‘This Was Trump Pulling a Putin’
"Amid the current crisis, Fiona Hill and other former advisers are connecting President Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to Jan. 6. And they’re ready to talk.
Fiona HillTrent Davis Bailey for The New York Times
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Fiona Hill vividly recalls the first time she stepped into the Oval Office to discuss the thorny subject of Ukraine with the president. It was February of 2008, the last year of George W. Bush’s administration. Hill, then the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia for the National Intelligence Council, was summoned for a strategy session on the upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania. Among the matters up for discussion was the possibility of Ukraine and another former Soviet state, Georgia, beginning the process of obtaining NATO membership.
In the Oval Office, Hill recalls, describing a scene that has not been previously reported, she told Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that offering a membership path to Ukraine and Georgia could be problematic. While Bush’s appetite for promoting the spread of democracy had not been dampened by the Iraq war, President Vladimir Putin of Russia viewed NATO with suspicion and was vehemently opposed to neighboring countries joining its ranks. He would regard it as a provocation, which was one reason the United States’ key NATO allies opposed the idea. Cheney took umbrage at Hill’s assessment. “So, you’re telling me you’re opposed to freedom and democracy,” she says he snapped. According to Hill, he abruptly gathered his materials and walked out of the Oval Office.
“He’s just yanking your chain,” she remembers Bush telling her. “Go on with what you were saying.” But the president seemed confident that he could win over the other NATO leaders, saying, “I like it when diplomacy is tough.” Ignoring the advice of Hill and the U.S. intelligence community, Bush announced in Bucharest that “NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan.” Hill’s prediction came true: Several other leaders at the summit objected to Bush’s recommendation. NATO ultimately issued a compromise declaration that would prove unsatisfying to nearly everyone, stating that the two countries “will become members” without specifying how and when they would do so — and still in defiance of Putin’s wishes. (They still have not become members.)
“It was the worst of all possible worlds,” Hill said to me in her austere English accent as she recalled the episode over lunch this March. As one of the foremost experts on Putin and a current unofficial adviser to the Biden administration on the Russia-Ukraine war, Hill, 56, has already made a specialty of issuing warnings about the Russian leader that have gone unheeded by American presidents. As she feared, the carrot dangled by Bush to two countries — each of which gained independence in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and afterward espoused democratic ambitions — did not sit well with Putin. Four months after the 2008 NATO summit, Russian troops crossed the border and launched an attack on the South Ossetia region of Georgia. Though the war lasted only five days, a Russian military presence would continue in nearly 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. And after the West’s weak pushback against his aggression, Putin then set his sights on Ukraine — a sovereign nation that, Putin claimed to Bush at the Bucharest summit, “is not a country.”
Hill would stay on in the same role in the Obama administration for close to a year. Obama’s handling of Putin did not always strike her as judicious. When Chuck Todd of NBC asked Obama at a news conference in 2013 about his working relationship with Putin, Obama replied, “He’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” Hill told me that she “winced” when she heard his remark, and when Obama responded to Putin’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian region Crimea a year later by referring to Russia as “a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness,” she winced again. “We said openly, ‘Don’t dis the guy — he’s thin-skinned and quick to take insults,’” Hill said of this counsel to Obama about Putin. “He either didn’t understand the man or willfully ignored the advice.”
Hill was sharing these accounts at an Indian restaurant in Colorado, where she had selected some of the least spicy items on the menu, reminding me, “I’m still English,” though she is a naturalized U.S. citizen. The restaurant was a few blocks from the University of Denver campus, where Hill had just given a talk about Russia and Ukraine, one of several she would give that week.
Her descriptions of Russia’s president to her audience that morning — “living in his own bubble”; “a germaphobe”; “a shoot-the-messenger kind of person” — were both penetrating and eerily reminiscent of another domineering leader she came to know while serving as the National Security Council’s senior director of Russian and European affairs from April 2017 to July 2019. Though it stood to reason that a Putinologist of Fiona Hill’s renown would be much in demand after the invasion of Ukraine this February, it surprised me that her tenure in the Trump administration almost never came up in these discussions.
