The senior fellow at Brookings and expert on modern Russia had hoped to guide the U.S.-Russia relationship. President Trump had other ideas.
Hill did not realize where her real challenges lay: “I know the intrigue in Russia better than the intrigue at home.”Photograph by Nate Palmer for The New Yorker
The Brookings Institution is one of many think tanks in Washington, D.C., where scholars and bureaucrats sit in quiet offices and wait by the phone. They write op-eds and books, give talks and convene seminars, hoping that, when reputations falter or Administrations shift, they will be rescued from the life of opining and contemplation and return to the adrenaline rush and consequence of government. Nearly always, the yearning is to be inside. Strobe Talbott, who became the president of Brookings in 2002, served in Bill Clinton’s Administration as his leading Russia expert, and he was rumored to be on the shortlist for Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State. Others, too, may have expected a call. But, after Donald Trump was elected, only one prominent Brookings stalwart was summoned, and her story became emblematic of all those in Washington who entered the Administration full of trepidation but hoping to be a “normalizing” influence on a distinctly abnormal President.
Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russia and its modern leadership, had a reputation as a blunt speaker and an independent thinker and analyst. The daughter of a miner and a midwife, she grew up in Bishop Auckland, in northern England, and has a strong northern accent. She described herself to me as “politically engaged but antipartisan.” She has a distaste for the kind of ideological standoff that she observed in the eighties between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, which was, as she put it, “a clash of titans with regular people smashed in between.”
Hill, who was born in 1965, is a senior fellow at Brookings, and a denizen of the Eurasia Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Harvard University, where she got her doctorate in history. She was a national intelligence officer in the Administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In 2013, she and Clifford Gaddy, an economic specialist at Brookings, published “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” which traces Vladimir Putin’s path from his hardscrabble upbringing in Leningrad to his years in the government. She was wary of Obama’s efforts to downplay Russia’s importance in the world—he called the country a “regional power”—convinced that doing so only provoked Putin to assert himself more forcefully. In an updated edition of the book, published in 2015, Hill and Gaddy described Putin as “arguably the most powerful individual in the world.” Hill’s friend Nina Khrushcheva, the granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, said that Putin was “secretly flattered” by the portrayal.
In June, 2016, it emerged that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., had penetrated the Democratic National Committee’s computer servers and begun spreading derogatory information about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Many of Hill’s colleagues were disturbed that Trump had praised Putin as a “strong leader” and took seriously the growing speculation that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians to sway the election. Hill was skeptical of this theory, thinking it more likely that the campaign and Russia were working in parallel to discredit Clinton. She was less certain than her colleagues that Clinton would win the election, especially after the outcome of the Brexit referendum, that same month. Several of her family members had voted to leave the E.U., and in Bishop Auckland sixty-one per cent were in favor. She saw why Trump appealed to voters who felt that their concerns had long been ignored.
After Trump’s victory, the mood at Brookings was funereal. But, as Hill told K. T. McFarland, a former speechwriter in the Reagan Administration, on her FoxNews.com show, on November 15th, the President-elect’s overtures to Putin presented an opportunity: “Trump has certainly laid the ground for saying, ‘O.K., I’m going to give you a chance to explain yourself.’ ” After the interview, Hill joked that Trump might appoint McFarland to be his national-security adviser. Two days later, Trump named Michael Flynn to that post, and, the following week, chose McFarland to be his deputy.
In one of more than two dozen conversations that I had with Hill this spring, she told me that she had not been seeking a position in the new Administration, but that she was “open to advising whoever came along and offering my two cents’ worth.” McFarland called Hill on the afternoon of December 29, 2016, asking what she thought about the sanctions that the Obama Administration had just imposed on Russia in retaliation for Putin’s election interference. Hill urged McFarland to avoid thinking about them as a “political issue”; they were, she said, simply “the appropriate action.”
Earlier that month, Trump had rejected the C.I.A.’s assessment that Russia had sought to help his campaign. “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody,” he told Fox News. “It could be somebody sitting in bed someplace. I mean, they have no idea.” Hill respected the analysts who evaluated Russia’s activities, and she was alarmed by Trump’s denigration of their work. She was also troubled when, in January, 2017, she learned about a dossier, compiled by the former British spy Christopher Steele, that was circulating among journalists and experts in D.C. Hill had known Steele since 2006, when she was an intelligence officer and he worked for M.I.6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service. Steele had been hired by Fusion G.P.S., a small American investigative firm that initially worked on behalf of a conservative client and later the Clinton campaign, to gather reports about Trump’s ties to Russia. One of Steele’s more salacious findings alleged that the Russians had a sex tape that would compromise Trump. The level of detail made Hill suspect that Steele’s sources had slipped him bits of misinformation to discredit the rest of his research. The dossier, she felt, would “pour gasoline on a raging fire.” BuzzFeed published the documents, and Trump denounced them as a fabrication by “sick people.”
Hill told McFarland about her relationship with Steele, and conveyed her doubts about the dossier. On January 25th, David Cattler, the deputy assistant to the President for regional affairs, called Hill to tell her that Flynn was offering her the position of senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Unsure whether to take the job, she sought Strobe Talbott’s advice. Talbott was a tough Trump critic, but he told her she should do it—she would be “one of the adults in the room.” Graham Allison, Hill’s mentor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, also approved. “You’ve spent your whole life on this, and if things go very badly with the U.S.-Russia relationship, it could be catastrophic for everybody,” he said. The next day, she accepted the job offer, telling Cattler, with whom she had worked on the National Intelligence Council, in the two-thousands, that she felt “more comfortable” knowing that he would be at the White House.
Two weeks later, Trump dismissed Flynn, after it was reported that, in January, he had lied to Mike Pence, the incoming Vice-President, about a phone call he’d had with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. Obama Administration officials believed that the call had undermined their efforts to hold Russia accountable and to deter future election meddling, but McFarland assured Hill that nothing improper had occurred. (Transcripts of several calls between Flynn and Kislyak that were released in May made it clear that Hill’s advice to show a united front with Obama’s Administration had been ignored.)
