by Fiona Hill (Mariner Books, 432 pp., $25)
In a world oversaturated with discussion of Donald Trump is there anything new to be learned about the man and his reign? A memoir by Fiona Hill offers an opportunity to answer the question, along with much else.
Hill was the Russia expert from the National Security Council (NSC) who gave riveting testimony in hearings at Trump’s first impeachment, providing an account, in her distinctive northeastern English accent, of Trump’s Ukrainian imbroglio and how Republicans were amplifying “false narratives” about the scandal to the benefit of the Kremlin. Trained as a historian at Harvard and St. Andrews, she brings an analytical mind to the task of describing what she saw and learned in the White House. She also brings a unique hardscrabble background that has been one of the keys to her extraordinary professional success.
Hill was born in Bishop Auckland in County Durham, an impoverished quadrant of deindustrialized Great Britain. Her mother was a nurse, her father a coal miner—often unemployed—and then a hospital porter. Coming from this rural lower-middle class background, Hill tells the improbable story of her rise from a “blighted world” to American citizenship, a first-class education, service as National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, a succession of positions at Brookings, the Eurasia Foundation, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and finally a coveted spot on the National Security Council.
There is Nothing for You Here—words originally spoken to Hill by her father—is the title of her memoir. The subtitle is the wonkish sounding Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century. As both title and subtitle suggest, a good many pages of Hill’s book are not devoted to Trump at all, but to an analysis of something else: the social and economic forces that propelled us into our populist phase. As a student of the former Soviet Union and a biographer of Vladimir Putin, Hill has had a closeup view of how a fledgling democracy got shipwrecked. “I have seen firsthand,” she writes, “just how vulnerable America is to the political afflictions that have befallen Russia.”
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher set loose free market forces in the United States and Britain that, according to Hill’s analysis, whatever their contribution to economic growth, also caused the kind of long-term social dislocation for which, in Trumpism, we are now paying the price. Similarly, the shock therapy applied to Russia’s formerly command economy in the 1990s caused social upheaval on a massive scale. It is in that upheaval that Putinism, the thirst for a strongman who can set things right, has its roots.
If Hill’s extended analysis feels out of place in a memoir, she nevertheless quite engagingly tells the story of her rise from obscurity. All sorts of amusing ironies abound, including Hill’s initial posting in the Trump administration. On one fine day in January 2017, she was a participant in the Women’s March, protesting the presidency of a man who had disparaged women during the campaign. The very next day, she was in General Keith Kellogg’s office and formally offered a high-ranking White House job. As best one can tell, this pirouette was not careerism on Hill’s part, but a genuine desire to serve the public weal. And the NSC, first under H.R. McMaster and then John Bolton, was indeed a professional operation in which an experienced Russia hand like Hill could make a contribution—or at least so she thought.
The White House itself turned out to be far from professional, with a low tone set from on high. A principal character flaw of the president perpetually got in the way: “Trump demanded constant attention and adulation,” Hill writes. This left him vulnerable. “He was a liability to himself and the country.” The problem was not merely that he was a “clear security or counterintelligence risk” subject to the manipulation of wily adversaries like the Russians. “Anyone at all, including the ‘average American,’ the Twitter follower ‘on the street,’ could influence him by deploying nothing more than basic flattery in public.”
But one person who could not manipulate Trump at all was Fiona Hill herself. In one Oval Office Meeting, he mistook her for a secretary and asked her to type up a memo. Her embarrassed deer-in-the-headlights response earned her the sobriquet, courtesy of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, of “Russia bitch.” Things did not improve from there. With good humor and a justified touch of bitterness, Hill relates how she became a target of the numerous conspiracy theorists in and around Trump world. Getting featured on Alex Jones’s Infowars, Hill was “unmasked” as a George Soros mole. A torrent of abusive messages poured in.
Rather than listening to Hill, or indeed to others on his NSC staff, Trump preferred to get his information and guidance from his family, particularly Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. He also listened to peer interlocutors, particularly those he held in high regard, including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He also paid attention to personalities in or around FOX News. Not only were the familiar talking heads from Fox capturing Trump’s ear, but the White House itself was positively swarming with young female staffers who had worked in branches of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire: They had the look. “Ivanka Trump and FOX News set the dress code for women … It was high and intimidating glamour.” The White House was a fashion world in which Fiona Hill neither wanted to nor could compete.
Of course, none of the color Hill provides comes as a revelation. Indeed, the recollections of this firsthand witness and participant prove that at this juncture nothing genuinely new can be said about Donald Trump. But her thoughtful and well-written memoir should hardly be dismissed on that account. She was one of the handful of insiders who was neither morally compromised nor intellectually stunted; with her intelligent analysis and sharp eye for detail, historians will turn to her work as a reliable account of Trump’s foreign policy decision-making process, or lack thereof.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
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