but it was basically - threw up all night, threw up on me. I didn't have a wink of sleep. I'd gone out to try to, you know, get her some Gatorade and, you know, something else for, you know, the rest of the day to a, you know, 24-hour pharmacy. In my, you know, rush to get everything done, I bashed myself in the (laughter) face with the car door, given myself a black eye.

And, you know, then I'm supposed to be basically starting bright and early at the White House. And, you know, I take the Metro down there. And, you know, the day just goes from bad to worse. I was late. I stuck on my sneakers - my running shoes - to run to the Metro. It's about a mile from my house to the Metro stop. And I forgot to take my regular shoes. So that's the whole way that the first day starts to unfold. And it goes downhill from there.

GROSS: And you didn't know that you would be meeting with Trump. But there was a terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg subway in Russia. So there's a phone call about that between Trump and Putin. So tell us a little bit about how that meeting went and what happened when Ivanka walked in.

HILL: Well, what had happened, of course, was I completely missed this in my own personal drama of the day - and again, a classic that I'm sure lots of people can relate to. And I thought I was going to be in an orientation session, which I was. And then partway through, I was pulled up to go across to the Oval Office with General McMaster, the national security adviser. And I protested. I said, oh, my God, I've only got my sneakers. I haven't got any shoes with me. They said, oh, don't worry - you know, probably somebody's got a pair of shoes. Well, of course, all of the women in General McMaster's office had much smaller feet than me. So, you know, it's the whole sort of "Cinderella" routine of trying to squeeze your feet into someone else's shoes - didn't work. He just took one look at me, said, just leave those sneakers on. We've got to hurry in there. We've got to tell the president something about this terrorist attack. Think of something to say. And just stick your feet under the chair when you're behind the resolute desk. Just keep them out of his sight line. Of course, I did all of that.

I did find something to say because St. Petersburg is Putin's hometown. It's the first time that there had been a terrorist attack on the metro in St. Petersburg - or they had been previously in Moscow. So I basically said, it's his hometown. This would be very personal for him. It's the first time this has happened. And that's pretty much what President Trump said. President Trump didn't even look up at me - wasn't even quite sure who I was. And I thought, oh, this is all going fine until Ivanka Trump came in, and obviously, as is usual, decked out in high glamour, fabulously high heels, you know, beautiful flowing dress, sits down beside me and immediately sees my sneakers. So I was kind of busted.

GROSS: Did she say anything?

HILL: She didn't, but she gave me quite the look. And - however, I think in her circumstances, I probably would have given the person with the black sneakers the look too - hardly appropriate for the Oval Office. Anyway, from that moment on, I rushed out, bought myself a pair of shoes to always have at the ready by the desk so I wouldn't be repeating Sneakergate again.

GROSS: Your second meeting with Trump didn't go well either. This was around a Trump call with Putin about the conflict in Syria. And there was a press release that was going to go out about the call. Tell us that story.

HILL: Yeah. I think listeners are going to be detecting a bit of a pattern here. I basically ended up going into this particular meeting without my colleague. And I ended up, you know, at the back of the room on the edge of a sofa sitting next to the representative from the executive secretary's office, who was connecting the call for Putin. And so I was there - one of the jobs of a senior director was to take notes. But I'm sitting next to the guy who's manning the phone and taking notes. And basically, what happened was President Trump thought I was part of the executive secretariat - I was essentially the secretary making notes of the meeting - and wanted me to go and retype out the press release.

I actually also had a headache, you know, from, (laughter) you know, all kinds of, you know, things that normally happen to people. Let's just say, you know, everybody relates to not having a good day at work. I had a few too many of these, you know, early on. And I didn't quite hear or realize that he was speaking to me - had the classic deer-in-the-headlights look - looked up and found that the president was speaking directly at me, quickly realized that he thought I was the secretary - wasn't quite sure what to do. And he says to me, hey, are you listening, darlin'? And I was like, oh, God. Wow. This is not going to be great. And I kind of leapt up, not quite sure what to do, you know, kind of dashed out the Oval going, you know, what am I doing, what am I doing? And, of course, you know, that all created just, you know, one bad impression after another.

GROSS: It is so inappropriate for the president to call you, his national security Russia adviser, darlin'. Did you think of calling him out for that? Like, would that have been a possibility? What do you wish you'd been able to say?

