Former White House adviser Fiona Hill was far and away the most impressive of the witnesses in the impeachment hearings against Donald Trump. This is a reflection more of how she presented her case than of the particular story she told. There are only minor inconsistencies among the witnesses: All the accounts confirm that Donald Trump and his inner circle used the threat of withholding foreign aid to compel the Ukrainian government to open up investigations that would implicate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
But the witnesses varied greatly in how they carried themselves. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was jittery and flustered, understandably so since he was a career military man giving evidence against the commander in chief. EU ambassador Gordon Sondland had the air of a wealthy dilettante trying to fast-talk his way out of a mess. A few of the other witnesses came across as colorless functionaries.
Hill stood out from the pack. She was poised, confident, brisk in her remarks, unflustered by browbeating from Republican representatives, and in utter command of her facts and arguments. Her testimony clarified the reality that the Trump administration had a two-track Ukraine policy: an official policy executed by foreign policy professionals and a nakedly political policy sneakily pushed along by Gordon Sondland and others.
About Sondland, Hill noted, “He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.” That divergence between the “domestic political errand” and official policy cuts to the heart of the scandal.
Hill’s impressive performance was widely hailed in the press. John Cassidy of The New Yorker compared her to “a Plantagenet warrior.” A similar analogy was made by Tim Miller of The Bulwark, who hailed her as “Queen Fiona” who “saved us from this impeachment death march. In control. Unphased [sic] by the partisan nonsense. Clear-eyed about Vladimir Putin. Not jaded or beaten down by the avalanche of acrimony and foolishness that she has been dealt in the past two years. A woman who wants only to serve the adopted country she loves.” Only slightly less florid was Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, who celebrated Hill as “a patriot with a heart-tugging immigrant story” who “stands up to bullies and liars” and who “gave Republicans the thrashing they so richly deserved.”
This fawning is forgivable. The Trump era is short of heroes, and when a whip-smart Trump critic with impeccable credentials comes along, it is easy to start throwing around the accolades.
But like all political actors, Hill deserves some clear-eyed scrutiny, even if we appreciate her help in exposing Trump’s corruption.
In her statement to Congress, Hill presented herself as “a nonpartisan, nonpolitical national security professional.” The nonpartisan part is more convincing than the nonpolitical. Hill has served under the administrations of the last three presidents, so clearly has no party preferences. But foreign policy professionals definitely have political agendas. Like many in the national security establishment, Hill is a hawk who wants to build up the alliance with Ukraine as a restraint on Russia.
This policy might be right or wrong—but it is absolutely not “nonpolitical.” It has a definite political coloration. One of the major problems with the impeachment hearings is that national security professionals like Hill are using the justified outrage at Trump’s criminality to make a pitch for an aggressive foreign policy. As Vox writer Matthew Yglesias notes, “It’s disturbing…to see Trump’s criminality serving to mainstream the borderline absurd notion that prying Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence should be a top-tier priority of American foreign policy.”
Beyond Ukraine, Hill’s understanding of the problems posed by Russia deserves debunking. “The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016,” Hill said in her opening statement. “The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined.”
This vastly overstates the likely impact of Russian interference in 2016, crediting it with internal American problems of social division, increasing disagreements about truth, and rising skepticism toward expertise. Hill’s account confuses the effects with the cause. It’s much more likely that Russian interference had the impact it did because America was already divided over issues of truth. It wasn’t Vladimir Putin who invented birtherism but GOP opponents of Barack Obama, exploiting long-existing racism. Nor was it Russia that created climate change denial. That’s a product of the American fossil fuel industry.
As George Washington University political scientist Henry Farrell argued in Foreign Policy in 2018, “Russia is not working according to a master plan carefully laid-out laid out by President Vladimir Putin. Instead, a loose collective of Russians, with incredibly meager resources, have been working together in a disorganized way to probe American democracy for weaknesses. Instead of persuading people to vote for Donald Trump, and against Clinton, they have wanted to create chaos and paranoia—and they have succeeded in stirring confusion only because there were so many weaknesses for them to exploit in the first place.”
In other words, whatever damage Russia did to American democracy was possible only because of existing social divisions. There’s no way to strengthen American democracy without addressing those issues directly.
Hill is not able to see that, because she’s a national security expert, committed to a division of the world between domestic policy and external affairs. For that same reason, she bristled at the way Trump used domestic political concerns to override foreign policy. But that pristine division between domestic and foreign might be obsolete for reasons that go beyond Trump. It’s telling that no Republicans in Congress are willing to break with Trump despite the evidence presented by Hill and other foreign policy experts.
Partisanship trumps policy expertise in Washington. That’s a problem that can’t be blamed on Putin. Nor can it be solved by Hill’s brand of national security professionalism.