Fiona Hill’s journey to America began with a cranky coffeepot.
Born in the coal-mining town of Bishop Aukland in northern England, she made her way to the University of St Andrews in Scotland and then to Moscow, where she had a fellowship to study Russian. During the summit between President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in the spring of 1988, she hooked on with NBC to perform menial tasks like spraying the hair of anchor Tom Brokaw. But when she was assigned to make coffee, she was buffaloed.
“I didn’t know how to work the drip coffee machine because I was from the U.K.,” she recalls in her resonant British accent. “I was making a mess and spilling things all over the place. And this guy comes in and starts talking to me. I explain I’m British, I’m an idiot. What am I doing? And he shows me.” The man was Robert Legvold, a senior professor at Columbia University who was consulting for the network. He switched into “typical professor mode,” Hill recalls, asking about her plans and interests: “And he says, ‘You know, there are scholarships to the United States.’ And I say, ‘How do I find out about this?’ And he tells me, and then he disappears.”
Hill’s father had transmitted an abiding love for the United States. “My dad’s whole idea was that people could do the most amazing things in America and get themselves ahead,” she says, and Alfred Hill’s daughter certainly fulfilled his dream. She became a graduate student at Harvard, earned a doctorate in history, married a fellow student, Kenneth Keen, became a U.S. citizen, worked at the Brookings Institution, and served as an intelligence officer under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After a stint back at Brookings, she joined the National Security Council under President Donald Trump, specializing in Russian issues. At a House hearing during Trump’s first impeachment proceedings, Hill galvanized the country with her blunt criticism of the president and congressional Republicans, accusing them of embracing a “fictional narrative” promoted by Russian intelligence services that Moscow had not meddled in the 2016 election.
That appearance converted her into a public figure, recognized in the restaurants and grocery stores of Bethesda, where she’s lived in the same house in the Greenwich Forest neighborhood for about 20 years. In October, she published a new book, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century. When I talked to her over Zoom in September, she had just dispatched her only child to face her first day of high school.
“I think to myself, my goodness, what an incredible set of events,” Hill told me. “This is just amazing, and all because I don’t know how to make a cup of coffee.”
Tell me about your hometown and the origin of your book title.
The town really grew on the back of coal and all the associated industries, and then just went into a really rapid decline. When I was born there in 1965, it was at the beginning of the end of the town, it was just living on the fumes of the past. Growing up in that sense of decay and of being forgotten, it really shaped my whole perspective. Very early on, my father said to me, ‘There’s nothing here for you, pet. You need to look for opportunity somewhere else.’
You write a lot about your family and the hardships you faced during your childhood.
At first, I wasn’t even aware that I was working class and that I fit into some sort of social category or box because I was born into a certain environment. My dad had been born into very harsh circumstances in 1932 at the peak of the Depression. His father, my grandfather, was out of work at that point; he was often blacklisted for being an agitator because he fought for reasonable safety conditions down in the mines. My dad was basically homeless, and they lived in a condemned building where a farmer allowed them to live for no rent in exchange for doing a few odd jobs. My dad was pretty scarred by this, and his focus was on trying to buy a house for us. My mother was a nurse, and she had actually managed to save some money and was able to put a down payment on a very small house, because my dad was determined that the family would not be homeless again. We had a house, but we didn’t have the money to pay the bills. Often we didn’t have the electricity on, so that experience really gave me a great perspective on how to get by on a shoestring, how to be very resilient, how to be resourceful.
You’ve talked often about your dad’s dream of moving to America, which he was never able to fulfill because he had to stay home and care for his sick mother. What was it about America that fired his imagination? Do you remember him talking about it?
Yes, all the time. My dad was a kid during World War II, and there was this whole idea of the United States coming in to save Europe. During the war, there were a lot of American GIs stationed at army bases or air force bases near where my dad grew up. There were Saturday matinees at the local cinema, showing life in America and all the Hollywood movies everybody was steeped in at the time. And then when the mines started to close down in England, mines were still operating in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and elsewhere, and a lot of miners [from the Aukland area] moved to the U.S., and my dad got some of these recruitment notices and really wanted to do this. He read everything that he could about America, he got really interested in the history of the Civil War and the history of Native American culture, the civil rights movement. He loved jazz and the blues. He was always talking about the USA, the land of opportunity, the beacon of hope, the country that had come in to save the day.
How far did he go in school?
He left school at 14 to work in the mines, so his emphasis to me was to study. The world was changing, working-class kids were given more opportunities and the university system was expanding. My parents knew that they’d missed out, so everyone in the family was saying ‘You’ve got this chance that we didn’t have, you should take it and see how far you can go.’ Now, did they expect that I’d end up getting a Ph.D. at Harvard? Certainly not, but they kept introducing me to people who had gone to a university, and their basic point was: They did it. You could do it.
But when you went for an interview at Oxford, it did not go well.