HILL: Well, in the moment, I wish I would have been able to say, sorry, sir - you know, Mr. President, are you speaking to me? I'm Fiona Hill, the senior director for, you know, Russia and Europe. I actually kind of have to say that I hoped that one of the guys in the room sitting much closer would have actually said, Mr. President, this is your, you know, Russia adviser. But of course, you know, by this point, it was all too late. And nobody helped me out. Nobody said who I was. I mean, he clearly - you know, I did not imprint - again, middle-aged woman, you know, sort of sitting at the back taking notes - clearly, you know, the secretary. You know, everybody does the play it all over in their heads. It didn't go well. Leaping up and looking at - deer in the headlights was probably not the best, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HILL: ...Professional move I've ever made. But, you know, kind of in the moment, I was just, you know, somewhat startled. I mean, after that, I made sure that that wasn't going to be the case against. Let's just say I was not prepared well for that moment.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Fiona Hill, who's probably familiar to you because she was a key fact witness in Trump's first House impeachment hearing. She has a new memoir called "There Is Nothing For You Here." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Fiona Hill. From 2017 to '19, she worked in the Trump White House, serving as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. She has a new memoir called "There Is Nothing For You Here." She was a key fact witness in the first Trump impeachment hearing.

Well, we were talking about your second meeting with Trump. And again, you were there to prepare him for a phone call with Putin after a terrorist attack on the subway in St. Petersburg, and also to listen in on the phone call. And you thought that since you were the only fluent Russian speaker in the room that you would be able to pick up on nuances that the translator maybe wouldn't be communicating. And, in fact, you did pick up on nuances. But Trump didn't seem interested in hearing it. He just wanted to categorize the call as, like, that was a really good call with Putin. What did you hear? What nuances did you hear that the translator didn't pick up on that you thought Trump should know?

HILL: Well, I mean, there were some details there that, you know, I obviously can't relate. But the overall tone from Putin was, I would just say, quietly menacing. The tone of his voice, some of the words that he used, you know, it was clear that this was going to be a very difficult relationship in terms of our interactions with the Russians on the issue of Syria and many other topics. And the way that Putin was formulating things was making that quite clear. But it became very apparent right from there that President Trump was just much more interested in the superficiality, the surface of the interaction with Putin, because of his fascination with Putin as an autocratic figure.

And it would become, again, evident that Trump admired Putin and many other similar autocratic leaders - President Xi of China, President Erdogan of Turkey and others - because he saw them as particularly powerful, strongman figures who didn't have any checks and balances and actually ran the countries as if they owned them. He also assumed that they were all fabulously rich. And that was kind of the category in which he saw himself acting. He really saw the country as an extension of his own personal business empire, a personal and very family affair.

GROSS: So during a summit meeting between Trump and Putin, their first, in Helsinki - this was supposed to be about arms control. There was a press conference. And Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press asked if Trump believed Putin or American intelligence about Russian interference in the election. So Trump's response became famous. He he basically said that Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said that Russia was interfering in the election. But Trump said, I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this, I don't see any reason why it would be. You write that when he said that at the press conference that you thought of, like, faking a medical emergency just to, like, end the press conference. But I was wondering, were you maybe grateful that Trump had just come out and exposed what he was thinking, exposed that he believed Putin over his own director of national intelligence?

HILL: Well, what he exposed there was his tendency to always take the word of his favorite strongman, you know, his counterpart leader, over the word of the people who worked for him, which he tended to discount. So he always gave much more credence to the big guy on the world stage with him. What was tragic about this, of course, was this was done in public, in full view of the entire world. And of course, it was a massive humiliation for the United States, not just for Trump, himself, personally. And this, of course, created a firestorm.

But unfortunately, from my perspective and the perspective of many of the people that I was working with, it was entirely predictable because Trump did not want to be shown up in front of Putin. He wanted to be able to sort of take Putin's word at face value in the moment because he was trying to ingratiate himself and have this close, personal relationship with Putin, who was one of the very few people that he saw as a counterpart on the world stage. And he was tying himself up in knots, trying to basically avoid answering Lemire's question. And, you know, as a result, he made things 100,000 times worse. And even Putin, himself, after the press conference seemed to realize what a mess this whole response had been.

GROSS: You had co-written an earlier book that was a psychological portrait of Putin. You had worked in Russia early in your career. And in this book, you wrote about how Putin manipulated people. You watched him manipulate Trump. What are some of the techniques that you think Putin used to manipulate Trump?

HILL: Well, they were very obvious. And frankly, they were kind of the techniques that anyone could use to manipulate President Trump. He wasn't just an open book to Putin, he was an open book to everyone else, including all of us listening, you know, to this, anybody who was following his Twitter feed, anyone was following any of his public pronouncements. President Trump responded very favorably to pressures from any direction that it came. And he responded very negatively to any kind of criticism. So President Trump had a nasty list of people who'd said things about him that he didn't like.

