Fiona Hill on Putin's Plans If Jan. 6 Had Succeeded | Emma Barnett Meets
So who's my guest this week? It's the former senior White House advisor, Fiona Hill. It was one of the most compelling appearances during the Trump impeachment hearings. Blunt, composed and incredibly distinctive with her strong Northern English accent. President Trump's top Russia expert was devastating in her assessment of policy and culture in Trump's White House. Her warning about Putin's danger to the West and how American ideals that were so appealing to her were under threat. Putin is always looking out to see if there is any hint that we will not follow through on promises that we have made, because he will always follow through on a threat.
Fiona Hill's journey from a poor English mining town to working for three presidents in Washington is documented in her book, There Is Nothing For You Here. Where she takes her story of social mobility and opportunity and argues that class and racial barriers are still holding too many back. Here's a bit of what's coming up. And imagine if Trump had actually succeeded on January 6th and the members of the January 6th committee in the US Congress are pretty convinced that we were very close to him succeeding, had not Vice President Pence basically refused to block the transfer of executive power.
I mean, we'd be in a totally different place. I mean, Vladimir Putin would've probably just driven right into Ukraine himself. Fiona, thank you so much for coming to talk to us. Thanks, Emma glad to be with you.
Really interested to hear what you have to say, especially because for a lot of people, they wouldn't have heard of you before that first impeachment inquiry in which you appeared, and I wonder for you, do you replay that moment? Do you think about it? And what do you think about? I actually don't. I mean, maybe that sounds a little bit strange, but it was kind of... It's one of those things where you're so focused in the moment, that when you come out again, it's almost like it didn't happen because it was such an intense period of concentration, a lot of effort leading up to it.
And then, you know, the kind of aftermath was sort of moving onto the next thing, because so much happened as a consequence of that that I hadn't anticipated that I find it very kind of hard looking back to it. I find it fascinating in your book, you talk out this being prepared for the room, that it was gonna be quite cold, and also how you looked as a woman. All these things had to be factored in when I'm sure you just wanted to give the information. Exactly. I mean, I didn't know I'd have to think about this.
I mean, literally one of the very first questions was we're gonna have to figure out what you're going to wear. I thought, what? And I said, well, does that happen to men? They said not so much. But the point is that as a woman, you know, people are already wondering who you are and they literally said to me, you don't want to be a distraction from the truth. And the reason I wanted to put this in the book is that most times when men write a book, nobody asks them about how it is to be a man. Nobody even kind of thinks about what it is that they were wearing or the particular setting.
And they just go there and they do their job. I mean, yes, if you're gonna appear on television, everybody now these days with high definition TV has to have some makeup on and their head done, because otherwise they look like they've died, kind of become just the whole bright lights effect. But for something as serious and consequential as a testimony, I thought the whole fact that there was focus on how I would look as part of my presenting myself so that people would listen to my answers and just for telling the truth, I mean, that really hit me and thought about, you know, what a difference it really is to be a woman in these kinds of settings. And what did you do? How did you make sure you were listened to in terms of how you looked and then how did you feel? Did you have to wear extra layers? Did you have to take the advice? I did and I had a really good PR person, a woman that I've mentioned in the book called Molly Levinson, who did this for a living and had been in the broadcast media as well as a producer, but who had worked with people in these kinds of settings for a long period of time.
And she literally went through my wardrobe. She said, you know, you have to look a particular look. She said that we'll be picked up by the Washington Post style section. Well, that look was, when we were picked up by the Washington Post style section, which I was pretty incredulous about at the beginning, they said we were reassuringly dull. So that was what she was looking for, because I was basically testifying with another person, David Holmes, from the US embassy in Kiev. Did he look reassuringly dull? Well, I thought he looked quite smart, actually.
But the whole view was, you know, reassuringly dull bureaucrat look. There was a Fiona Hill fan club that sort of sprung up online actually from across the spectrum in some ways as people heard what you had to say and stayed, a lot of people talking about how focused you stayed on the facts. And some of those almost we'll get to through your expertise, but did you feel it was a good use of your time or do you feel it was a waste of your time? Because ultimately it didn't work.