My clothes came from an older cousin or a thrift store, or my mom attempted to make them. When I went for my interview, I had no idea what to wear. My mum said she’d make me something, and she found this bolt of fabric at the local department store that had a heraldic pattern [based on ancient family crests and symbols] on it. She thought this would be perfect for an interview at Oxford. My dad joked that I could blend in with the wallpaper. When I showed up, I was pretty much out of my league with homemade clothes, right? The other girls were all from the south and couldn’t understand anything I said, and one offered to translate for me, which was a real put-down. And then when I got called to the interview, one of the girls [put out her] leg and I fell over it and into the doorframe and busted my nose. It was a catalog of disasters, looking silly, feeling really out of place, one thing cascading into another. But in the end, the professor I met with was incredibly kind and actually gave me the advice not to go to Oxford, which I wasn’t getting into anyway. He suggested I should go to St Andrews and the things I should study. And I’m really grateful to him, because he actually took pity on me and gave me some useful life advice.
How did you develop your interest in Russia?
It was really the timing. When I was in high school in the early ’80s, we all thought we were going to be blown up in an exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States. Against this backdrop, my uncle Charlie had been in the convoys to the Arctic during World War II, alongside the Soviet navy, and he couldn’t understand how we’d gone from being allies to these arch-enemies. And he kept saying to my dad that Fiona should study Russian and figure it all out.
After your meeting with Professor Legvold in Moscow, you came to Harvard as a grad student. What did it feel like to be in America for the first time?
Most Americans thought my accent was really cute. People would say, ‘Oh, you sound like the queen.’ It was this embrace of all things British and immediately I felt I’d been ratcheted up, into a very rarefied environment.
How did you meet your husband?
I was living in a Harvard dorm; he was actually my next-door neighbor.
After you earned your doctorate and worked at Harvard doing research, you came to Washington in 2002 and moved into the house where you still live. What appealed to you about Bethesda?
I just liked the neighborhood. Talking to the people around here, houses were kind of small, but well-kept, and it just reminded me of my neighborhood back home. I moved into a street where people had lived going back to the 1930s and 1940s. They had come to work in the National Institutes of Health or Walter Reed or in some of the local businesses. And of course, you can see how this place has changed. It went from being a working-class, middle-class suburb to really changing its whole profile. But it’s on an upward trajectory rather than on a downward trajectory.
Why did you decide to go into public service?
I always wanted to give something back and to find some way of doing that. And I felt that public policy was a logical step from what I’d been doing. When I was approached about joining the National Intelligence Council, I really jumped at the idea.
After leaving the government in 2009, you returned to Brookings and wrote a book about Vladimir Putin. What motivated you to join the National Security Council staff after Trump was elected?
All of the people I worked with in the intelligence community and the defense department and elsewhere were kind of drafted to help out because Trump didn’t really have a team of his own and they all knew me as a Russian expert who wasn’t political. And personally, I was deeply disturbed and worried. I felt there wasn’t enough scrutiny about what the Russians had been trying to do to interfere in the election. I felt like this was one of those times we have to stand up and do something.
Even though the president himself denied that Russia had meddled in the election?
I thought at the time that maybe he just didn’t understand it and maybe I could help explain. I realized pretty quickly that he didn’t care, he wasn’t going to listen to me, but I still saw that there were things that I could do to make it less likely that they could do this again. Of course, over time, as I said in my testimony, and as I’ve laid out in the book, I realized that the problem was much deeper. It wasn’t just Trump, he’s just a symptom of a larger set of problems that Putin tapped into, the divisions, the polarization, and Putin knows how to push our buttons.
A lot of people warned you not to go into the administration, so why did you?
People with much stronger political antennae than I said this could really ruin you. And you might never work in this town again. There were others, though, who were worried about what was happening and knew I was a person of integrity, I wasn’t going to get my head turned around by the politics, and I felt like our house was on fire. It goes back to my community and where I grew up. Everyone pitched in. My granddad had been on the mine rescue team. My mom’s dad started being an air raid warden during World War II. He went running around with a bucket of sand, trying to put out the incendiary devices dropped by the Germans. I felt like, OK, my whole family has been telling me that if there’s a real problem, you have to contribute something to help, even if something bad comes out of it, so I felt like I couldn’t stand by. I also said to myself, I’ve come all this way. I did all of these studies, I was being told that knowledge is a gift and you have to apply it, you have to do something. What am I going to do? Just sit around on the sidelines and comment and critique and not try to do something? I also thought, OK, I’m older. Right? I’m in my 50s. If I don’t get another job in this town, fair enough. I’ll find something else I could do.
Did your decision strain any relationships?
There are still some people who don’t talk to me, who have told me they can’t forgive me. I don’t appreciate being castigated, having my motives maligned, but that’s what happens, right, when you make a difference.
What was your impression of President Trump when you worked closely with him?
Somebody had said, you know, you’ll be burned by this, you’ll be aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise. I gave him some benefit of the doubt at the beginning, but after a week or so I thought, wow, you know, they’re right. This guy is so flawed.
Within a week you felt that?
The narcissism is just apparent right away. The fact that this guy is all about himself and it isn’t about the United States. Look, he asked a lot of questions that had to be asked. He shook a lot of things up. I think he should get some credit that he didn’t get.