In February, 2017, Hill attended a dinner hosted by Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University and an early leader of the conservative “Never Trump” movement. On January 29th, Cohen had published a piece in The Atlantic warning “friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration” that, as he put it, “when you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan.” Working for a xenophobic and divisive government, he argued, gave that government legitimacy. At the dinner, he told Hill that she was putting her reputation in jeopardy by working for Trump. Hill had read Cohen’s article, and she told me that she considered it a “powerful warning.” Still, she said, “because of strange quirks of fate, I was the one they asked to step into the fray. What was I going to do? Walk away?”
There were early signs that it might have been wise to do so. On February 28th, Cattler called Hill to tell her that his job had been eliminated. Hill said he warned her, “ ‘Look, you could come in and do the job as you see fit, and succeed. You could come in and be miserable but still feel like you’re making a difference. But you could also come in and be fired. You could be fired capriciously.’ ”
Old acquaintances also pressured Hill to change her mind. On March 8th, before Hill was scheduled to meet with her staff for the first time, she had breakfast with Celeste Wallander, at the Blue Duck Tavern, near Georgetown. Wallander had worked as Obama’s White House adviser on Russia, and she and Hill had crossed paths for more than twenty years. There was clear evidence that Trump and members of his circle had coördinated with the Russians, Wallander said. Trump’s recent attack on NATO as being “obsolete” showed that he intended to do whatever Putin wanted. To work in the Trump Administration was to endorse its policies. “You can’t pick and choose,” Wallander said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, I didn’t support that.’ You own those policies, even if you, on the inside, disagreed with them.” Hill wasn’t persuaded, telling Wallander that the Administration still needed advisers with “no illusions” about Putin to defend against future Russian election meddling. “When your house is on fire, you’ve got to go in and save something,” she said.
Hill’s decision to join the Trump White House was, echoing Samuel Johnson’s assessment of second marriages, a “triumph of hope over experience.” Her detractors called it a triumph of ambition over wisdom. Even Hill’s closest colleagues told me that her stubbornness could work against her. She acknowledged that many of Cohen’s and Wallander’s warnings proved well founded. Little was done to address the threat of future election meddling, and Hill’s tenure was, in many ways, an extended exercise in futility. Ultimately, she will be remembered not for safeguarding the country but for the unvarnished testimony that she delivered in the impeachment proceedings against Trump, in October and November of 2019, which revealed how U.S. foreign policy was subverted for domestic political purposes. In her conversations with me, she offered a unique look at the dysfunction, the misogyny, and the corruption that have proliferated in Trump’s White House. She remained convinced that public service was a necessary and noble calling, but worried that partisan politics was hobbling the country and endangering its security. “We’re doing this to ourselves now,” she said. “The Russians don’t have to do a thing.”
Hill sees her willingness to take on undesirable jobs as part of a family tradition. Her maternal grandfather, an air-raid warden during the Second World War, used buckets of sand to put out flares dropped by German advance planes. Her father, Alfred, a miner since he was fourteen, lost his job in 1963, when a pit closed in Crook, and went to work as a porter in a hospital.
Hill’s parents had little money, but they encouraged her and her younger sister, Angela, to take part in European exchange programs. Hill excelled at languages, and by the time she was fifteen she was fluent in French and proficient in German. Like many teen-agers, the Hill girls had nightmares about being caught in a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.; Hill wryly told me that on walks around Bishop Auckland she would look out for places to hide in the event of an atomic blast. Their father’s cousin Charlie Crabtree told them stories about his adventures sailing across the Arctic in convoys delivering supplies to the Soviet Union during the war. “Charlie couldn’t understand how we’d gone from being wartime allies to being enemies with the Soviet Union,” Hill recalled. “He kept on saying, ‘You’re good at languages, Fiona. You should study Russian and figure out what’s gone wrong.’ ”
Fiona was self-deprecating, awkward, and intelligent. The girls attended Bishop Barrington, a local school in a rough neighborhood. Angela, now an English teacher in Madrid, said that in school Fiona was bullied, sometimes physically: people called her “posh—even though she wasn’t posh—because she had different aspirations.” In 1983, Fiona’s final year of secondary school, she was chosen as head girl, and her teachers encouraged her to apply to Oxford. Interviewing at Hertford College, wearing an outfit her mother had made, she noticed the other girls in the waiting room whispering about her. One of them tripped her as she stood up and she fell into a doorframe. Hill recalled, “So I’m going into the interview while holding my nose, which is bleeding.” The professor conducting the interview told Hill that she would not be able to take Russian at Hertford, because she had not studied it in secondary school. He suggested that she apply instead to St. Andrews, in Scotland. Hill followed the advice and was admitted. In the summer before she began, she took a job as a cleaner at the hospital where her father worked. One day, a macerator—a machine that blended human waste and disposable bedpans—exploded. Some of her friends’ mothers worked at the hospital, too. Hill told me, “They were all, like, ‘You’re at university, eh? You too posh now to get shit off walls?’ And I was, like, ‘No. I can go do that.’ ”
At the end of her third year of university, Hill won a British government fellowship to study at the Maurice Thorez Institute, a language school in Moscow, before returning to St. Andrews. It was an era of shortages, and the general gloom in Moscow reminded her of the atmosphere in Roddymoor, the former coal-mining town where her grandparents had lived. Toward the end of her year abroad, Hill got a job as an assistant for NBC in Moscow, during Ronald Reagan’s historic summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. There, she met the political scientist Robert Legvold, who suggested that she study in the United States. The following year, Hill applied for a Kennedy Scholarship at Harvard, to pursue her interest in U.S.-Soviet relations. At her interview, the judges had trouble understanding her accent, and, as she was leaving, she opened a door and stepped into a closet. She didn’t get the scholarship. A few weeks later, she interviewed for and was awarded a Frank Knox fellowship, and in the fall of 1989 she enrolled in a master’s program in Soviet studies at Harvard’s Russian Research Center. Soon, she met a Soviet-studies student from Chicago named Kenneth Keen. They became friends and struck up a romance.
In the summer of 1991, Hill took a part-time job as a Russian translator at Graham Allison’s Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project, which aimed to transform the Soviet Union, and, later, Russia, into a Western-style democracy. “We were trying to do something bold,” Allison told me. “Maybe, if you were criticizing it, you’d say romantic.” Hill arrived for her interview wearing a pair of ripped jeans and Doc Martens boots. Allison said, “Fiona was certainly, at best, a diamond in the rough, and there was a lot of rough. And her accent—it was like listening to one of those BBC radio shows where the people were speaking Scottish and you couldn’t figure out what the hell they were talking about.”
