Vladimir Putin didn’t pay much attention to Fiona Hill (a leading U.S. expert in Russia), when she was seated next him at dinners. Putin’s people chose her because she was a “nondescript” woman, to ensure that the Russian president wouldn’t have any competition for his attention.
She was fluent in Russian and often listened carefully to the conversations of men, even if they seemed to have forgotten she was there, she recalled in an Associated Press interview. She thought, “Hey, if you were a man, you wouldn’t be talking like that in front of me.” “But go ahead. I’m listening.”
Hill didn’t expect to be as invisible as Donald Trump when she became his Russia advisor in the White House. Hill, who co-authored an acclaimed book on Putin, was able to see inside his head. Trump didn’t want her advice. In meeting after meeting, he ignored her. He once mistakenly called her “darlin” and mistook her for a secretary.
She was still listening, however. She was reading Trump as if she had read Putin.
Her book, “There is Nothing for You Here,” was published last week. She isn’t like other tell-all authors about Trump’s administration. The book is a much more serious and alarming portrait of Trump than her riveting testimony at Trump’s first impeachment.
Hill’s tone may be restrained but it is still damning by a thousand cuts. It shows how Hill’s career was devoted to understanding the Russian threat and managed it, but ended up revealing that America is most at risk from her own actions.
She describes in fly-on the-wall detail a president who had a voracious appetite to praise others and little or no desire to govern — a man so obsessed with what other people said about him, that U.S. relations rose or fell depending on how flattering foreign leaders made their remarks.
She writes that Trump demanded constant attention from his staff and all those who were part of his circle. “Especially in international affairs, Trump’s vanity was a source of vulnerability. His fragile self-esteem was a sign of his vulnerability.”
Hill described Putin’s manipulation of Trump through withholding or offering compliments. She said this was a more effective tactic than blackmailing and dirting him. Hill nearly lost the meeting in Finland when Trump seemed to be siding with Putin on Russian interference in 2016’s U.S. elections.
She writes, “I wanted the whole thing to end.” I thought about throwing a fit, faking seizures and throwing myself backwards into the row behind me of journalists. It would have only added to the humiliating spectacle.”
She saw in Trump a rare, but ultimately untapped talent. Trump spoke the language of many people and disregarded the same things. He also liked the same foods, didn’t need a filter, and laughed at the stale norms of the elite. Trump was pitching steel and coal jobs while Hillary Clinton was sipping champagne with donors.
She told the AP that “he clearly had a feeling for what people want.” He could talk the talk, even though he couldn’t do the walking in experiencing their experiences. He understood it.
She believes that this skill was wasted. It could have been used for mobilizing people for good but it was instead used in service to him — “Me the People”, as the chapter title suggests.
Trump’s vanity also ended his Helsinki meeting and all chances of a highly sought-after arms control agreement with Russia. Hill writes that the questions at the news conference “got to the core of his insecurities.” Trump might have said, “I am illegitimate” if he had admitted that Russia interfered with the election.
Putin knew that Trump’s vague promises would be undermined by the backlash. Hill wrote that Putin told Hill, on his way out of the conference, “he told his press secretary within earshot to our interpreter that the press conference had been ‘bullshit’.”
Trump loved Putin for his power, wealth and fame. Hill described him as the “ultimate badass.”
Putin’s ability manipulate the Russian political system to possibly stay in power indefinitely made an impression. Hill said to the AP that Trump sees it and says “What’s not to love about that type of situation?”
Trump, a Republican was impeached in the House late 2019, for trying to leverage his influence over Ukraine to undermine Joe Biden. This was among his first attempts to remain in office using unconventional means. It reached to the Jan. 6 insurrection by a mob that he had instructed to “fight like hell.”
Hill was the Russian national intelligence officer from 2006 to 2009, and was highly respected within Washington circles. However, it was only at the impeachment hearings when she was brought before the nation. She was one of the most damaging witnesses against President Obama she had ever seen. She testified that he sent his envoys into Ukraine on a “domestic politcal errand” that had nothing whatsoever to do with national security policy.
In her testimony, she began by recounting her unlikely journey as the daughter a coal miner in northeast England. She then went on to describe her extraordinary journey to the White House. She explained that she wanted to serve in a country that has “offered me opportunities I would not have in England.”
Her new book is a continuation of that personal journey. It’s a story told with humor and kindness, but it’s not self-deprecating. Hill, the Brookings Institution scholar, weaves in a study about the changes she saw over the years as a child living in Britain, as a researcher and student in Russia, and finally as an American citizen.
Due in part to the demise of heavy industry, the changes occurring in these three countries are strikingly similar. It has created a “crisis” that she calls a “crisis for opportunity.” This is due to the rise of populist leaders such as Trump, Putin and Boris Johnson who are able tap into the grievances and fears of those left behind.
She claimed that she was worried about Russia’s actions when she entered the White House, but then “came out” realizing, after watching everything, that the problem was actually the United States, and not the Russians.
Hill refers to Russia as a cautionary tale and “America’s Ghost of Christmas Future” if the U.S. fails to heal its political divisions.
She said that President Joe Biden, who hails from a civilized form of politics is trying to unite the country and improve its reputation abroad. But she added that he “is, in a sense, a type of man standing alone and people don’t pull behind him.”