The Colorado events were part of a book tour that was scheduled long before the Russian attack. Her memoir, “There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century,” traces the journey of a literal coal miner’s daughter from working-class England to the White House. But it covers a period that can be understood as a prelude to the current conflict — Hill was present for the initial phase of Trump’s scheme to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who was elected in 2019, by withholding military aid in exchange for political favors. It is also an insider’s look at a chaotic, reckless and at times antidemocratic chief executive. (In response to queries for this article, Trump said of Hill: “She doesn’t know the first thing she’s talking about. If she didn’t have the accent she would be nothing.”)
Her assessment of the former president has new resonance in the current moment: “In the course of his presidency, indeed, Trump would come more to resemble Putin in political practice and predilection than he resembled any of his recent American presidential predecessors.”
Looking back on the Trump years, Hill has slowly come to recognize the unsettling significance in disparate incidents and episodes that she did not have the arm’s-length view to appreciate in the moment. During our lunch, we discussed what it was like for her and others to have worked for Trump after having done the same for George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Her meeting in the Bush White House in 2008, Hill told me, offered a sharp contrast to the briefings she sat in on during her tumultuous two years of service in the Trump administration. Unlike Trump, President Bush had read his briefing materials. His questions were respectful. She offered him an unpopular opinion and was not punished or frozen out for it. Even the vice president’s dyspeptic behavior that day did not unnerve her, she told me. “His emphasis was on the power of the executive branch,” she said. “It wasn’t on the unchecked power of one executive. And it was never to overturn the Constitution.”
Of her experience trying to steer policy during her two years in the Trump White House, Hill said: “It was extraordinarily difficult. Certainly, that was the case for those of us who were serving in the administration with the hopes of pushing back against the Russians, to make sure that their intervention in 2016 didn’t happen again. And along the way, some people kind of lost their sense of self.”
With a flash of a smile, she said: “We used to have this running shtick in our office at the N.S.C. As a kid, I was a great fan of Tolkien and ‘Lord of the Rings.’ So, in the Trump administration, we’d talk about the ring, and the fear of becoming Gollum” — the character deformed by his attachment to the powerful treasure — “obsessing over ‘my precious,’ the excitement and the power of being in the White House. And I did see a lot of people slipping into that.” When I asked Hill whom she saw as the Gollums in the Trump White House, she replied crisply: “The ones who wouldn’t testify in his impeachment hearing. Quite a few people, in other words.”
Fiona Hill emerged as a U.S. government expert on Russia amid a generation in which the subjects of Russia and Eastern Europe all but disappeared from America’s collective consciousness. Raised in economically depressed North East England, Hill, as a brainy teenager, was admonished by her father, who was then a hospital porter, “There is nothing for you here,” and so she moved to the United States in 1989 after a year’s study in Moscow. Hill received a Ph.D. in history from Harvard and later got a job at the Brookings Institution. In 2006, she became the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia. By that time, the Bush administration was keenly focused on post-Cold War and post-Sept. 11 adversaries both real and imagined, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The ambitions of Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, were steadily made manifest. On March 19, 2016, two years after Putin’s annexation of Crimea, a hacker working with Russia’s military intelligence service, the G.R.U., sent an email to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta, from the address firstname.lastname@example.org. The email, which claimed that a Ukrainian had compromised Podesta’s password, turned out to be a successful act of spearphishing. It allowed Russia to obtain and release, through WikiLeaks, 50,000 of Podesta’s emails, all in the furtherance of Russia’s desire that Clinton would become, if not a defeated presidential candidate, then at minimum a damaged one.