In 1993, Allison took a leave of absence from Harvard to serve as an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration, and he asked Hill to run his project. She liked organizing conferences that brought together political, economic, and academic leaders from across Europe and the former Soviet Union. The next year, she had a professional breakthrough when a paper she had co-authored, about Russia’s intimidation of its neighbors, was praised in the Times. In 1995, Hill married Keen, and they became tutors in Cabot House, one of Harvard’s undergraduate dorms.
Three years later, Hill completed her doctorate. She and Keen moved into a small two-bedroom house in suburban D.C. Keen worked as a business consultant; Hill got a job at the Eurasia Foundation. Horton Beebe-Center, the foundation’s then vice-president, described Hill as a “prolific networker” with “extraordinary connections in Europe, right up to heads of state.”
Hill believed at the time that Russia’s aggressive behavior had to be harshly condemned. When Russia launched its second war in Chechnya, in 1999, she told the Christian Science Monitor that the conflict “could produce a whole slew of Osama bin Ladens.” In 2000, she went to work at the Brookings Institution. Exploring the prospect of reconciliation between Moscow and the Chechens, she spent time with prominent Chechen separatists, whom she had gotten to know in the nineties and who were wanted by the Russian intelligence services. Some of Hill’s counterparts in Russia and Chechnya, she said, “were telling me, ‘Look, you’re a nice girl, Fiona, but you need to back off on this. This is getting dangerous.’ ” She soon came to understand what they meant. In September, 2002, while attending a conference in Sochi, Hill became violently ill after taking a sip of a drink at her hotel bar. An analysis of her blood showed that her liver enzymes were elevated, and she concluded that she had been poisoned.
On September 1, 2004, Chechen rebels demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya took hostage more than a thousand people, mostly children, at a school in Beslan, a town in the Russian republic of North Ossetia. Two days later, Russian commandos attempted to free the hostages in what was widely viewed as a botched raid, and at least three hundred and thirty people were killed in the chaos. On September 6th, Hill encountered Putin for the first time, at a private tea that he hosted at his residence near Moscow to mark the inaugural meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, a forum on Russia’s role in the world. The attendees had assumed that, given the disaster in Beslan, the conversation at the tea would be brief. Instead, Putin spent nearly four hours sparring with them. He said that the West had to stop criticizing him for the war in Chechnya without proposing any realistic solutions to address the demands of the region’s separatists. Hill was impressed by his political agility and command of the issues.
A few days later, Hill wrote an Op-Ed in the Times, which was published under the title “Stop Blaming Putin and Start Helping Him.” She described Putin’s event as “remarkable,” saying, “We have to show we are listening,” and proposed that the U.S. share intelligence with Russia to assist in its investigation of the Beslan attack. Some of Hill’s colleagues said that she was falling for Putin’s propaganda. “I got awful shit,” she said. “Some people accused me of being paid to write this by the Russians.” But Angela Stent, the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council, who had also attended the private event with Putin, saw her proposal as “a sound suggestion.” In 2006, Stent recommended that Hill replace her at the N.I.C. Hill took the job—she was three months pregnant—and swiftly established a reputation for her unbiased assessments. As Daniel Hoffman, one of her C.I.A. counterparts, put it, she “simply looks at the facts and makes her conclusions.”
In November, 2009, Hill returned to Brookings and began to work with Clifford Gaddy on their book about Putin. In 2014, after protesters drove out Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea and initiated a military campaign to control eastern Ukraine. Russia experts in the U.S. disagreed about how to respond. Strobe Talbott published an op-ed in the Washington Post with Steven Pifer, another colleague at Brookings, championing a proposal to provide material assistance to the Ukrainian military, including armor-piercing missiles. A week later, Hill and Gaddy responded in the Post, warning that such an action could “push Putin into a regional war.” Obama’s top White House advisers shared their caution, and decided against providing the missiles, known as Javelins, to the Ukrainians. But, as the 2016 Presidential election approached, the situation was becoming increasingly volatile, and candidates in both parties advocated tougher action against Putin’s aggression. Hill told me, “It felt to me like the eighties again, when we were in a war scare.”
Hill’s first day in the Trump White House, April 3, 2017, did not begin well. Her ten-year-old daughter woke up in the middle of the night with a stomach bug. Rushing to a CVS to get some medicine, Hill slammed the door of her Mini Cooper into her face. At around 7 a.m., with a bruise swelling around her right eye, Hill ran out of the house in her sneakers, forgetting to take the dress shoes she’d set aside.
Her boss was H. R. McMaster, an Army general, who had replaced Flynn as national-security adviser. Hill was in her White House orientation session when an aide to McMaster interrupted to tell her that she needed to go to the Oval Office immediately to brief Trump for a call to Putin. An explosion that morning, evidently from a bomb planted by a terrorist, had ripped through a subway car in St. Petersburg. Ten people were reported dead. Hill and McMaster took chairs across from the Resolute Desk, where Trump was seated. McMaster introduced Hill by title but not by name, and asked her to offer some insight. Hill recalled, “I thought to myself, Keep it simple.” She told Trump that, since St. Petersburg was Putin’s home town, the terrorist incident was likely to be “very personal” to him. In the middle of the briefing, Ivanka Trump walked in, impeccably dressed, and sat down next to Hill, who tried to hide her sneakers under her chair.
Brookings had said that Hill’s job there would be kept open for three months in the event that she quit or was fired. Hill brought a box of family pictures and other personal effects to her new office, and kept the box under her desk. She always carried a green notebook and two pens, taking notes at all her meetings. McMaster sometimes told her, “Don’t just take notes—take note of what’s going on,” but she didn’t always follow his advice.
