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Impeachment Today Podcast: All About Fiona Hill

In today's episode, we're talking about the Russia expert everyone else will be talking about by the end of the week.

Posted on November 19, 2019, at 11:16 p.m. ET

Andrew Caballero-reynolds / Getty Images

Fiona Hill, former deputy assistant to the President and Senior Director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council staff, at the US Capitol on November 4, 2019.

It's Tuesday, November 19th, 2019, 56 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

You can listen to today's episode below, or check it out on on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

It's Tuesday, November 19th, 2019, 56 days into the impeachment inquiry and day three of public impeachment hearings. This is Impeachment Today.

Good morning, I'm Hayes Brown reporter and editor at Buzzfeed News. We're coming to you ahead of round three out of whom even knows of the House's public impeachment hearings. We'll have all the details about that for you tomorrow. Today we're talking to Politico national security correspondent Natasha Bertrand about Dr. Fiona Hill. The former White House in SC staffer is set to testify on Thursday and based on what she's already said behind closed doors, she's coming with receipts. Before we get to all of that, let's catch up on what happened yesterday.

House Democrats hate the idea of journalists having fun or anything like that. So they released another pair of transcripts Monday evening. Undersecretary of state for politics David Hale is the third ranking official at the state department and he shed some light on what was going on there as the Ukraine saga has played out.

Hale gave new details on state's reaction to a smear campaign against Marie Yovanovitch. She was ambassador to Ukraine until April. Hale revealed that days after a high level meeting about Yovanovitch, secretary of state, Mike Pompeo called Rudy Giuliani twice. Giuliani as news reports have said, and Yovanovitch testified was the one leading the charge against the ambassador. So that's not suspicious and or weird. Oh, and house Democrats basically went, oh, you think this week's going to be long with eight witnesses? Well, bam, have another. David Holmes is political counselor at the US embassy in Ukraine and will now testify on Thursday. Democrats also released his closed door testimony Monday evening. Holmes explained that he was very surprised to learn in early September about the concrete tasks needed to release a hold on nearly $400 million in US military aid to Ukraine, "That presidents Zelensky personally was going to announce on CNN the specific investigations."

That's a reference to two investigations that Trump has been wanting. One into the 2016 election and Ukraine's alleged conspiratorial involvement in it and another into a company that employed former vice president Joe Biden son Hunter. Holmes also said that there was a worry that even after the aide was released, that Zelensky would still announce the investigations.

Meanwhile, Senator Ron Johnson's name has come up a surprising amount during the impeachment inquiry. Johnson was the only member of Congress to attend president Zelensky inauguration back in April. Two of Trump's allies in the house wrote to the Wisconsin Republican about any information he had to present, and Johnson released a letter with his response on Monday. In it he said that yes, he did have a conversation with the US ambassador to the European Union where the ambassador said there was an arrangement or Ukraine could get the aid released.

He also repeated his version of a story he told the Wall Street Journal where when he'd called Trump about what the ambassador had said, the president got real mad, big mad. He also to various degrees attacked Hillary Clinton, the Russia investigation, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Veneman, and the idea that anything the president does in foreign policy could be bad or illegal. So mixed bag of a letter.

And finally, a lawyer for House Democrats told a federal court that Congress is looking into whether Trump lied during the Russia investigation. Democrats are currently locked in a legal battle with the department of justice over the notes and testimony underlying special counsel Robert Mueller's final report. Trump submitted written responses to questions during that investigation, including that he did not remember having any conversations about WikiLeaks. But a former Trump campaign staffer testified in a trial last week that Trump had been kept informed about WikiLeaks matters during the campaign.

Well, the court decided to hand over the Mueller docs before Congress votes on articles of impeachment TBD. And now for the numerology students out there, we have today's reading from our Nixometer.

On our scale, a zero is a normal day in normal White House and 10 is president Richard Nixon resigning and flying away in Marine One. This morning, we're at a 7.2. We've got more and more evidence building up that yes, the military aid to Ukraine was absolutely held up to benefit the president politically and top members of the administration were not only aware of this but worked to keep it quiet. And that feeling is only going to increase after today's hearings. Okay. After the break we talked to NB about Fiona Hill, so stay put.

All right. It's time for this fucking guy. It's where we zoom in on a person place or thing that shaping the impeachment. And today we're using the gender neutral use of guy because we're talking about Dr. Fiona Hill. She was the senior director for Russia and Europe on the White House National Security Council until she left in July. Joining us by phone from DC to talk about Fiona Hill is Politico national security correspondent Natasha Bertrand. Hill will be testifying on Thursday. So thank you Natasha for joining us to tell everyone what they need to know about her and what to look for from her testimony.

Natasha Bertrand:

Of course. Thanks for having me.

HB:

So I was familiar with Dr. Hill before her time in the White House as the author of a book called Mr. Putin. It's a very critical look at Russia's president. How did she get from that to the Trump administration?

NB:

So everyone was kind of shocked when she was put into this position because she is not exactly a conservative. The people who used to work with her at the Brookings Institution where she was a Russia scholar, didn't even really know what her political affiliation was. And so for her to come into an administration that values loyalty pretty much above all else, it was pretty stark. And then adding on top of that, the idea that she was very critical Vladimir Putin with the president who is very effusively in his praise for Putin, it was extra layer of weird.