I had John Bolton on, the former National Security Advisor to Trump very recently and he didn't testify because he thought it would be a waste of time. It depends on what your perspective is about waste of time or good use of time. In the United States, there is still this concept of civics education where people fully understand how their government works and especially important in something like a representative democracy, liberal democracy where you as the regular person wants to feel that your public servants, your members of Congress, your members of Parliament are actually taking your interest into consideration and listening to you. And understanding that there are checks and balances on executive power, particularly on abuses of power, which this was clearly the case and this whole definition of crimes and misdemeanors and how does this process play out? It was an exercise in liberal democracy. It's the checks and the balance, the oversight of Congress.
But ultimately it didn't work. Yeah, but it showed people that the system was there, and that everybody got to hear the truth. And I think a lot of people came away from that realizing that it was wrong for basically Donald Trump to ask Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine for a personal favor. Now, the political outcome of this, the partisan political outcome of this was of course that there was no censure even of Trump. He didn't get any kind of penalty, just it wasn't even a wrap on the knuckles or the wrist from any perspective. And as Ambassador Bolton, John Bolton said, well, look, it seems to be a waste of time, if anybody was really expecting there to be some massive outcome for Trump himself, I think he'd actually also emboldened him to go onto the next thing that he got impeached twice for.
Were there any negative outcomes for you being out there and effectively going viral? Oh, there was a lot. I mean, there was all kinds of misogyny and sexism and threats and threats of bodily harm and kind of all kinds of-- How did they come to you? Mostly through the internet. So I just stopped engaging.
I mean, my sister who was constantly monitoring Twitter and Facebook and things would give me warnings and she would get in touch with the platforms to try to get people to take down some of the most outrageous things. I'd get phone calls, letters, emails. But actually, I have to say that it was a smaller percentage than what was really an overwhelming, I would say a positive response in terms of just thank you for telling the truth. And again, everybody can tell the truth.
So, I didn't think it was that extraordinary. And again, there was a lot of other people who did testify, my colleagues, I mean the people have got to know as well. I really took away from that that there was a kind of a great thirst for people just standing up there and telling things like they are.
Talking about what you know, and your expertise, of course, it's Russia and it's hugely in demand right now, and I wanted to talk about Ukraine from the perspective of all you have looked at and all you're looking at right now. Do you think the conflict, the war was inevitable? I don't actually. I mean, I think there's all kinds of junctures along the way in everything, where things can take a different path.
I think that what happened in terms of the decision making of Vladimir Putin is he thought, you know, there was a number of things going on. First of all, he thought the west had lost the plot, that we'd become very weak and distracted, that indeed all we're doing is engaging with partisan fights with each other, identity politics, you name it, but he saw over a long period of time, an inability for the west to stand up to it's own values and it's own principles, particularly when it came to pressure on other countries. So Ukraine was in the cross hairs. Going back to in fact the early 2000s and even back into the 1990s and we didn't really do anything.
So when Georgia was invaded back in 2008, each time we'd find an excuse to not really take very strong measures. I also think that two years of COVID had an impact. Like the rest of us, he was kind of sitting down, you know, hunkered down, excluding people from coming close to him, not wanting to get sick, but he also became more and more isolated. We could see from the people who used to get access to him. So he starts to be basically shrunk down in his terms of advice to a smaller and smaller group of people, and clearly he convinced himself that he could get away with this and that there would be no backlash either in Ukraine or anywhere else in the west. But do you think, I mean, for instance, you've mentioned a whole series of events leading up to this, but for instance, there are some now saying that the presidency of Trump and the attack on January the sixth on the capital was a moment, a particular moment.
Did you buy into that? From Putin's point of view? Exactly. I mean, look, the United States looked like it was finished. And imagine if Trump had actually succeeded on January sixth and the members of the January sixth committee in the US Congress are pretty convinced that we were very close to him succeeding had not Vice President Pence basically refused to block the transfer of executive power and had agreed in fact to just go ahead. Pushed ahead rather than agreed to it.