On May 2nd, Trump spoke on the phone with Putin about the conflict in Syria, where Russian forces were supporting the Assad regime and American forces were fighting Islamic State terrorists. Trump and Putin spoke through interpreters, and senior members of the White House staff gathered in the Oval Office to listen on speakerphone. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had the seats closest to the President’s desk. Margaret Peterlin, Tillerson’s chief of staff, stood to one side, and Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, sat on a sofa. Hill, who had a migraine, found a perch at the back of the room. Doubting the quality of the translation Trump was getting from Putin’s interpreter, she furiously took notes.
After the call, Trump told Tillerson and McMaster that he wasn’t happy with the pre-written press statement about the call, and he started dictating revisions. Hill wasn’t paying attention. “I thought we’d have a substantive discussion about the call,” she told me. “I thought my job was to say, ‘Well, this is what happened. Perhaps we need to think about this.’ ”
She noticed that Trump was looking in her direction and asking, “Can she do it?” Hill told me, “I’m thinking, Can she do what? My head is pounding. I’m thinking, What happened? She? No, not Margaret, not Ivanka. Huh. It must be me. I looked like a deer in the headlights. And the President said, ‘Hey, darling, are you listening?’ ” Hill suspected that Trump thought she was a secretary. McMaster handed Hill a piece of paper with Trump’s revisions, but Hill didn’t know what it was. “Nobody threw me a lifeline,” she recalled. “Nobody said, ‘Oh, this is Fiona.’ ” Hill got up and walked into the office of Madeleine Westerhout, Trump’s executive assistant. McMaster rushed in behind her. Hill thought that she should apologize to the President, but McMaster told her, “He’ll think it’s weakness.” Later, Hill learned that Ivanka had thought that she had been rude to her father.
Until that point, Hill said, she had always let her work speak for itself. But she had noticed that women in the West Wing wore designer dresses and more makeup. After the meeting, she went out and bought a few new outfits, “just so I wouldn’t be conspicuous in my dowdiness.” It was well known that Trump put inordinate stock in appearances, particularly when it came to women. “Central casting is a real thing for him,” a longtime Trump adviser told me. Trump addressed his female aides as “honey,” “sweetie,” and “darling.” If he didn’t like how an adviser looked, he would say, “Honey, you look so tired.” Trump would sometimes say of his female advisers, “They look O.K. in person, but on TV they look really bad. Why do they look so bad?”
After Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary, was interviewed on “60 Minutes,” Trump complained that she wasn’t attractive enough. When officials were discussing the possibility of a new position for Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Trump said he didn’t like how her cheeks looked. He complained to officials that Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, wasn’t sufficiently aggressive toward migrants—and she was too short. When Trump insulted a female adviser, the men in the room would look away. “It throws you off your game,” a former female adviser told me. “It deflates you.” Another former White House official, a man, told me that Trump was “rougher with women. He has a problem with women.” It was soon evident that Trump had a problem with Hill. “Forgive me, Fiona’s attractive, but he doesn’t trust women that are kind of non-players in his world,” the former official said. He added, “Anyone who takes notes is suspect.” A former national-security official told me that, after the incident in the Oval Office, some of Trump’s top advisers, including Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, began referring to Hill as “the Russia bitch.”
Hill had seen how, during the Bush Administration, advisers to Vice-President Dick Cheney had excluded some of her N.S.C. colleagues from important discussions, believing that they weren’t hawkish enough. Still, she was unprepared for the viciousness of the infighting in the Trump Administration. Leaks to the press were a constant source of acrimony. Stephen K. Bannon, a senior adviser to Trump, along with Derek Harvey, the N.S.C.’s senior director for the Middle East, and Joel Rayburn, a Middle East specialist who worked in Harvey’s directorate, compiled and circulated lists of N.S.C. civil servants whom they wanted removed, suspecting them of being insufficiently committed to Trump’s policies. Bannon had read Hill’s book on Putin—twice, he told me—and said he considered her to be a “consummate professional.” Nevertheless, he had tried to block her appointment. He believed that she would resist the idea of joining forces with Putin to counter China’s influence, and urged Flynn to find someone “a little more malleable on Russia.”
In the spring of 2017, Hill was reviewing Obama’s policies on Europe and Russia. His Administration had shunned the autocratic Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, who was thwarting efforts to build a united front within the E.U. and NATO in support of Ukraine. Hill did not oppose a meeting between Trump and Orbán, but she wanted to make sure that Orbán was serious about changing his behavior. On May 23rd, Connie Mack, a former Republican congressman who was working as a lobbyist for Orbán, tried to persuade two of Mike Pence’s foreign-policy advisers to hold a Trump-Orbán summit at the White House. Trump had extended the invitation to Orbán by telephone in 2016; Mack wanted to know why the Obama policy remained in effect.
Mack told me, “It was clear that there was someone above who was saying ‘No meeting,’ and I knew it wasn’t Pence. So I started looking around, poking around, and I came across Fiona Hill’s name.” On the Brookings Web site, Mack discovered that Hill had worked with organizations that had ties to the Budapest-born financier George Soros, who is a frequent target of right-wing groups. Mack told Pence’s advisers that he believed that Hill was responsible for the holdup. According to an official who heard that conversation, Mack accused Hill of doing Soros’s bidding. On May 31st, the political operative Roger Stone, a longtime friend of Trump’s, appeared on Alex Jones’s television show, which traffics in far-right conspiracy theories. Stone told Jones, “This is very hard to believe, but I confirmed the facts again this morning. Soros has planted a mole infiltrating the national-security apparatus—a woman named Fiona Hill.” After the show aired, a woman called Hill’s house, and when her daughter picked up the phone the woman told her that her mother was “a cunt.” Hill started to receive death threats. In June, Mack began circulating a memo, titled “Fiona Hill Backgrounder,” to former congressional colleagues, documenting what he described as Hill’s purported links to “the Soros network.” Soon, one of Mack’s contacts told him that the memo was “in Trump’s hands.”
While many people in Washington believed that Trump’s friendly treatment of Putin was evidence of collusion, Hill saw the behavior as part of a pattern. Trump was equally reluctant to criticize other autocratic leaders, including President Xi Jinping, of China, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of Turkey. He conducted diplomacy with these men the same way he ran his hospitality business, preferring informal, freewheeling conversations. He was happier when aides weren’t present and notes weren’t taken, which left Administration officials scrambling to figure out what, if anything, had been agreed upon. Foreign leaders often tried to take advantage of the distrust between Trump and his advisers. In a May, 2017, meeting with Erdoğan, whom Trump privately referred to as “the Sultan,” Trump made it clear that he disagreed with his military advisers, and didn’t want to provide support to the Kurds. After Erdoğan called him on Thanksgiving Day, presumably hoping to catch him alone on the golf course, Trump joked about having spoken to the President of Turkey on “Turkey Day.” Hill said, “He just wants to go in and shoot the breeze with these guys, because he thinks he’s got great chemistry with them.”
