Fiona Hill, a nobody to Trump and Putin, saw into them both

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Vladimir Putin paid scant attention to Fiona Hill, a preeminent U.S. expert on Russia, when she was seated next to him at dinners. Putin’s people placed her there by design, choosing a “nondescript woman,” as she put it, so the Russian president would have no competition for attention.

Fluent in Russian, she often carefully took in the conversations of men who seemed to forget she was there and wrote it all down later, she recalled in an Associated Press interview. “Hey, if I was a guy, you wouldn’t be talking like this in front of me,” she remembered thinking. “But go ahead. I’m listening.”

Hill expected not to be similarly invisible when she later went to work for another world leader, Donald Trump, as his Russia adviser in the White House. She could see inside Putin’s head, had co-written an acclaimed book about him, but Trump did not want her counsel, either. He ignored her in meeting after meeting, once mistaking her for a secretary and calling her “darlin.”

Again, though, she was listening. She was reading Trump like she had read Putin.

The result is “There Is Nothing for You Here,” her book out last week. Unlike other tell-all authors from the Trump administration, she isn’t obsessed with the scandalous. Much like her measured but riveting testimony in Trump’s first impeachment, the book offers a more sober, and thus perhaps more alarming, portrait of the 45th president.

If Hill’s tone is restrained, it is damning by a thousand cuts. It lays out how a career devoted to understanding and managing the Russian threat crashed into her revelation that the greatest threat to America comes from within.

In fly-on-the-wall detail, she describes a president with a voracious appetite for praise and little to no taste for governing — a man so consumed with what others said about him that U.S. relations with other countries rose or fell according to how flattering foreign leaders were in their remarks.

“From his staff and everyone who came into his orbit, Trump demanded constant attention and adulation,” she writes. Particularly in international affairs, ”The president’s vanity and fragile self-esteem were a point of acute vulnerability.”

Hill describes Putin manipulating Trump by offering or withholding compliments, a maneuver she said was more effective with this president than getting dirt and blackmailing him would have been. At their joint news conference in Finland, when Trump appeared to side with Putin over his own intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Hill almost lost it.

“I wanted to end the whole thing,” she writes. “I contemplated throwing a fit or faking a seizure and hurling myself backward into the row of journalists behind me. But it would only have added to the humiliating spectacle.”

Yet in Trump she saw a rare if ultimately wasted talent. He spoke the language of many average people, disdained the same things, operated without a filter, liked the same food and gleefully shredded the tiresome norms of the elite. While Hillary Clinton sipped champagne with donors, Trump was out there pitching coal and steel jobs — at least that was the impression.

“He clearly had a feel for what people wanted,” she told AP. “He could talk the talk even if he couldn’t walk the walk in having their experiences. But he understood it.”

Yet that skill was squandered, in her view. Where it could have been used to mobilize people for good, it was instead used only in service of himself — “Me the People” as a chapter title puts it.

Trump’s vanity also doomed his Helsinki meeting with Putin and any chances for a coveted arms control deal with Russia. The questions at the news conference “got right to the heart of his insecurities,” Hill writes. If Trump had agreed that Russia had interfered in the election on his behalf, in his mind he might as well have said “I am illegitimate.”

It was clear to Putin that the resulting backlash would undermine even the vague commitments he and Trump had made. “On his way out the door from the conference,” Hill writes, “he told his press secretary, within earshot of our interpreter, that the press conference was ‘bullshit.’”

Trump admired Putin for his wealth, power and fame, seeing him, in Hill’s words, as the “ultimate badass.” During the course of his presidency, Trump would come to resemble the autocratic and populist Russian leader more than he resembled any recent American presidents, she writes, and “Sometimes even I was startled by how glaringly obvious the similarities were.”

Putin’s ability to manipulate the Russian political system to potentially stay in power indefinitely also made an impression. “Trump sees that and says what’s there not to like about that kind of situation?” Hill told AP.

Trump was impeached by the House in late 2019 for trying to use his leverage over Ukraine to undermine Joe Biden, his eventual Democratic rival, among the first of his efforts to stay in office by unconventional means, stretching to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol by a mob he had told to “fight like hell.”

Hill had served as the national intelligence officer for Russia from early 2006 until late 2009 and was highly respected in Washington circles, but it was only during the impeachment hearings that she was introduced to the nation. She became one of the most damaging witnesses against the president she had served, undercutting his defense by testifying that he had sent his envoys to Ukraine on a “domestic political errand” that had nothing to do with national security policy.

She began her testimony by describing her improbable journey as the daughter of a coal miner from an impoverished town in northeast England to the White House. She also explained her desire to serve a country that “has offered me opportunities I never would have had in England.”

Much of her new book expands on that personal journey, a story told with self-deprecating humor and kindness. Along the way, Hill the Brookings Institution scholar weaves in a study of the changing societies she witnessed over the decades as a child in Britain, a student and researcher in Russia and finally as a citizen of the United States.

The changes in all three countries are strikingly similar, due in part to the destruction of heavy industry. The result is what she calls a “crisis of opportunity” and the rise of populist leaders like Putin, Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson able to tap into the fears and grievances of those feeling left behind.

She said she went into the White House worried about what Russia was doing and “came out, having realized fully watching all of this, that actually the problem was the United States … and the Russians were just exploiting everything.”

Hill calls Russia a cautionary tale, “America’s Ghost of Christmas Future,” if the U.S. is unable to heal its political divisions.

Hailing from a more civil form of politics, President Joe Biden is trying to bring the country together and advance its reputation abroad, she said, but “he’s, in a way, a kind of man standing alone and people are not pulling behind him.”

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AP video journalist Nathan Ellgren contributed to this report.

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