I mean, disagreed with what Trump was asking him to do and had basically certified the electoral votes. I mean, we'd be in a totally different place. I mean Vladimir Putin would've probably just driven right into Ukraine himself, because he then would've seen the United States as completely finished from a leadership perspective, because we would be no different from any other country in the world that had just had a coup. How concerned are you about nuclear conflict at this moment in time? Well, I'm very concerned about some one sided action on the part of Putin, and I think it's very important for all of us to put that into a context and not be intimidated by it because that's exactly what he wants to do.
Putin wants to take us all back to the 1980s and the euro missile crisis and war scares, or back to the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where everyone's thinking they've got to duck and cover again. Putin is a kind of a free agent maverick when it comes to this. He's sort of in a way revived the Soviet era instruments of nuclear missiles and biological and chemical weapons, he's already used chemical weapons with novichok and polonium, I mean, here in the United Kingdom, in assassination attempts, for example. During the Syrian war, after the Russians intervened, there was lots of chemical weapons attacks, lots of threats of all kinds of things going and just by rhetorically putting out there the prospect that he might use a nuclear weapon, talking about the chances that he might use a tactical battlefield nuclear weapon, he's trying to get us all scared so that we back off and then basically agree to surrender Ukraine or whatever else it is that he's demanding. But do you not believe it then? I suppose that's what-- I believe that he's thinking about doing it, but I think that what we need to do is to push back against that because we need to understand why he's doing it.
He's doing it because he feels on the back foot right now. He hasn't been able to press forward with the aims in the way that he wanted them politically and then militarily. And he's doing it because he figures we're gonna get scared. So how do you do this with him? I mean, you talk as if, right, we need to understand him.
You're giving some of the expertise that you've got, the intelligence as well that you will have heard about, but how do you negotiate with Putin? Well, what you have to do is get a full court press on him here, because Putin wants this all to be about just his discussions with Biden or just his discussions with kind of the west. Because again, Ukraine is one of the objects here and the other object is rolling back NATO and getting rid of the United States in European affairs. But what he's doing has global consequences and we need China, we need India, we need other countries to push back.
Japan and South Korea get it. And I mean, they've been very much supportive, but we need to get more than that. We need to be able to show the rest of the world that this has global consequences and this isn't just an east west spat, but it's just not possible to keep moving forward. Denying components to the Russian military for the war, not just giving more weapons to Ukraine, problems of accessing the funding, basically making... Heading him off at every pass, but diplomatically, if he's hearing it from not just the NATO countries, not just the west, not just the sort of usual suspects, but quietly from others saying, look, what you're doing here is having terrible consequences for us as well, famine in Africa, kind of really putting on edge security elsewhere in the world, that's when we might have a chance of pushing this in a different direction.
I mean, I suppose what you're talking about there is leadership and who's going to be doing that, and if they're doing that and you have worked for three presidents, but only known by one as Russia bitch? Were you actually known as that? Apparently. I mean, I didn't know that in real time, I learned that later from an American journalist who was doing some interviews for a piece afterwards. And this was how you-- I was not surprised . Were referred to by Donald Trump? Well, by some of the people around him.
He himself never said that. I don't think so. I think that gives a window though into the climate within which you were working, especially as an expert on Russia and as a woman. Yeah, very much so.
It's just that kind of casual misogyny, who does she think she is, that woman who works on Russia? It's kind of obvious. I mean, I wasn't the slightest bit surprised when I heard that. I mean, I was a bit surprised that I felt the particular person it was attributed to had even noticed who I was. So I thought, oh, well, I guess they did know who I was. I wonder because of what you're saying here, were you actually listened to by Donald Trump? I don't think he listened to anybody, but apart from people who we saw as peers. I mean, that's why we saw in weirdness in real time of him with Putin, talking about Putin being strong and powerful, and he was listening to Putin over his intelligence chiefs for example, at the summit in Helsinki and that dreadful press conferences.