On May 10th, soon after firing James Comey, the F.B.I. director, who had refused to state publicly that Trump was not under investigation for possible collusion, Trump told Sergey Kislyak and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, that Comey was a “nut job.” The conversation was leaked to the media, fuelling speculation about an allegiance with Russia, but Hill was less concerned. Trump had said something similar to Henry Kissinger, who visited him that day. “He talked the same way with everyone,” she said. “It could be a man on the street. This is how he is. Whatever’s on his mind in the moment is what he talks about, no matter who’s there.”
Trump’s first meeting with Putin took place in Hamburg, on July 7, 2017, during the G-20 summit there. The goal had been to discuss future objectives, including talks about an arms-control deal. Such a deal would be the fulfillment of a fantasy that Trump had first articulated in interviews in the mid-eighties, when he claimed that it would take him “an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles.” A former White House aide told me, “I heard him once, in the beginning of the Administration, say something like ‘Well, Obama got a Nobel Prize. I certainly should get one.’ ”
Hill, Tillerson, and McMaster had travelled to Germany, but Trump allowed only Tillerson to join the meeting, scheduled to last about an hour. After two hours, aides, concerned that Trump would be late for a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, of Japan, sent in Melania Trump to extract her husband. Later, Tillerson told Hill and other officials that Putin, evidently fearing that Trump would launch a preëmptive military strike against North Korea, which shares a small border with Russia, had tried to convince Trump that Pyongyang’s latest missile test wasn’t as significant as U.S. intelligence officials had led him to believe. Tillerson also said that Putin, as expected, had denied that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election. Hill and a colleague pulled aside Trump’s interpreter, Yuri Shkeyrov, for more details. Shkeyrov told them that Trump had assured Putin that he believed his denials, and that Trump had confiscated his notes. (Shkeyrov declined to comment.) At the end of the meeting, Putin told Trump, “Let’s talk later.”
That night, the Germans hosted a dinner for the G-20 leaders, and they surprised the American delegation by seating Melania next to Putin. During the dinner, Trump came over to talk to his wife, and he and Putin had a long conversation. Neither Shkeyrov nor any of Trump’s advisers were present; Putin’s interpreter translated for the leaders. Hill and her colleagues later pieced together the conversation from information given by Melania’s assistant and other officials. The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, didn’t disclose the exchange to the press. On July 18th, Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, a global consulting firm, made Trump’s encounter with Putin public, saying that American allies found the exchange “disconcerting.” He told NPR that the Russians “probably have a tape of this conversation. I suspect we don’t.” Trump lashed out on Twitter. “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick.’ ” Hill told me, “It wasn’t a secret. It was in full view of every other leader at the G-20.”
Later that year, Trump and Putin had another unscheduled exchange, at an economic summit in Da Nang, Vietnam. A White House official who accompanied Trump said he overheard the beginning of the conversation, in which Trump engaged in “mundane small talk” with Putin, before he and his foreign counterparts were escorted out of the room. Hill said, “That’s the one meeting where nobody has any clue about what was discussed.”
One of Hill’s hopes, in taking the N.S.C. job, had been to ward off future Russian election interference. But, beginning in May, 2017, after the special counsel Robert Mueller took over the investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, Trump grew increasingly suspicious of anybody in the Administration who raised the topic. For Trump, acknowledging that Russia had meddled was akin to claiming that his campaign had colluded with Russia—an accusation that he saw as casting doubt on the legitimacy of his victory. “The ‘loyalty’ word got bandied around and was the shortcut that people would use to knife each other,” a former senior Administration official told me. “It only takes a couple seeds of doubt and then that’s it, you’re on the ‘They’re not loyal’ list.”
That summer, Steve Bannon was fired. McMaster, who was keen to put an end to the paranoia and infighting within the N.S.C., removed Derek Harvey. Hill recalled of Harvey, “He actually said to me, ‘I thought you’d have gone long before I did.’ I was, like, ‘Oh, thanks, Derek. It was lovely working with you.’ ” Meanwhile, according to former officials, Tillerson tried to cut McMaster out of the State Department’s talks with Russia, and, over Trump’s objections, Congress voted to impose more sanctions. (Tillerson denies excluding McMaster.) In response, Putin ordered the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to reduce its staff by nearly eight hundred people. Hill told me, “We were constantly trying to make progress, but something happened every time. Nobody was coördinating at the top.”
Hill found that not even Trump’s closest advisers could get his attention. Trump often did not appear in the Oval Office until 11:30 A.M. Typically, the first item on his schedule was the President’s Daily Brief, a top-secret summary of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence. “It was awful,” a former White House official told me. “He just rants and raves. It’s mostly about what was on Fox News. He really does believe that he knows more than the generals, more than the intelligence professionals.” Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, who had replaced Priebus, limited the P.D.B. sessions to three a week, to avoid wasting time. If Trump seemed to be in an especially foul mood, Kelly would cancel that day’s briefing.
Hill recalled, “I looked at other ways to have an impact, to be effective.” She focussed on trying to assist McMaster, but it was clear that he could be the next to go. Trump seemed to relish the fact that he could be rude to a decorated military leader with impunity. On one occasion, when Trump spoke disrespectfully to Emmanuel Macron, the French President, on a phone call, McMaster stormed out of the Oval Office, muttering, “Fuck this.” Hill followed him, and waited in an anteroom as Kelly pleaded with him not to quit.
On February 16, 2018, Mueller indicted thirteen Russians. Rod J. Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General overseeing the inquiry, said they had sought to “promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy.” The next day, at a security conference in Munich, McMaster was asked about the prospect of increased U.S.-Russia cyber coöperation. He dismissed the idea, citing the indictment and calling the evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election “incontrovertible.” Trump tweeted, “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems.” On the flight back to Washington, Hill recalled, McMaster seemed subdued. The President’s tweets and his behavior “had a chilling effect on pretty much everybody,” she said. Hill rejected a suggestion that her directorate be part of a task force in charge of dealing with the threat of Russian election meddling. Her team would only be persecuted for their efforts.