The relationship between the Trump campaign, and then the Trump administration, and Russia would have implications not just for the United States but, eventually, for Ukraine as well. The litany of Trump-Russia intersections remains remarkable: Citizen Trump’s business pursuits in Moscow, which continued throughout his candidacy. Candidate Trump’s abiding affinity for Putin. The incident in which the Trump campaign’s national security director, J.D. Gordon, watered down language in the 2016 Republican Party platform pledging to provide Ukraine with “lethal defense weapons” to combat Russian interference — and did so the same week Gordon dined with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, at an event. Trump’s longtime political consigliere Roger Stone’s reaching out to WikiLeaks through an intermediary and requesting “the pending emails,” an apparent reference to the Clinton campaign emails pirated by Russia, which the site had started to post. Trump’s chiming in: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” The meeting in the Seychelles islands between Erik Prince (the founder of the military contractor Blackwater and a Trump-campaign supporter whose sister Betsy DeVos would become Trump’s secretary of education) and the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund in an effort to facilitate a back-channel dialogue between the two countries before Trump’s inauguration. The former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort’s consistent lying to federal investigators about his own secretive dealings with the Russian political consultant and intelligence operative Konstantin V. Kilimnik, with whom he shared Trump campaign polling. Trump’s two-hour meeting with Putin in Helsinki in the summer of 2018, unattended by staff. Trump’s public declaration, at a joint news conference in Helsinki, that he was more inclined to believe Putin than the U.S. intelligence team when it came to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The dissemination by Trump and his allies in 2019 of the Russian propaganda that it was Ukraine that meddled in the 2016 election, in support of the Clinton campaign. Trump’s pardoning of Manafort and Stone in December 2020. And most recently, on March 29, Trump’s saying yet again that Putin “should release” dirt on a political opponent — this time President Biden, who, Trump asserted without evidence, had received, along with his son Hunter Biden, $3.5 million from the wife of Moscow’s former mayor.
Hill had not expected to be a fly on the White House wall for several of these moments. She even participated in the Women’s March in Washington the day following Trump’s inauguration. But then, the next day, she was called in for an interview with Keith Kellogg, at the time the N.S.C. chief of staff. Hill had previously worked with Trump’s new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and several times had been on the Fox News foreign-policy online show hosted by K.T. McFarland, who had become the deputy national security adviser; the expectation was that she could become an in-house counterweight to Putin’s influence. She soon joined the administration on a two-year assignment.
Just four months into his presidency, Trump welcomed two of Putin’s top subordinates — Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — into the Oval Office. Their meeting became public only because a photographer with the Russian news agency Tass released an image of the three men laughing together.
As N.S.C. senior director for European and Russian affairs, Hill was supposed to be in the Oval Office meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak. But that plan was scotched after her previous sit-down with Trump did not go well: The president had mistaken her for a secretary and became angry that she did not immediately agree to retype a news release for him. Just after the Russians left the Oval Office, Hill learned that Trump boasted to them about firing James Comey, the director of the F.B.I., saying that he had removed a source of “great pressure” — and that he continued to do so in his next meeting, with Henry Kissinger, though the former secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford had come to the White House to discuss Russia.
Hill never developed the rapport with Trump that McFarland, Kellogg and H.R. McMaster (who replaced Flynn), her direct superiors, had presumably hoped for. Instead, Trump seemed more impressed with the former Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state. “He’s done billion-dollar energy deals with Putin,” Hill says Trump exclaimed at a meeting.
‘The domestic political errands, the way Trump had privatized foreign policy for his own purposes. It was this narrow goal: his desire to stay in power, irrespective of what other people wanted.’
Trump’s ignorance of world affairs would have been a liability under any circumstance. But it put him at a pronounced disadvantage when it came to dealing with those strongmen for whom he felt a natural affinity, like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Once, while Trump was discussing Syria with Erdogan, Hill recalled: “Erdogan goes from talking about the history of the Ottoman Empire to when he was mayor of Istanbul. And you can see he’s not listening and has no idea what Erdogan’s talking about.” On another occasion, she told me, Trump cheerfully joked to Erdogan that the basis of most Americans’ knowledge about Turkey was “Midnight Express,” a 1978 movie that primarily takes place inside a Turkish prison. “Bad image — you need to make a different film,” Hill recalled Trump telling Turkey’s president while she thought to herself, Oh, my God, really?