We knew that he listened to people on Fox News and on other media outlets. Many of the people, including ambassador Bolton and others would try to get on the Sunday shows because they knew that he would be watching. They were more likely to have him listen to them if they were on the TV screen, than he would listen if he was in the oval office. And there's all that kind of bizarre creativity that had to go on to get his attention because if you went in and you sat down, you were just his staff. So he basically projected. But that sounds like it's men and women, or would you say it was worse for women? I think it was worse for women, but not all women.
I mean, there were some women that he respected and listened to like Kellyanne Conway and his daughter, Ivanka Trump. But once a person started working for him, no matter what they had been before, that status disappeared. I mean, he projected onto the government the same style I presume that he had in his private business when it was the Trump family enterprises and everyone was then the staff. So why would he listen to them? I mean, in that context, information and recommendations and direction trickled down from him, not up if you're in an eponymous family firm, it's your brand, your firm, you just tell other people, you know, what to do. In the case of the U.S. government they're supposed
to be much more, you know, advisors are supposed to be advisors, national security advisor knows their stuff, they're supposed to be able to have a say in this, they're coordinating all the way across the government. And as far as Trump was concerned, we were all some version of staff. If you were called Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense, you were just a glorified secretary. If you were a woman, you were pretty likely to be a regular secretary.
Did you take this in your stride? Did it get to you? I know you'd been on the women's march and then you accepted this job because you wanted to contribute and put something back and help. Yeah, I mean, I wasn't deluded in that sense. I mean, what I think really did get to me was just the dirty politics. Because again, I'm not a partisan person, I'm politically engaged, politically active, but I'm not political.
I've never been on a political campaign. And just this Game of Thrones, kind of people stabbing each other in the back, I mean, yeah, it happens in every political system, but there's just the dirty corruption behind the scenes as well. I did really genuinely think that people would understand on the national security front that you needed to check all of that. When it came to certain issues, really critical issues where American lives were at stake or the whole stability of the globe, let's put it that way, people would check themselves. I was shocked to find they didn't and that's what got to me.
Well, you also said that being groped in the seventies and eighties, working in a golf club, had been preparation, good preparation for working-- Yeah, I would've preferred not to have that, and actually, let's just be very clear, nobody did that to me in the White House, but you know, just-- No, but the point being, as a context is an extraordinary piece of help almost that you cited when working in this particular-- Yeah, I mean, that was kind of the weird thing of, you know, growing up as a girl in 1970s, 1980s Britain, you know, kind of dominated by Benny Hill and raunchy postcards at the seaside and just all the things that kind of come with that. Nobody even thinks about it, just think it's very funny. But if you're a young girl, it's actually not very funny, but you just learn to have to laugh about it.
This is so pre MeToo that it seems like another world and yet we still get all of that misogyny and sexism. There was a dress code inside of the White House. Was kind of very much Fox News, if anyone's seen the film Bombshell. I mean, I thought that was actually, would've been good preparation for watching before I kind of went in there.
And I was always aware that I had to change the way I dress somewhat, just so I blend in so that nobody would pay too much attention and one of the funniest episodes came when he thought I was a secretary and I was told by a senior colleague, you know, look, just don't worry about that, he'll forget who you are, you didn't imprint, but if you wear the same dress, he'll remember you. Just make sure that every time you go in, wear a different dress. So, I had to actually get quite a wardrobe of different dresses.
It's a theme we seem to be returning to. Yeah. It's basically like some kind of camouflage. It's like I'll wear my jungle camouflage today or my forest camouflage or my snow camouflage. It's just so that I could just get in there, try to do my job and get out again. And I'm presuming this was different to working under Obama? Yeah.
I mean, nobody ever kind of went... But that was the sort of theme then when I get to the impeachment as well, nobody there gave me a dress code. Actually, I looked back in some of the pictures there, I thought, what the heck was I wearing? But anyway.
I find it actually quite funny because it was almost like being in some endless school play where you've got the various costumes, and I guess I was just trying to be a tree. Kind of when I got into the Oval Office, just so that nothing untoward would happen. I'm now imagining you in-- Yeah, I know, exactly, the tree thing. You know, the kid in the tree, hey mum, hey dad, I'm a tree. Well, I shouldn't say in the corner, in the oval.
