Fiona Hill reflects on impeachment testimony, Trump presidency and opportunity in America

Russia expert Fiona Hill captured national attention two years ago when she testified during then-President Donald Trump's first impeachment hearing. Now she's out with a new book, "There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century." She joins Judy Woodruff to discuss her career as a presidential advisor and why she fears the U.S. is going down a dangerous path.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Russia expert Fiona Hill captured the nation's attention two years ago when she testified during President Trump's impeachment hearing.

    Now she's out with a new book, "There Is Nothing for You Here."

    I sat down with her this week to discuss her own journey to becoming a presidential adviser and why she fears the U.S. is heading down a dangerous path.

    Fiona Hill, thank you very much for joining us. Congratulations on the book.

  • Fiona Hill, Former National Security Council Official:

    Well, thanks so much, Judy. It's great to be here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, people know you as an expert on Russia and on Europe, but this is a book that is built around your personal story, the daughter and the granddaughter of coal miners, who, what, overcame obstacle after obstacle to end up advising presidents of the United States.

    And there was advice that your father gave you when you were younger that you turned into the title of the book.

  • Fiona Hill:

    That's right.

    When I was leaving high school in 1984 in the northeast of England, there was a massive unemployment crisis, especially for youth; 90 percent of kids who were leaving school had nothing to go on to immediately. My dad was basically talking to me about the future, and he basically said, look, if you want to make something of yourself, you want to pursue an education, want to find a good job, there's nothing for you here, pet. You're going to have to go somewhere else.

    Because my hometown, former mining town, a town that had built up around associated industries, very much like many places across the United States in the Midwest or Appalachia, basically was an opportunity desert.

    And people were going to have to leave in droves from the place to basically get ahead in life. And that was the sad reality of the time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is a book of you overcoming, as I said, obstacles, whether it was to getting an education, to getting a job, to getting ahead in this all-male, almost all-male profession.

    What were the lessons that you took away from that?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, there's a series of larger lessons in this. But I did find opportunity, and, obviously, I had some amazing opportunities and a lot of career success.

    But what I took away from this was the importance of mentorship and also the importance of assistance, to give you a hand up, not a handout in life, but a hand up, because I didn't really do all of this on my own. Of course, I worked hard at school. I was very focused on basically all of my studies. I wanted to pursue an education as far as it would take me. And it took me to Harvard University and many other things besides.

    But all the way along this educational path, I had a grant. I had a subsidy. I graduated without any educational debt at all. But the lesson is that it actually takes a lot of effort to be able to get ahead. And in that period — that's the end of the 20th century — it's even more difficult now at the beginning of the 21st.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How many young people would you say today, in whether it's the United States or Great Britain, have the opportunities that Fiona Hill had when you were younger?

  • Fiona Hill:

    A lot less than there should be, because you would expect that, over the decades since I graduated high school, since 1984, that there would have been a steady progression and improvement of people into education and opening more doors for opportunity.

    Well, in fact, that has been an expansion of education, but also a massive expansion of educational debt, because there aren't the grants, there aren't the subsidies that there used to be. And so education is becoming a burden in many respects. And it's putting education out of reach of the people at the lowest income bracket.

    And what we're seeing now in the U.S., in particular, but also increasingly in the U.K., is that education and that line whether you have gone to a college, a community college, two-year or a four-year college, is really a determinant of who you are. It's a determiner of economic class and of basically the way you are going to vote and where you're likely to live as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, Fiona Hill, the reason so many people know you, know your face is because you were testifying in that those first House congressional hearings into former President Trump, impeachment hearings.

    Why did you go to work in his administration?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, first of all, it was in the interest of public service. I'd already been in previous administrations, both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, working as the national intelligence officer for Russia.

    I wrote a book on Vladimir Putin, for example, after I left my previous public service…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Fiona Hill:

    … that we were at serious risk of being exploited by the Russian security services.

    And, of course, we saw that in 2016 with a sophisticated influence operation that was launched against the U.S. democratic system and against the U.S. presidency. And I wanted to do something to address that. Of course, things didn't go as I hoped they would.

    National security issues ended up being pushed downwards, and we saw much more of the sort of privatization of foreign policy, the efforts to manipulate national security policy for domestic political purposes that was happening throughout the whole of that four years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ultimately, what was your assessment of Donald Trump as a person and as a president?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, as a person, he was extremely vulnerable to manipulation. And that became a problem for him as a president.

    And what I mean by that is, he had a very fragile ego, and he was very susceptible to flattery, as well as taking massive offense, as we all saw, to any kind of criticism. So, on a personal level, that was also a pretty dangerous flaw.

    When you're the president of the United States, it becomes a fatal flaw, because President Trump couldn't disassociate or disentangle himself from many of the issues that were the critical ones to address. So, when people were concerned about Russian influence in the United States election, he only thought about how that affected him, for example.

    When people talked about the changes in the U.S. economic structure, he would always think, first of all, about how that might affect him and about how that might affect how people would vote for him. So, as a president, he was uniquely preoccupied with himself, not with the country.

    And that, of course, made all of the problems of intelligence risks even higher, because the Russians or others from the outside could also manipulate those tendencies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, if you can answer this, is the world safer or is it more dangerous because of his presidency?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, I think it's become more dangerous, because he was also extremely divisive, because President Trump was very focused on getting reelected, and he wasn't going to do that by appealing to all Americans.

    He wanted to appeal to a particular base of people who were attracted by his personality or attracted by the things that he said he was going to do for them. And, of course, that's on different parts of the economic scale and the socioeconomic lower levels. It's the people — he said he was going to find them a job. He was going to fix the economy, so they would have jobs.

    At the top end, among millionaires and billionaires, it was that he was going to protect their fortunes, from — being from those circles himself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What I find so striking is that you weren't so concerned about Donald Trump being controlled by Vladimir Putin, being influenced by Vladimir Putin, as you were concerned about the United States following on the same political path that you see Russia follow under Vladimir Putin.

  • Fiona Hill:

    That's absolutely right, because Russia went through a similar wrenching economic period and political periods in the 1990s.

    So, Russia had its equivalent of a kind of the Great Recession, and, at the end of that decade, President Putin comes in and says, I'm going to fix everything. I'm going to make America great again, which, of course, is what President Trump said in 2016. And what Putin did was basically tie himself up into all of these politics.

    He, of course, has extended his terms in office through amending the Constitution. He can essentially be president until 2036. And Donald Trump has also said that he wants to be president in perpetuity. He wouldn't accept that he had lost the 2020 election. He's saying he's going to come back, that he has a right to come back because he was never kicked out of office in the first place.

    And he's been spreading lies about essentially his own role in all the events that we have seen over the last years, January 6, for example, and the storming of the Capitol.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you believe our democracy is in danger as a result of this?

  • Fiona Hill:

    I do.

    And I think that danger is increasing by the day, because we're constantly seeing other political figures trying to emulate Trump. We're now in a situation where lies and deceit have become the coin of governance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a disturbing conclusion in this book.

    Fiona Hill, thank you very much.

  • Fiona Hill:

    Thanks so much, Judy. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

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