When I mentioned to Hill that former White House aides had told me about Trump’s clear preference for visual materials over text, she exclaimed: “That’s spot on. There were several moments of just utter embarrassment where he would see a magazine story about one of his favorite leaders, be it Erdogan or Macron. He’d see a picture of them, and he’d want it sent to them through the embassies. And when we’d read the articles, the articles are not flattering. They’re quite critical. Obviously, we can’t send this! But then he’d want to know if they’d gotten the picture and the article, which he’d signed: ‘Emmanuel, you look wonderful. Looking so strong.’”
Hill found it dubious that a man so self-interested and lacking in discipline could have colluded with Russia to gain electoral victory in 2016, a concern that led to investigations by both the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Robert Mueller, the special counsel. For that matter, she told me, she had met the Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser Carter Page a few times in Moscow. “I was incredulous as to how anyone could think he could be a spy. I thought he was way out of his depth.” The same held true for George Papadopoulos, another foreign-policy adviser. “Every campaign has loads of clueless people,” she said.
Still, she came to see in Trump a kind of aspirational authoritarianism in which Putin, Erdogan, Orban and other autocrats were admired models. She could see that he regarded the U.S. government as his family-run business. In viewing how Trump’s coterie acted in his presence, Hill settled on the word “thrall,” evoking both a mystical attraction and servitude. Trump’s speeches habitually emphasized mood over thought, to powerful effect. It did not escape Hill’s attention that Trump’s chief speechwriter — indeed, the gatekeeper of whatever made its way into the president’s speeches — was Stephen Miller, who always seemed near Trump and whose influence on administration policy was “immense,” she says. Hill recalled for me a time in 2019 when Trump was visiting London and she found herself traveling through the city in a vehicle with Miller. “He was talking about all the knife fights that immigrants were causing in these areas,” she said. “And I told him: ‘These streets were a lot rougher when I was growing up and they were run by white gangs. The immigrants have actually calmed things down.’” (Miller declined to comment on the record.)
More than once during our conversations, Hill made references to the Coen brothers filmmaking team. In particular, she seemed to relate to the character played by Frances McDormand in the movie “Fargo”: a habitually unflappable police chief thrust into a narrative of bizarre misdeeds for which nothing in her long experience has prepared her. Hill was dismayed, but not surprised, she told me, when President Trump carried on about a Democratic rival, Senator Elizabeth Warren, to a foreign leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — referring to Warren as “Senator Pocahontas,” while Merkel gaped in astonishment. Or when, upon learning from Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway of her country’s reliance on hydropower, Trump took the opportunity to share his standard riff on the evils of wind turbines.
But she was alarmed, Hill told me, by Trump’s antidemocratic monologues. “He would constantly tell world leaders that he deserved a redo of his first two years,” she recalled. “He’d say that his first two years had been taken away from him because of the ‘Russia hoax.’ And he’d say that he wanted more than two terms.”
“He said it as a joke,” I suggested.
“Except that he clearly meant it,” Hill insisted. She mentioned David Cornstein, a jeweler by trade and longtime friend of Trump’s whom the president appointed as his ambassador to Hungary. “Ambassador Cornstein openly talked about the fact that Trump wanted the same arrangement as Viktor Orban” — referring to the autocratic Hungarian prime minister, who has held his position since 2010 — “where he could push the margins and stay in power without any checks and balances.” (Cornstein could not be reached for comment.)
During Trump’s first year in office, he initially resisted meeting with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine. Obama received Poroshenko in the Oval Office in June 2014, and the United States offered Ukraine financial and diplomatic support, while stopping short of providing requested Javelin anti-tank missiles, in part out of concerns that Russian assets within Ukraine’s intelligence community would have access to the technology, according to a 2019 NBC News interview with the former C.I.A. director John Brennan. Now, with Trump’s refusal to meet with Poroshenko, it instead fell to Vice President Mike Pence to welcome the Ukrainian leader to the White House on June 20, 2017. After their meeting, Poroshenko lingered in a West Wing conference room, waiting to see if Trump would give him a few minutes.