Trump and Hill were aligned on certain issues. Both were wary of the proposal, first raised in the Obama Administration and backed by foreign-policy hawks, to supply Ukraine with Javelins. Advocates of the missiles hoped that they would help demonstrate resolve against Russia, particularly at a time when Trump appeared to be allying himself with Putin. In the end, the Pentagon, worried about an escalating conflict, settled on sending Ukraine just a handful of the weapons, on the condition that they be stored in Yavoriv, a town about as far as possible from eastern Ukraine, where the fighting was taking place. As Hill had hoped, Putin did not retaliate in response to what he understood to be a symbolic gesture of support for Ukraine.
But the Russian leader remained as unpredictable as ever. Trump was taken aback when, on March 1st, Putin touted Russia’s development of a new nuclear-capable hypersonic missile using a simulation that depicted an attack on what appeared to be Florida. “That got Trump’s attention,” Hill said. “Trump was, like, ‘Real countries don’t do that. Why’s he doing that?’ ” Three days later, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who had been a double agent for the U.K.’s intelligence services during the nineties and the early two-thousands, and his daughter were found almost unconscious on a public bench in the English town of Salisbury. The cause was found to be the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, and U.S. and British intelligence quickly concluded that Russian agents were responsible. “They really put an incredible number of people in jeopardy,” Hill said. The Russian agents “could have taken out the town.” Hill and other advisers argued that the U.S. and Europe needed to respond in a way that would deter Moscow from attempting similar attacks elsewhere. Trump initially saw no reason to take any action, and was angered when he learned, from Fox News, that he had signed off on a retaliation that involved expelling almost as many suspected Russian spies as had been expelled by the U.K. and Europe combined. “You lied to me,” he told the former White House aide. “You tricked me.”
Two weeks later, Putin easily won another term as President, in an election that was widely condemned as fraudulent. As Hill’s staff assembled the briefing materials for a call between Trump and Putin to discuss Syria and North Korea, the State Department requested that McMaster instruct Trump not to congratulate Putin. Hill and McMaster did not pass the request on to Trump. “It would just make him do it even more adamantly, because he’s reflexively contrarian,” a former official told me. Later, the Washington Post reported that Trump had not followed “specific warnings from his national security advisers,” including “a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating ‘DO NOT CONGRATULATE.’ ” Predictably, Trump was furious with McMaster, and Hill surmised that an official with access to the briefing materials had set him up. “We were all being used again, us and you guys in the press, by those who wanted H.R. to be fired,” she told me. Hill offered to quit in solidarity if he was let go, but he said that she should stay in the job to insure a smooth transition. A few days later, Trump fired McMaster and hired John Bolton, a foreign-policy hawk, as national-security adviser.
On July 15th, Bolton, Kelly, and Hill flew to Helsinki on Air Force One, for an arms-control summit between Trump and Putin. Hill knew that Trump wouldn’t read the materials she had prepared, but she hoped that he might sit through an oral briefing. Trump wasn’t interested. He, Putin, and the translators met in the Finnish Presidential palace. Putin, familiar with U.S. policy and with Trump’s habits, brought notes on topics to address. Notes had been prepared for Trump, but they were of limited use. After the two Presidents met, a group of senior officials asked Trump to tell them about the conversation. “He didn’t want to share,” the former White House official said. “His mind-set was: This is between me and my friend.”
Later, at a lunch, Trump invited Putin to share what he’d said in their private meeting. Putin referred to a proposal he’d made, to use an existing mutual-legal-assistance treaty that would allow American law-enforcement officials to be present for interviews with the Russian intelligence officers who had been charged with election interference. At a post-summit press conference, Putin elaborated: he would make the indicted officers available if Trump allowed Russian law-enforcement officers to be present during the questioning of American officials in cases of interest to Putin.
Hill was again struck by Putin’s craftiness and gall. “My head was full of expletives,” she said. “Putin was setting us all up.” He knew that the U.S. would never allow the Russians to question American officials. “It was a distraction. He’s shouting, ‘Fire! Look over there!,’ deflecting from what Russia had done in 2016.” At the press conference, Trump made it clear that he believed Putin’s denials of election meddling, and called his proposal “an incredible offer.” Hill recalled, “I just sat there and thought, Maybe I should just fall over backwards onto the media behind me and fake a medical emergency just to stop this agony.”
State Department officials immediately rejected the proposal, but, on July 17th, Russia’s prosecutor general’s office announced that it was seeking to interview eleven U.S. intelligence officers, businessmen, and diplomats, including Michael McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia. McFaul, an outspoken critic of Trump, had recently published a memoir, “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.” Apparently seeking reassurance that he wasn’t in jeopardy, he asked to talk to Hill, and she agreed to see him. He told the Washington Post about the planned meeting, and one of Bolton’s deputies at the N.S.C. accused her of disloyalty.
Critics of Trump’s behavior at Helsinki were unhappy with Hill, too. Some members of the Obama Administration thought that she had become little more than a “beard” for the President. One of them told a member of Hill’s team that she thought that Hill and her staff had become “collaborators” and “would end up going to jail for aiding and abetting a criminal.” Hill told me, “Everybody thought that there was this deep, satisfying conspiracy in Helsinki.” The press conference had been embarrassing, but she didn’t think she needed to resign over it. “There were no secret deals. This is not ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ If there was something that I felt was really egregious, I would have quit.”
Bolton and Hill developed a close working relationship. He respected her opinions and trusted her to carry out his instructions. But he never included her or her colleagues in meetings with Trump, and Hill generally attended Oval Office meetings on Russia only when Jon Huntsman, the U.S. Ambassador, was visiting. In those sessions, Trump had little interest in hearing the Ambassador’s thoughts about Putin, preferring to talk about Huntsman’s daughter, Abby, who was then the co-host of “Fox & Friends Weekend.” “Let’s call Abby!” Trump said on one occasion. “Get her on the phone!”