GROSS: So he gave you a list of people he thought was nasty to him?

HILL: No. We were actually told to keep a list of anyone internationally who'd said anything negative, and to make sure that, you know, that meant that they weren't involved in any of the encounters overseas. But the praise was much more consequential because it meant that any time somebody said something positive about him, he would retweet it, or he would respond to it. He could be easily induced to thing - to do things by people praising him. And President Putin did this frequently. I remember one occasion - and I wrote about this in the book - where Putin, you know, basically praises President Trump for the conduct of the economy. And immediately, President Trump wanted to talk to Putin even though there was nothing really to talk about because Putin had said something nice to him. So what Putin does is he hones in on someone's vulnerability. And it might be their vulnerability to flattery. It doesn't mean vulnerability to blackmail, necessarily, because Putin really knows how to push people's buttons.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Fiona Hill. She was a key fact witness in Trump's first House impeachment hearing. She worked in the Trump White House and the National Security Council from 2017 to '19 as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs. Her new memoir is called "There Is Nothing For You Here." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Fiona Hill. From 2017 to '19, she worked in the Trump White House, serving as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. She has a new memoir called "There Is Nothing For You Here." She was a key fact witness in the first Trump impeachment hearing.

There's a new memoir by Stephanie Grisham, the Trump press secretary who never held a public press briefing. She writes that you talked with her about the G-20 meeting in Osaka in 2019, in which Putin had a very attractive woman he was using as translator, and that you told Stephanie Grisham that the attractive woman who was translating was probably there to distract Trump and throw him off guard.

HILL: Yeah, there's a larger context to this that makes it more clear. And first of all, having, you know, experienced the kind of sexism that people kind of casually throw around myself, I want to make it very clear that this person, this woman, was an extraordinarily good translator. But she had not been on the list to translate for that particular meeting. And she was swapped out at the last minute for a male translator who was also, you know, very good. And it was done by the Russians when they saw who else was going to be in the room on the U.S. side because Ivanka had been invited in. Stephanie Grisham was in her first, you know, days in the job, and then there was myself and our translator, who was also a woman.

And then Putin made a big show of introducing President Trump to the interpreter, making it very clear. And that's when I said something to Stephanie. And look; I didn't write about this in my own book because this was just part of a pattern of Putin looking to find vulnerabilities. But the larger point of these stories - I mean, you know, I don't want people to think that the book is all about Trump and Putin, 'cause it's not - it's really to put this in context because Trump is a type. He is a populist political figure. And Putin recognized that type because he's one himself, but he is a very savvy, very clever operative. And President Trump has an incredible, fragile ego and is all about himself. Putin tends to put Russia much higher up his hierarchy of interests and pushing Russian interests than President Trump does the United States. President Trump is Trump first, not America first.

GROSS: I do have one more Putin question for you because we were just talking about Putin, at the last minute, pulling a male translator and putting in a very attractive female one. And you think that was to distract Trump. So I want to compare that with how you were seated next to Putin at a dinner the first time you met Putin and, in your opinion, why you were seated next to Putin. This was in 2004.

HILL: Yeah. Well, I was actually told (laughter), you know, why I was seated next to him afterwards, dispelling any illusions I might have had, you know, on the significance of this placement because I was really rather surprised to find myself - actually, on a couple of occasions when I attended meetings in which Putin was in attendance to find myself seated next to him. And it turned out, it was because I was not a particularly attractive woman. I wasn't either too old or too young. I wasn't dramatically dressed. I was not likely to draw attention. And I was told this very explicitly by some of the Russian PR people that if a man had been seated next to Putin, people would wondered who he was and probably been looking at him and trying to figure out why he was sitting next to Putin. And as I was sitting next to him - and often, they'd put another woman on the other side, equally nondescript or one of his own staff - no one would bother to take any undue attention. They wouldn't really look at me. I was essentially a piece of tableware or kind of decorative framing for the great man, for Putin himself.

GROSS: What did you take away from having that proximity?

HILL: Well, I took away a lot of things. I mean, first of all, very studied in the way that he dressed, you know, noting, you know, the handmade clothes, the fine shoes, the expensive but understated watch, the fact that he didn't eat or drink very much of anything while he was sitting there next to us - the fact also that his notecards had very large font, showing that, just like the rest of us, he has got short-sighted with age. You know, I feel his pain. You know, once I turned 40, I couldn't see anything close up anymore either. But you know, he's not the Superman that he might otherwise be presenting himself as. Very well-prepared, very well-organized - you know, I could see all of the notecards. It was a unique opportunity. And, you know, I wrote about it afterwards and used that, also, these experiences to watch how he conducted himself, how he handled all the questioning, you know, to really help inform the book about Putin that I was writing at the time.