Finally, the president did so. The two men shook hands and exchanged pleasantries in front of the White House press corps. Once the reporters were ushered out, Trump flatly told Poroshenko that Ukraine was a corrupt country. Trump knew this, he said, because a Ukrainian friend at Mar-a-Lago had told him so.
Poroshenko said that his administration was addressing the corruption. Trump shared another observation. He said, echoing a Putin talking point, that Crimea, annexed three years earlier through Putin’s act of aggression, was rightfully Russia’s — because, after all, the people there spoke Russian.
Poroshenko protested, saying that he, too, spoke Russian. So, for that matter, did one of the witnesses to this conversation: Marie Yovanovitch, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who was born in Canada, later acquiring U.S. citizenship, and who recounted the episode in her recent memoir, “Lessons From the Edge.”Recalling Trump’s words to me, Yovanovitch laughed in disbelief and said, “I mean, in America, we speak English, but it doesn’t make us British!”
The encounter with Poroshenko would portend other unsettling interactions with Ukraine during the Trump era. “There were all sorts of tells going on that, while official U.S. policy toward Ukraine was quite good, that he didn’t personally love that policy,” Yovanovitch told me. “So there was always the feeling of, What’s going to happen next?”
What happened next was that Trump began to treat Ukraine as a political enemy. Bridling at the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in hopes of damaging his opponent or helping his campaign, he was receptive to the suggestion of an appealing counternarrative. “By early 2018, he began to hear and repeat the assertion that it was Ukraine and not Russia that had interfered in the election, and that they had done so to try to help Clinton,” Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, told me. “I knew he heard that from, among others, Rudy Giuliani. Each time that inaccurate theory was raised, I disputed it and reminded the president that it was not true, including one time when I said so in front of Mr. Giuliani.”
By 2019, a number of once-obscure Trump foreign-policy aides — among them Fiona Hill; her successor, Timothy Morrison; Yovanovitch; Yovanovitch’s deputy, George P. Kent; her political counselor, David Holmes; her successor, William B. Taylor Jr.; the N.S.C.’s director for European affairs, Alexander Vindman; the special adviser to the vice president on European and Russian affairs, Jennifer Williams; and the U.S. special representative to Ukraine, Kurt D. Volker — would be tugged into the vortex of a sub rosa scheme. It was, as Hill would memorably testify to Congress later that year, “a domestic political errand” in Ukraine on behalf of President Trump. That errand, chiefly undertaken by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, would garishly illustrate how “Trump was using Ukraine as a plaything for his own purposes,” Hill told me.
The first notable disruption in U.S.-Ukraine relations during Trump’s presidency came when Yovanovitch was removed from her ambassadorial post at Trump’s orders. Though she was widely respected in diplomatic circles, Yovanovitch’s ongoing efforts to root out corruption in Ukraine had put her in the cross hairs of two Soviet-born associates of Giuliani who were doing business in the country. Those associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, told Trump that Yovanovitch — who had served in the State Department going back to the Reagan administration — was critical of Trump. She soon became the target of negative pieces in the publication The Hill by John Solomon, a conservative writer with connections to Giuliani, including an allegation by Yuriy Lutsenko, the prosecutor general of Ukraine, that the ambassador had given him a “do not prosecute list” — which Lutsenko later recanted to a Ukrainian publication. The same month that he did so, April 2019, Yovanovitch was recalled from her post.
The career ambassador and other officials urgently requested that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had replaced Tillerson, issue a statement of support for her. Pompeo did not do so; according to a former senior White House official, he was eager to develop a closer bond with Trump and knew that Giuliani had the president’s ear. Subsequently, a top adviser to the secretary, Michael McKinley, resigned in protest. According to a source familiar with the matter, Pompeo responded angrily, telling McKinley that his resignation stood as proof that State Department careerists could not be counted on to loyally support President Trump’s policies. (Through a spokesman, Pompeo declined to comment on the record.)