Difficult conversations with Putin were left to the President’s advisers, including Bolton and Hill. This was less than ideal, since Putin understood that they did not necessarily have the backing of the President. As the 2018 midterm elections approached, Hill accompanied Bolton to a meeting in Moscow at which Bolton warned Putin that meddling would not be tolerated. Putin, according to someone at the meeting, responded, “We understand that there are all sorts of people who interfere in elections, such as George Soros.” As Putin said the name Soros, he looked at Hill. She recalled, “I just returned the gaze, and I may have slightly raised an eyebrow to make it a hard stare back.” It was Hill’s fifty-third birthday, and on the flight home Bolton and other officials gathered for a toast and laughed about the Soros moment.
On September 5th, the Times published an Op-Ed by an anonymous senior official who claimed to be a member of a group “working diligently from within” Trump’s Administration “to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” Hill told me that several U.S. ambassadors warned her that Rick Grenell, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, who was a Trump favorite, was “gunning for her” and spreading a rumor that she was the Op-Ed’s author. The former national-security official told me, “Fiona was one of the top people on Grenell’s hit list.” On one phone call, Hill said, Grenell told her that she was “not part of the team.” (Grenell disputes this version of events.) In fact, Hill told me, she had been angered by the Op-Ed, which exacerbated distrust within the government. “I thought it was meant to make the author feel better to themselves about what they were doing,” she said. Hill believed that her role was to insure that decisions by policymakers were evaluated through the appropriate channels. She promised herself that if she ever learned of something improper or illegal she would alert Bolton and the Administration’s lawyers. “I would never have done anything anonymously,” she said.
Hill sometimes suggested to me that her time in the White House might have gone differently had she understood that her real challenge was in dealing not with Putin but with the Americans who sought to influence Trump. “There’s the irony,” she said. “I know the intrigue in Russia better than the intrigue at home.” In early 2019, she learned that the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, who was worried that Volodymyr Ze lensky was surging in the polls, was passing messages to American officials, asking what it would take to get Trump’s support in the Ukrainian election. U.S. officials told Poroshenko that the Administration would not get involved. Hill had no idea that Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was conducting his own private diplomatic schemes on behalf of the President.
Hill had planned to return to Brookings by April, 2019, but, at Bolton’s request, she agreed to stay through mid-July, when Tim Morrison, who oversaw arms control at the N.S.C., would succeed her. In April, Hill met with Ukrainian energy officials, including Andriy Kobolyev, the C.E.O. of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s national gas-and-oil company, and his deputy, Andrew Favorov, to discuss a plan to buy from the U.S. large quantities of liquefied natural gas to tide the country over in the event that Russia cut off its supply. The Ukrainian delegation did not mention that they were about to meet with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Ukrainian-American business associates of Giuliani, and Tommy Hicks, a wealthy private investor and a close friend of Donald Trump, Jr. Favorov told me that Hill “just knew her shit.” By contrast, the meeting with Giuliani’s associates, which took place at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, was “dark and shady, like we were in some movie about corruption in D.C.”
In April, Zelensky won the election in a landslide. Hill heard that Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, had been asked to return to Washington. On May 1st, she met Yovanovitch at Greenberry’s Coffee, near the State Department. Yovanovitch, one of the most respected and experienced ambassadors in the department, was clearly “rattled.” She told Hill that she didn’t know why she had been recalled. Hill, increasingly aware that she herself was being sidelined, soon discovered that Gordon Sondland, an ambitious hotel magnate who, in 2018, became the U.S. Ambassador to the E.U., had begun to insert himself into discussions about Ukraine, even though it isn’t part of the bloc. Later that month, when the White House compiled a guest list of U.S. officials who would attend Zelensky’s inauguration, in Kyiv, Sondland successfully lobbied to have his name added, according to officials. (Sondland denies having lobbied for the invitation.) Alexander Vindman, the Ukraine specialist in Hill’s directorate, attended on behalf of the N.S.C. According to a former Obama Administration official, Hill saw “that she was being swindled, managed, handled, and ignored. She thought she was at the center of the Ukraine policy and realized that she wasn’t.”
On May 22nd, two days after the inauguration, Hill met with Amos Hochstein, a former Obama Administration official who was working closely with Kobolyev. Hochstein told Hill that he had recently met with Zelensky and other officials in Kyiv. Giuliani, he said, was pressuring the Ukrainians to launch an investigation into Joe Biden. Giuliani and his business associates were pushing a spurious narrative about Biden, claiming that he had engineered the firing of Ukraine’s prosecutor general to protect his son Hunter, who was on the board of the gas company Burisma. It was Giuliani, Hill later learned, who had orchestrated Yovanovitch’s dismissal. “Amos knew so much more than I did,” Hill recalled. “He kept talking—‘Burisma, Burisma.’ I was, like, ‘What? Burisma?’ He was, like, ‘The Hunter thing.’ ”
Later that month, Hill discovered that she had been excluded from another set of communications, about Viktor Orbán’s long-hoped-for meeting with Trump. Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, had known Orbán for several years, and had advocated for the two to meet. A former U.S. diplomat said that, in the meeting, Orbán had reinforced Trump’s negative views about Ukraine. Trump told reporters, “Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe.”
On July 10th, two of Zelensky’s top advisers were in Washington, trying to schedule a meeting with Trump. Bolton did not want to commit, but Sondland, who was still injecting himself into conversations about Ukraine, told Bolton that Mulvaney had already arranged it. Bolton asked Hill to attend a discussion between Sondland and the Ukrainian delegation. Hill told Bolton that she learned, in the discussion, that Sondland and Mulvaney had made Zelensky’s visit to the White House contingent upon Ukraine’s agreement to pursue investigations. She later informed the N.S.C.’s legal adviser that Sondland and Mulvaney had bypassed the N.S.C. (Under oath, Sondland said that he had no recollection of such an agreement. Mulvaney has denied pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.) When Hill learned that the group was considering a phone call between Trump and Zelensky, she cautioned Bolton and his deputies against it.