Yeah, exactly. Potted plant, potted plant. I've not been in there myself, but-- There are no trees in the oval.
They're usually outside in the rose garden. But the whole point of all that was, you know, get in there without any incident, but really focus on engaging with the other counterparts. I never got treated like that by the national security team or the national security advisor.
It was just this weird coterie around... And it was weird. It was like being in Alice In Wonderland as well, and there were so many analogies. I do feel that, you know, strange things in my childhood, like reading Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass and other things prepared me better than all of the years of fancy educations and degrees. Although it was very important to obviously know Russia and know your stuff, but for those moments, that wasn't the best preparation.
And it isn't a partisan point from your point of view, this was the administration, you would've worked for any administration, your point is you wanted to bring your expertise, but this was how you found this particular administration. Yeah. And you mentioned that education, it's a key part of what you've written about your journey from the coal house, as you put it to the White House.
And worryingly, in your journey, which you... There are lots of bits of luck as well. The particular time you were born, the education that was then available. You really talk about the fact that you don't think it's getting better.
In fact it's getting worse, that social mobility, not just in the UK, you've looked at it through the prism of the US as well, is worse. It is. It's got much worse over time, exactly right. The kind of opportunities that I had, including in the UK for basically having my education, going to university paid for, I mean those have all shrunk. There's just a lot less funding up there.
I mean, there's been expansion of places, but a lot less funding for people. And just that threat of enormous debt is really too much for people. Thinking and contemplating that, in the United States, what you think of as the land of opportunity, anyone can make it, there's only a five percent chance now. Very different from what it was in the late 1980s to do what I've done in terms of going from the bottom one percent to the top one percent kind of thing. And everybody should have an opportunity to be able to move forward in life.
It doesn't have to be in elite education, but to get the kind of job that they want, to get the qualifications that they need as well, we need to really think about that. I mean, there's been a lot of movement forward on socioeconomic background, on race and on gender, class to some degree here in the UK and in the United States, class gets subsumed by race in many contexts. But in terms of regional differentiation, that's not the case. I mean I still see a huge divide in the United Kingdom between north and south, I've just been up north to see my mother and family and friends, and it just seems like London is a total world apart and it's the same for people in different boroughs in London.
The city couldn't be more different from Tower Hamlets and things like this, for example. And in the United States, it's very similar as well. People from, what we now call the rust belt, we used to be the old industrial heartland of the United States, feel that they might as well live on another planet, as have these affiliations and affinities with Washington DC.
That's why January sixth happened. That's why people stormed the Capitol. The Capitol, the White House is the people's house, you know supposed to be the people's house, but the Capitol is supposed to be their symbol of representative democracy, and yet people saw it as a citadel, a kind of a forbidden fortress that wasn't representing them anymore, and just this kind of, this upsurge and this insurgency. I watched that, I thought, oh my God, look where we've got to here. That's the kind of epitome of these kinds of problems when people feel that they're excluded in some way, and that sense of representation is broken down. And you talk in some detail about some of the things you think need to change at the heart of education, but also what others can do when they do have positions of power and influence.
I've got to ask, what does your mum make of your journey? Well, I think she's a bit bemused by it, but she's pretty pleased at the same time. But it's funny. Like she took it all in her stride and I talk in the book about when I was out looking for that suit that I wore at the impeachment. My mum's just, you know, sees a sales rack and sees this suit, and she says, Fiona come over here, look, there's a suit for sale. Do you need it for that impeachment thingy? She didn't even kind of fully connect about what it was and she just thought it was a great thing that I went there and told the truth and did my job.
She wasn't passing the big historical implications of that. My mum's a very practical person, former midwife. If a baby needed delivering in some difficult circumstances, off she would go and just do it without thinking about all the larger context. She'd just get on with it.
Well, you seem to have adopted a similar style. Thank you very much for talking to me and to all of us today. Oh, thanks so much for having me, Emma, thank you. And thank you to you for being with us.
Until we meet again, take care and goodbye.