By the spring of 2019, Trump seemed to be persuaded not only that Yovanovitch was, as Trump would later tell Zelensky, “bad news” but that Ukraine was demonstrably anti-Trump. On April 21, 2019, the president called Zelensky, who had just been elected, to congratulate him on his victory. Trump decided that he would send Pence to attend Zelensky’s inauguration. Less than three weeks later, Giuliani disclosed to The Times that he planned to soon visit Ukraine to encourage Zelensky to pursue inquiries into the origins of the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and into Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings and whose father, Joe Biden, had just announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination. (Giuliani later canceled his travel plans.)
At about the same time, Pence’s national security adviser, Keith Kellogg, announced to the vice president’s senior staff, “The president doesn’t want him to attend” Zelensky’s inauguration, according to someone present at the meeting. He did not — a slight to a European head of state.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
On May 23, 2019, Charles Kupperman, Trump’s deputy national security adviser, and others discussed Ukraine with Trump in the Oval Office. Speaking to the press about the matter for the first time, Kupperman told me that the very subject of Ukraine threw the president into a rage: “He just let loose — ‘They’re [expletive] corrupt. They [expletive] tried to screw me.’”
Because Kupperman had seen how disdainfully Trump treated allies like Merkel, Macron, Theresa May of Britain and Moon Jae-in of South Korea, he knew how unlikely it was that the president could come to see the geopolitical value of Ukraine. “He felt like our allies were screwing us, and he had no sense as to why these alliances benefited us or why you need a global footprint for military and strategic capabilities,” Kupperman told me. “If one were to ask him to define ‘balance of power,’ he wouldn’t know what that concept was. He’d have no idea about the history of Ukraine and why it’s in the front pages today. He wouldn’t know that Stalin starved that country. Those are the contextual points one has to take into account in the making of foreign policy. But he wasn’t capable of it, because he had no understanding of history: how these countries and their leadership evolved, what makes these countries tick.”
In July 2019, Trump ordered that a hold be placed on nearly $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine that had already been appropriated by Congress. The president stood essentially alone in his opposition to such assistance, Kupperman told me: “Everyone in the interagency process was uniformly united to release the aid. We needed to do this, there was no controversy to it, but it got held up anyway.” News of the freeze became public that September, and the White House variously claimed that the funds had been withheld because of Ukraine’s corruption and because other NATO countries should be contributing more to Ukraine. Alyssa Farah Griffin, then the Pentagon press secretary, recalled to me that she asked Laura Cooper, the Department of Defense deputy assistant secretary for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, whether the hold was part of the standard review process.
“Absolutely not,” Cooper replied to her. “Nothing about this is normal.”
A few days later, the Trump White House released a reconstructed transcript of the president’s July 25 phone conversation with Zelensky. In it, Trump responded to the Ukrainian leader’s interest in purchasing Javelin missiles by saying: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike” — a reference to the cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee to investigate its 2016 email security breach, which became a facet of Giuliani’s hallucinatory claim that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that stole the emails. In the same conversation, Trump requested that Zelensky help Giuliani investigate “Biden’s son,” referring to Hunter Biden, and ominously said of his recently fired ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, that “she’s going to go through some things.”
“My first reaction to it,” Farah Griffin told me in speaking about the phone call for the first time publicly, “was that it was wildly inappropriate to be bringing up domestic political concerns, and it seemed to border on the conspiratorial. I’d been around for a lot of head-of-state meetings and calls, and they’re pretty pro forma. You know the things that you’re not supposed to say. It seemed like such a bizarre breach of diplomacy.” She went on: “But then, once it became clear that the Office of Management and Budget had actually blocked the money prior to the conversation, I thought: Wow. This is bad.”
Fiona Hill and most of the others who testified in 2019 during Trump’s first impeachment hearings were unknown to ordinary Americans — and, for that matter, to Trump himself, who protested on Twitter that his accusers were essentially nobodies. It was their fidelity to their specialized labors that made them such effective witnesses. “One benefit to our investigation,” said Daniel Goldman, who served as the lead majority counsel to the House impeachment inquiry, “was that these were for the most part career public servants who took extensive contemporaneous notes every day. As a result, we received very detailed testimony that helped us figure out what happened.”