GROSS: Superman wouldn't need to wear glasses.

HILL: No, I believe not, you know, unless he came too close to kryptonite, I guess. But anyway...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HILL: ...Putin, like me, needed some glasses. So there you are, you know. And obviously, we've never seen him wearing them apart from some aviator sunglasses (laughter).

GROSS: You are very worried about America becoming an autocratic country, and you think that America is particularly vulnerable to that. Why do you think that we're particularly vulnerable?

HILL: We are. It's many different dimensions. And of course, this is the reason for writing the book. I start the book, you know, as we've mentioned, with my own home story of growing up in a forgotten place, a part of the United Kingdom where everyone lost their job at once and everybody's lives were upended. I saw the same thing happening in Russia in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and everybody lost their jobs overnight. And Putin became president of Russia at the end of the 1990s, December 1999, and he says he's going to fix everything. He's going to give everybody their lives back again. He's going to make Russia great again. And he is extraordinarily popular in that first 10 years or so in which he's president and prime minister and all the different roles that he plays there because he's going to be the champion of the people and, you know, he's going to put everything to rights.

And this is, of course, exactly what President Trump took advantage of here in the United States - the long periods in which people in the Midwest and Appalachia, many other parts of the United States have lost their jobs with the changes in manufacturing, the emergence of a new economy, more automation, the closures of the big steel mills, the auto plants, the coal mines, very similar to what I experienced in the north of England - and then the fact that people feel the mainstream politicians are no longer paying any attention to them. And this is fertile ground for political polarization, for partisan politics. We've seen it over and over again in historical periods in the United States as well as in Europe. And we get President Trump basically emerging on the back of that in 2016.

And of course, we've seen the divisions in the United States grow even more deep because President Trump was an unbelievably divisive president. But at this particular point in 2021, we face even more of a crisis than we've had before. We've had people storming the Capitol - I'm talking to you just, you know, a couple of blocks away from the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. - on January 6. I think that underscored, you know, just the depths to which our politics have fallen over the last several years. And this is the kind of environment that produced a Vladimir Putin in Russia.

GROSS: In Putin's Russia, if you are powerfully opposing him, threatening Putin's own power, you might be poisoned. We've seen that happen. Do you fear that America's going to get to that point, where they're like poisoning your enemies?

HILL: Well, perhaps not poisoning the enemies, but there are plenty of people going out there threatening violence against their enemies. I mean, think about what we saw on January 6 and, you know, what we've seen around that. We had somebody planting pipe bombs around the Capitol. We've already had people who've been opposition figures coming out and opposing President Trump having pipe bombs sent to their houses. There are people threatening violence against people out on the internet. We have armed militias roving the streets. We've already had violence, so absolutely yes. We may not be poisoning people, but the society is already prepped for violence against the people that they see in opposition. So I think there is no question about this, and no one should be at all naive about the prospects of what might happen in the United States, where, you know, we all know the statistics about gun ownership. And we've already seen people being killed in the streets during Black Lives Matters protests up in Kenosha, Wis., you know, for example, which is close to where some of my family live in the United States.

You know, we can go on and on - and what we saw in Charlottesville, Va. The United States is teetering on the edge of violence here. We're already, I think, in a cold civil war. I'm not saying this, you know, to be alarmist 'cause I think, you know, the alarms are all going off on, you know, on every front. I'm not the only person who's going out there and saying this. Our democracy is in serious danger. And I came to this country as an immigrant. The proudest moment of my life was becoming an American citizen in 2002. I took an oath then to the country. I passed a citizenship test. I believe in this country. And in the 30-plus years that I've been here since 1989, I've seen the country progressively take darker turns. And we've got a chance now to turn this around. But if we don't take it, we're heading down that autocratic path that we've seen in other countries.

GROSS: Fiona Hill, thank you so much for talking with us.

HILL: Oh, thank you so much, Terry. It's a real privilege to be on with you today.

GROSS: Fiona Hill's new book is called "There Is Nothing For You Here."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about life in Afghanistan today now that the Taliban are in power. My guest will be journalist Najibullah Quraishi, who will join us from Kabul, where he's been talking to the Taliban and to people who fear they will be Taliban victims. He's also spoken with ISIS fighters. He's the correspondent on a new PBS "Frontline" documentary about the Taliban takeover and the growing threat from al-Qaida and ISIS. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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