Can you give me a specific example?
North Korea. As he was coming into the office, there was a good deal of fear that Kim Jong Un might actually fire off some rockets somewhere. You’d have an incoming missile attack. Trump recognized the danger of the situation, and while he did not succeed in reaching meaningful nuclear agreements with the North Koreans, he did shift the whole way that we were thinking about it. On domestic policy, he really is a wrecking ball…and his personality is so flawed and his motivation is so flawed.
Why and how did you realize that?
It was just the whole flippant way in which he dealt with things, and it became obvious that nobody could talk to him and impart knowledge because he thinks he knows everything. Everyone was walking on eggshells around him. I’ve met people like that before, but they’re not usually the president.
Tell the story about wearing sneakers on your first day at the Trump White House in April of 2017.
My daughter had gotten food poisoning and I’d been up all night with her. I’d run out of the house that morning to go to what I thought was an orientation and I left my shoes at the door. I thought it was no big deal because I’ll be in this orientation. Next thing I know, I’m getting pulled out of orientation to go into the Oval Office to brief the president on something. I didn’t even know the topic because I’ve been in an orientation [there had been an explosion in the St. Petersburg subway]. I told [National Security Advisor H.R.] McMaster about my sneakers and he told me not to worry about it and stuff my feet next to the desk. But I get busted because Ivanka Trump comes in, looking glamorous, and immediately looks at my sneakers. She just gave me this ‘what the heck’ kind of look. And I was just like, ‘oh my God.’ And I was thinking, why is she just flouncing in here? And I just thought, OK, this is not going to be normal. This is not going to be a professional, proper presidency. Oftentimes you’d be surprised by the fact that he’d ask a very penetrating question that actually made a lot of sense. But a lot of times he just messed it all up. I think his whole presidency was a tragedy.
Why did you leave the administration in 2019?
As Martin Indyk [twice appointed ambassador to Israel by President Bill Clinton] said to me, ‘If you’re part of a problem and not a solution you need to get out of there.’ And it was obvious by 2019 that I was in the midst of a problem and was not part of a solution. I realized people were playing all kinds of bizarre games. Around this time, the whole campaign against Masha Yovanovitch [the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was pushed out of her job by Trump allies like Rudy Giuliani] became apparent. And although I didn’t know all the details, I knew that something really bad was happening and that we were having the privatization of American foreign policy and national security affairs. And I was getting caught up in it. There wasn’t really much I could do to stop it. Now the wheels were off the bus. Everything was focused on Trump trying to stay in power.
How did you come to testify?
Congress announced that they would be seeking to interview this long list of people. I wasn’t named, but my function was: senior director for Europe and Russia. So it was obviously clear that I would be called.
Did the administration try to stop you?
They were trying to intimidate me, to keep me from testifying, claiming executive privilege. But I had already left the administration, and when my lawyer pushed back at them, they didn’t go any further. I was subpoenaed in any case, and I’m a believer in the separation of powers and congressional oversight, so there was no question that I’d appear.
You started getting threats after your congressional testimony. How did that affect you?
I got some advice from a colleague who had been working on right-wing militias for the FBI, and he told me to make some changes, from getting some security cameras to sealing my mailbox so nobody could stick a pipe bomb through it. I didn’t answer the phone. I switched off my answering machine after a period of time and I just didn’t go on the internet. I did try to engage sensible people. I got loads of letters, and actually I would say that most of them are very positive, but I got some hate mail as well.
Did you fear for your safety? Hire personal security?
No, I thought it was safe, and I had people looking out for me, my neighbors. I was more cautious, but I grew up in a rough neighborhood and I’ve always been able to take care of myself since I was a kid. But I was worried about my daughter. She was 12, and it was scary for her because she picked up the phone one day and somebody called me the ‘c-word’ and she was very upset about that. She did worry. She said, ‘Are they going to come here and shoot us?’
How has your life changed since you testified?
It’s given me a platform that I never thought I would have, the opportunity to kind of change direction again. I went into the administration really worried about Russia and what they were doing, and came out realizing that the problem was actually with us. The Russian security services would never have had such success if we were not so polarized. Now I want to figure out what I can do to address this. And I’m in a different place than I was before. I’m a lot older, I’m more financially secure, partly because I still live in the same house, and I never tried to live beyond my means. And I feel like I can try to use all these networks and these contacts to try to mobilize people to think, OK, how do we fix ourselves here?
You became a national figure almost overnight. How do you react to being recognized?
The recognition is a bit weird. Just a little vignette: I was in Cabin John, I was outside, I have my dog with me and then this lady says to me, ‘Thank you so much for everything you’ve done.’ But I just told the truth. I hope that’s what everybody would do, right? You’re bearing witness to something that happened and it’s very important to have congressional oversight and to do your duty. I’m always a little bit surprised by how much people have been affected by the decision to just go there and tell the truth.
Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University and accompanied President Ronald Reagan to Moscow in 1988 as the White House correspondent of The New York Times. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.