In reality, however, what happened in the Ukraine episode was not evident to much of the public. Trump prevailed in his impeachment trial, seeming to emerge from the ordeal without a political scratch. This, his former national security adviser John Bolton told me, distinguished the inquiry from the investigation into the conduct of President Richard Nixon 45 years earlier, which resulted in Nixon’s fellow Republicans deserting him. The Senate’s acquittal of Trump in his first impeachment trial “clearly did embolden him,” Bolton said. “This is Trump saying, ‘I got away with it.’ And thinking, If I got away with it once, I can get away with it again. And he did get away with it again.” (Bolton did not testify before the House committee; at the time, his lawyer said he was “not willing to appear voluntarily.”)
Hill, for her part, emerged from the events of 2019 rather dazed by her sudden fame — but just as much so, she told me, by the implications of what she and other White House colleagues had experienced that culminated in Trump’s impeachment. “In real time, I was putting things together,” she said. “The domestic political errands, the way Trump had privatized foreign policy for his own purposes. It was this narrow goal: his desire to stay in power, irrespective of what other people wanted.”
Hill was at her desk at home on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, writing her memoir, when a journalist friend she first met in Russia called. The friend told her to turn on the television. Once she did so, a burst of horrific clarity overtook her. “I saw the thread,” she told me. “The thread connecting the Zelensky phone call to Jan. 6. And I remembered how, in 2020, Putin had changed Russia’s Constitution to allow him to stay in power longer. This was Trump pulling a Putin.”
Alexander Vindman, who was removed from his job as N.S.C. director for European affairs months after testifying against Trump (the president, his son Don Jr. and other supporters accused Vindman, a Soviet émigré and Army officer, of disloyalty, perjury and espionage), told me he experienced a similar epiphany in the wake of Jan. 6. Vindman was exercising at a gym in Virginia that afternoon when his wife, Rachel, called him to say that a mob had attacked the U.S. Capitol. After recovering from his stupefaction, “my first impulse was to counterprotest,” Vindman recalled. “I was thinking, What can I do to defend the Capitol? Then I realized that would be a recipe for disaster. It might give the president cause to invoke martial law.”
In Trump’s failed efforts to overturn the election results, Vindman told me, the president revealed himself as “incompetent, his own worst enemy, faced with too many checks in a 240-plus-year-old democracy to be able to operate with a free hand.” At the same time, he went on: “I came to see these seemingly individual events — the Ukraine scandal, the attempt to steal the 2020 election — as part of a broader tapestry. And the domestic effects of all this are bad enough. But there’s also a geopolitical impact. We missed an opportunity to harden Ukraine against Russian aggression.”
Instead, Vindman said, the opposite occurred: “Ukraine became radioactive for the duration of the Trump administration. There wasn’t serious engagement. Putin had been wanting to reclaim Ukraine for eight years, but he was trying to gauge when was the right time to do it. Starting just months after Jan. 6, Putin began building up forces on the border. He saw the discord here. He saw the huge opportunity presented by Donald Trump and his Republican lackeys. I’m not pulling any punches here. I’m not using diplomatic niceties. These folks sent the signal Putin was waiting for.”
Bolton, a renowned foreign-policy hawk who also served in the administrations of Reagan and George W. Bush, also told me that Trump’s behavior had dealt damage to both Ukraine and America. The refusal to lend aid to Ukraine, the subsequent disclosure of the heavy-handed conversation with Zelensky and then the impeachment hearing all served to undermine Ukraine’s new president, Bolton told me. “It made it impossible for Zelensky to establish any kind of relationship with the president of the United States — who, faced with a Russian Army on his eastern border, any Ukrainian president would have as his highest priority. So basically that means Ukraine loses a year and a half of contact with the president.”
Trump, Bolton went on to say, “is a complete aberration in the American system. We’ve had good and bad presidents, competent and incompetent presidents. But none of them was as centered on their own interest, as opposed to the national interest, except Trump. And his concept of what the national interest was really changed from day to day and had a lot more to do with what his political fortunes were.” This was certainly the case with Trump’s view of Ukraine, which, Bolton said, describing fantasies that preoccupied the president, “he saw entirely through the prism of Hillary Clinton’s server and Hunter Biden’s income — what role Ukraine had in Hillary’s efforts to steal the 2016 election and what role Ukraine had in Biden’s efforts to steal the 2020 election.”