As planned, Hill ended her tenure at the White House on July 15th. Two days later, in her farewell toast, she referred to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy; her “band of brothers” at the N.S.C. was now passing “the ring” to the next group. Shortly before leaving, she encountered Sondland, who told her that he was coördinating with Trump and Mulvaney, and gave her a friendly farewell hug. “Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up,” she recalls saying. (Sondland denies that this conversation took place.)
Hill, who remained on the payroll through August, continued to receive unclassified e-mails, including ones about the Trump-Zelensky phone call, which took place on July 25th. As she put it, “I had gleaned from a couple of these exchanges that maybe the call hadn’t been great.” In September, she visited her mother in Bishop Auckland, and so did not learn the details of the phone call until September 24th, when the White House released a summary of the call. It revealed that Zelensky had asked Trump for “more Javelins” and that Trump had asked Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden. Later that day, Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives would launch a formal impeachment inquiry.
The House Intelligence Committee, led by Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, drew up a list of witnesses that included Bolton, Hill, Mulvaney, Sondland, Yovanovitch, and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine. Volker, the first witness, appeared voluntarily before the committee less than a week after resigning. The White House had told Bolton that he could not testify, and the Democrats on the committee, aware that a court fight over a subpoena would drag on for months, dropped efforts to compel him to appear. Hill insisted on being subpoenaed, and delivered her private deposition on October 14th. Before her closed-door appearance, she again began receiving death threats. An F.B.I. officer who had worked with her recommended that she tape shut her mail slot and put security cameras around her house. Still, Hill welcomed the chance to testify. “I was given my opportunity for a clarifying moment,” she said.
The dynamics during Hill’s private deposition, she said, reminded her of high school. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, showed up uninvited at the hearing as a kind of protest against the impeachment inquiry, and engaged in “some absurd staring contest” with her. She was disturbed that her Republican questioners insisted on repeating the false theory that Ukraine had interfered in the election. She also sensed that they were trying to link her to Christopher Steele and his dossier. Hill told them that the dossier was a “rabbit hole”—which upset Steele, who had considered Hill a friend. Derek Harvey, who had been made an adviser to the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Republican, Devin Nunes, passed notes to the Republican questioner Stephen Castor, whom Hill heard laughing while she described the lies that had been spread about her. (When Castor was called out during the deposition, he insisted that he had not laughed.) During a break, Harvey told Hill that he’d heard that the “trolls” were coming after her again.
Hill’s public testimony took place on November 21st. Congressional hearings are typically dry affairs, followed mostly by lobbyists, political junkies, and retirees addicted to C-SPAN. But, when Washington is in the throes of a political scandal, a hearing can be riveting. In 1973, John Dean, Richard Nixon’s former White House counsel, testified for five days before the Watergate committee. He surmised that he had been recorded in the Oval Office, a statement that led to revelations that Nixon had secret tapes of his meetings. In June, 2017, James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump had asked him “what we could do to ‘lift the cloud’ ” of the Russia investigation. Trump had implied on Twitter that he had tapes of at least one of his encounters with Comey, prompting Comey to say, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
Hill, conveying a clear sense of the absurdity of the events she had witnessed, gave a brief opening statement, in which she pledged her loyalty to a country that had afforded her opportunities that would not have been available to her in the U.K., given her background and accent. Sondland had testified the previous day that he, Volker, and Rick Perry, the former Energy Secretary, had not wanted to deal with Giuliani but were “playing the hand we were dealt.” Hill described Sondland and his associates as having been involved in a “domestic political errand.”
Kelly, who had left the Administration at the end of 2018, and McMaster, who had taken a position at Stanford, had said little publicly about Trump, and they told Hill they admired her fortitude. Bolton, who was fired in September, 2019, had decided to save his revelations for a memoir. After Hill’s testimony, he asked Sarah Tinsley, a longtime aide, to relay a personal message: “You did the right thing.” On March 1st, Hill received an e-mail from James Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense: “I’ve wanted to drop you a note paying my respects but hesitated in the immediate aftermath of your testimony to ask around for your email address. Had word leaked out that I wanted to be in touch I imagined it could/would have been misconstrued and add to the challenges you were dealing with.” He went on, “I doubt that I’ve ever felt the combination of pride, anger and contempt as I watched you testify and what followed. I was enormously proud of your demonstrated courage and poise as you stood tall; angry at those who chose to try to defame you (they failed); and contemptuous of what we witnessed in those weeks by supposed political leaders whose hear no evil, see no evil stance revealed profiles in non-courage.”
In the end, Hill said, the impeachment “came down to political mud wrestling.” The Republican-controlled Senate called no new witnesses, and only one Senate Republican, Mitt Romney, voted to convict Trump on the charge of abuse of power. On February 5th, the day of Trump’s acquittal, the U.S. had a dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19. By June, the death toll in the U.S., the highest in the world, and the response to the pandemic had deepened doubts, at home and abroad, about the government’s competence. On June 3rd, Mattis, who until then had been publicly silent about Trump, criticized the Administration’s heavy-handed response to the protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, denouncing Trump for dividing the nation and violating the constitutional rights of American citizens. For Hill, the government’s handling of these crises provides the Russians with yet another propaganda windfall. “If we can’t heal our own divisions, then we’re going to be exploited from here to eternity, and our allies will be turning away in horror,” she told me. “We’re an object of pity.”
In May, Hill delivered the commencement address to the class of 2020 at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She had been invited by Eliot Cohen, who had warned that serving in the Administration would lead to “moral self-destruction.” Hill had been in lockdown with her husband and daughter for more than two months, talking to colleagues from Brookings and delivering speeches on Zoom. She was considering writing a book about her life and the international rise of populism.
She prerecorded her remarks in an empty auditorium on the school’s campus in Washington. In full academic regalia, she sat in front of a blue Johns Hopkins backdrop. “Here, in 2020, everything seems to have come crashing down,” she said. Hill did not mention Trump or her time at the N.S.C., speaking allusively about “domestic and global crises compounded, blame cast, rumors spread.” Near the end of her speech, she quoted from one of her father’s favorite songs, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose, “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” “The song ends with lines that somehow capture our moment in time,” she said, quoting them: “It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me.” She got a thumbs-up from one of the camera operators, then took off her robes, put her face mask on, and drove home. When I texted her to ask how it had gone, she responded, “A bit wooden sitting on the stage, but I did my best.” ♦