Vladimir Putin paid little attention to Fiona Hill, a leading US expert on Russia, when she sat next to him at dinner. Putin’s men put her there by design, choosing, as they said, a “nondescript woman”, the Russian president would have no competition for attention.
Fluent in Russian, she often took carefully the conversations of men who forgot she was there and wrote it all down afterward, she recalled in an Associated Press interview. “Hey, if I were a boy, you wouldn’t talk like that in front of me,” she remembered. “But go ahead. I’m listening.”
Hill hoped she wouldn’t be as invisible when she later went to the White House as an adviser to Russia to work for another world leader, Donald Trump. She could see inside Putin’s head she had co-authored an acclaimed book about him, but even Trump didn’t want his advice. He ignored her once he met her, mistaking her for a secretary and calling her “Darlene”.
Still, she was listening. She was reading Trump as if she had read Putin.
The result is his book “There’s Nothing Here for You” last week. Unlike all the other writers in the Trump administration, he is not scandalous. Like his measured but scathing testimony in Trump’s first impeachment, the book paints a more sober, and thus perhaps more dangerous, portrait of the 45th president.
If Hill’s tone is restrained, it is damned by a thousand cuts. It tells how a career devoted to understanding and managing the Russian threat came crashing down in his revelation that the greatest threat to America comes from within.
In a fly-on-the-wall description, she describes a president with a hunger for admiration and no taste for governing—a man who has been said by others to be Americans with other nations. How relations rose or fell flattering foreign leaders were in their remarks.
“From his staff and everyone who came to his class, Trump demands constant attention and praise,” she writes. In international affairs in particular, “the president’s vanity and fragile self-esteem were a point of acute vulnerability.”
Hill describes how Putin manipulated Trump by offering or withholding praise, a maneuver he said was more effective than getting dirt on this president and blackmailing him. At their joint news conference in Finland, when Trump appeared with Putin on his own intelligence agencies over Russian interference in the 2016 US election, Hill almost lost it.
“I wanted to finish the whole thing,” she writes. “I contemplated throwing a fit or a fake seizure and throwing myself behind me in the queue of journalists behind me. But this only added to the outrageous spectacle. “
Yet in Trump he saw a rare if ultimately pointless talent. He spoke the language of many average people, despised the same things, operated without a filter, loved the same food and gleefully eschewed the tedious norms of the aristocracy. When Hillary Clinton sipped champagne with donors, Trump was pitching in coal and steel jobs—at least that was the perception.
“She clearly felt what people wanted,” she told the AP. “He could talk, even though he could not walk in having his experiences. But he understood.”
Yet in his view that skill was in vain. Where it could have been used to mobilize people for good, instead it was used only in self-service – “Me the People” as one chapter title says.
Trump’s arrogance also ruined any chance of his Helsinki meeting with Putin and a coveted arms control deal with Russia. The questions at the news conference “got right to the heart of their insecurities,” Hill writes. If Trump agreed that Russia interfered in the election on his behalf, he might as well say in his mind that “I am illegitimate.”
It was clear to Putin that the resulting response would undermine even the vaguest commitments made by him and Trump. “While leaving the conference,” Hill writes, “he told his press secretary, in the ear of our interpreter, that the press conference was ‘nonsense.
Trump praised Putin for his wealth, power and fame, viewing him as, in Hill’s words, “the ultimate badass”. During his presidency, Trump would be more like an autocratic and populist Russian leader than any recent US presidents, she writes, and “I was sometimes even shocked by how blatantly obvious the similarities were.”
Putin’s ability to manipulate the Russian political system to potentially remain in power indefinitely also made a mark. “Trump looks at it and says what’s not to like about a situation like that?” Hill told the AP.
Trump was impeached by the House in late 2019 for trying to use his leverage on Ukraine to undermine Joe Biden, his eventual Democratic rival, after his earlier attempts to stay in office by unorthodox methods. In the meantime, the revolt in the Capitol extended until the January 6th. He was told by a mob to “fight like hell”.
Hill served as the national intelligence officer for Russia from early 2006 to late 2009 and was highly respected in Washington circles, but was introduced to the nation only during the impeachment hearings. She became one of the most damaging witnesses against the president she served, testifying that she had sent her envoys to Ukraine on “domestic political work” that had nothing to do with national security policy.
She begins her testimony by describing her unlikely journey as a coal miner’s daughter from a poor town in North East England to the White House. He also spoke about his desire to serve a country that “has given me opportunities that I would have never had…
Credit: www.independent.co.uk / Fiona Hill