Bolton acknowledged to me that he found Trump’s conduct both in the Ukraine scandal and on Jan. 6 to be arguably worthy of impeachment. Still, he offered a rather tangled assessment of the two processes — finding fault with Democrats in the first inquiry for “trying to ram it through quickly” and, in the second impeachment, for not pressing quickly enough and “trying him before January the 20th.”
But Bolton seems to regard the former president’s abuses of power as validation of America’s institutional strengths rather than a warning sign. “I think he did damage to the United States before and because of January the 6th,” Bolton told me. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. But I think all that damage was reparable. I think that constitutions are written with human beings involved, and occasionally you get bad actors. This was a particularly bad actor. So with all the stress and strain on the Constitution, it held up pretty well.”
When I asked whether he believed Trump could be viewed as an authoritarian, Bolton replied, “He’s not smart enough to be an authoritarian.” But had Donald Trump won in 2020, Bolton told me, in his second term he might well have inflicted “damage that might not be reparable.” I asked whether his same concerns would apply if Trump were to gain another term in 2024, and Bolton answered with one word: “Yes.”
At the moment, Trump’s chances of victory are favorable. He remains the putative lead candidate for the G.O.P.’s nomination and would most likely face an 81-year-old incumbent whose approval ratings are underwater. Even in defeat, there is little reason to believe that Trump will concede at all, much less do so gracefully. This January, President Biden said: “I know the majority of the world leaders — the good and the bad ones, adversaries and allies alike. They’re watching American democracy and seeing whether we can meet this moment.” Biden went on to say that at the G7 Summit in Cornwall, England, the previous summer, his assurances that America was back were met by his foreign counterparts with the response, “For how long?”
One former foreign-policy official who played a role in the Trump-Ukraine tensions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the former president, was unsettled but also unsurprised by Biden’s account. “In the back of their minds,” this former official said of America’s allies, “if Trump is elected again in 2024, where will we be? I think it would be seen among struggling democracies as a disaster. They would see Trump as someone who went through two impeachment inquiries, orchestrated a conspiracy to undo a failed election and then, somehow, is re-elected. They would see it as Trump truly unbound. But to them, it would also say something about us and our values.”
Hill agreed with that assessment when I described it to her. “We’ve been the gold standard of democratic elections,” she told me. “All of that will be rolled back if Trump returns to power after claiming that the only way he could ever lose is if someone steals it from him. It’ll be more than diplomatic shock. I think it would mean the total loss of America’s leadership position in the world arena.”
A couple of months ago, Hill told me, she attended a book event in Louisville, Ky. Onstage with her was another recent author, Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who was the House Democrats’ lead manager in Trump’s second impeachment trial. Raskin, who happens to be Hill’s congressman, had also been among the managers in the first trial.
Their event took place on Jan. 24, exactly one month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Though Putin’s troops had been massed along the border for several months, speculation of war was not a public preoccupation. For the moment, Hill’s expertise was in lesser demand than that of Raskin, who is now a member of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. For much of their hourlong colloquy, it was Hill who asked searching questions of Raskin — who, she told me, “was deeply disturbed by how close we came to basically not having a transfer of power.”
At one point, Hill acknowledged to Raskin and the live audience that she had been thinking lately of the “Hamilton” song “You’ll Be Back,” crooned maliciously by King George to his American subjects. “I have been worried over whether we might be back to that kind of period,” she said. Hill went on to describe the United States as being in a state of de-evolution, with the checks on executive power flagging and the concept of governmental experience regarded with scorn rather than admiration.
What she did not say then was something that Hill has told me more than once since that time. Throughout all our changes, presidents and senior staff in government, she said: “Putin has been there for 22 years. He’s the same guy, with the same people around him. And he’s watching everything.”
Robert Draper is a contributing writer for the magazine. He is the author of several books, most recently “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq,” which was excerpted in the magazine."
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