WASHINGTON (AP) – Vladimir Putin paid little attention to Fiona Hill, a prominent American expert on Russia, when she sat next to him at dinner parties. Putin’s people put her there on purpose, choosing an “indescribable woman,” as she put it, so that the Russian president has no competition for attention.
Fluent in Russian, she often listened carefully to conversations of men who seemed to forget she was there and wrote everything down later, she recalls in an interview with The Associated Press. “Hey, if I were a guy you wouldn’t talk like that in front of me,” she recalls thinking. “But go ahead. I listen.”
Hill also expected not to be invisible when she next went to work for another world leader, Donald Trump, as an adviser to Russia in the White House. She could see inside Putin’s head, an acclaimed book about him had co-authored, but Trump didn’t want his advice either. He ignored her meeting after meeting, mistaking her once for a secretary and calling her “honey.”
Once again, however, she was listening. She read Trump as she read Putin.
The result is “There is nothing for you here,” her book released last week. Unlike other revealing authors in the Trump administration, she is not obsessed with the scandalous. Much like his measured but compelling testimony to Trump’s first impeachment, the book offers a more sober, and therefore perhaps more alarming, portrait of the 45th President.
If Hill’s tone is restrained, it is overwhelming with a thousand cuts. He explains how a career devoted to understanding and managing the Russian threat crashed into his revelation that America’s greatest threat comes from within.
In great detail, she describes a president with a voracious appetite for praise and little or no taste for government – a man so engrossed in what others have said about him that America’s relations with others countries went up or down depending on how flattering foreign leaders were in their remarks.
“On behalf of his staff and all who have entered his orbit, Trump has demanded constant attention and adulation,” she writes. Particularly in international affairs, “the President’s vanity and fragile self-esteem was a point of acute vulnerability.
Hill describes Putin manipulating Trump by offering or refusing compliments, a maneuver she said was more effective with this president than smearing him and blackmailing him. At their joint press conference in Finland, when Trump appeared to side with Putin on his own intelligence agencies over Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election, Hill nearly lost his mind.
“I wanted to end it all,” she writes. “I considered having a fit or pretending to have a fit and throw myself back into the row of reporters behind me. But that would only have added to the humiliating spectacle.
Yet in Trump, she saw a rare but ultimately wasted talent. He spoke the language of many average people, scorned the same things, operated without a filter, loved the same food, and happily shredded the boring standards of the elite. As Hillary Clinton sipped champagne with the donors, Trump was there to offer jobs in coal and steel – at least that was the impression.
“He clearly had an idea of what people wanted,” she told AP. “He could talk even though he couldn’t walk having their experiences. But he understood it.
Yet that skill was wasted, in his opinion. Where it could have been used to mobilize people for good, it was only used in the service of itself – “I the people” as the title of a chapter says.
Trump’s vanity also condemned his Helsinki meeting with Putin and any chance of securing a coveted arms control deal with Russia. The questions posed at the press conference “went straight to the heart of his insecurities,” Hill writes. If Trump had agreed that Russia 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 even undermine the vague commitments he and Trump had made. “Coming out of the conference,” wrote Hill, “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, viewing him, in Hill’s words, as the “ultimate badass.” During his presidency, Trump came to resemble the autocratic and populist Russian leader more than he resembled any recent American president, she writes, and “Sometimes even I was surprised at how much the similarities were blatant “.
Putin’s ability to manipulate the Russian political system to potentially stay in power indefinitely also made a strong impression. “Trump sees that and says what’s not to like about this kind of situation?” Hill told AP.
Trump was impeached by the House at the end of 2019 for attempting to use his influence over Ukraine to undermine Joe Biden, his potential Democratic rival, among the first of his efforts to stay in power through unconventional means, going so far as to the January 6 uprising on the Capitol by a crowd he had told to “fight like a devil”.
Hill had served as a national intelligence officer for Russia from early 2006 to late 2009 and was highly respected in Washington circles, but it was not until impeachment hearings that she was presented to the nation. She became one of the most damaging witnesses against the president she had served, undermining her defense by testifying that he had sent his envoys to Ukraine on an “internal political mission” that had nothing to do with religion. national security policy.
She began her testimony by describing her unlikely journey as the daughter of a coal miner from a poor town in northeast England to the White House. She also explained her desire to serve a country which “gave me opportunities that I never would have had in England”.
Much of his new book expands on this personal journey, a story told with self-deprecating humor and kindness. Along the way, the Hill the Brookings Institution researcher delves into the changing societies she witnessed over the decades as a child in Britain, a student and researcher in Russia, and finally a citizen of the United States. .
The changes in all three countries are surprisingly similar, in part due 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 who feel left behind. for account.
She said she walked into the White House worried about what Russia was doing and “came out, after realizing looking at it all, that in reality the problem was the United States… and the Russians were just exploiting. “.
Hill calls Russia an uplifting tale, “the phantom of America’s Christmas future,” if the United States is unable to heal its political divisions.
Coming from a more civilian form of politics, President Joe Biden is trying to bring the country together and advance his reputation abroad, she said, but “he’s, in a way, a kind of a lonely man and people do not follow him. “
AP video reporter Nathan Ellgren contributed to this report.