NB:

So what happened was she came in, she was recruited by Michael Flynn. She knew him from when she was actually serving as an intelligence officer and she knew him from her days serving in the Obama administration, et cetera. So this is a relationship that she had cultivated and she says that it actually shows that Michael Flynn wanted someone who was very competent with regard to Russia and Vladimir Putin. And she was recruited by him and by Katie McFarland, who was Michael Flynn's deputy of course who lasted virtually no time at all in the White House.

NB:

So she was pretty much by herself when she came in and she developed a very good relationship with H.R. McMaster, the former national security advisor.

HB:

That makes a lot of sense. So she comes in, Flynn's gone, McFarland's gone. She latches onto McMaster. But McMaster is gone too. How did she get through the Russia investigation and managed to leave without getting fired in July? That's a really long gap of time to not fall under the eye of Trump's radar and tweets.

NB:

She actually thought that she was going to be fired from her very first day at the White House. She didn't really know at any given moment how long she would actually last in the position. And that was mostly because, again, she was very political. She wasn't known as someone who was an outspoken supporter of the president, but she kind of lasted in her role throughout all of this just by keeping her head down, by staying out of the news, by not being critical of the president and by just pushing forward policy initiatives with regard to Russia that she thought were useful to the United States. She did have a role and a voice there, but she was never too out in front on anything. And so she never really put herself in the president's direct path. And that's really how she managed to stay in and have a positive impact, at least that's how she feels.

HB:

Right. Because she was never on TV. So she already testified behind closed doors. And in that testimony Hill said that she was in several meetings that have proved to be key in this whole Ukraine affair. Can you talk a little bit about those?

NB:

Yeah. Because she was in the infamous July 10 meeting where top national security officials at the White House were discussing with Ukrainian officials to condition that we need to be met before a White House meeting between Volodymyr Zelensky and Trump took place. And also of course any other issues surrounding the new relationship that may need to be worked out before they have this introductory phone call between the president and Zelensky and his new position as president. There had been a congratulatory phone call back in April, and now-

HB:

Which we recently saw the transcript of.

NB:

Right, and now they really... Fiona actually didn't want this phone call to take place. The second one, and actually a lot of other White House officials including John Bolton, were pressuring the national security council at large to delay the second phone call as much as possible because they knew at the time that the president had such a sour view of Ukraine and could say something that might put him in some kind of political or legal jeopardy.

NB:

But ultimately they were speaking with Ukrainian officials about the relationship. And Fiona Hill would testify that or inform then the US ambassador to the EU had raised with the Ukrainian the necessity of them launching political investigations in order to get any kinds of concessions from the United States. So a White House meeting, for example, that was very coveted, a phone call that was also very coveted by Zelensky.

So she was in that meeting, she said that John Bolton was so disarmed by someone's comments that he cut the meeting short, told Fiona Hill to go straight to the lawyer, that he wasn't going to be part of this "drug deal." And she then went to the lawyer and told them all about it. And she has testified all of a sudden to the fact that there was this back-channel happening with Rudy Giuliani, the president lawyer throughout all of this. So she was there right up until, I would say about five days before the Trump, Zelensky phone call on July 25th

HB:

Which is such wild timing, like good for you way to get out while the getting's good Fiona Hill. So you mentioned John Bolton. She was a senior official under him during his tenure as national security advisor. How much do you think the committee is going to use her as a stand in for Bolton as he continues to say a pass on testifying.

NB:

So he was under a lot of pressure to fire her and he ultimately didn't because he saw her as very much a professional. So they had a really good relationship and he confided in her and they collaborate a lot, especially of course on issues related to Ukraine and Russia and Europe. And so I think that she will be able to provide a lot of insight into their conversations, perhaps more so than she already has because publicly she's known to be an extremely straight shooter. I mean she was completely no nonsense. You can really see it come out when she was being questioned by the Republicans during her deposition, all of these things about maybe these officials were freelancing, maybe they weren't taking directly from the president. These are things that she may be able to push back on or shed more light on. So I think that her role is kind of a surrogate for Bolton will be invaluable for the Democrats in the next week or so.

HB:

I remember reading during her testimony, she's pushing back really hard on a bunch of like conspiracies that the Republicans were also raising. Is there a piece of her testimony you think will be most important for viewers to hear? To get an understanding of what actually happened and how much do you think she can actually move the needle?

NB:

Yeah, so I think a really important part of it will be her recollection of how John Bolton was reacting to all of this because say what you will about Fiona Hill. But John Bolton, he is not a never Trumper. He is not a liberal, right? He's not kind of a deep stater. I mean this is someone who works in the Trump administration happily. And who up until the very end tended to get along pretty well with the president. He was a little bit more hawkish, but he could not be categorized by anyone as kind of a left wing operative. Right. So if she testifies that he was concerned about what was going on and that this even to John Bolton who is known for being very aggressive was alarmed by what these diplomats and Gordon Sondland and all these people were doing in the back channel. That I think will be very powerful.

NB:

And then the second thing obviously she feels strongly about is this idea that Ukraine interfered with 2016 election on any kind of level or scale that the Russians did. This is a conspiracy theory that she told Republicans basically was just helping the Russians to be more motivated to interfere again in 2020 because this is money in the water so much. So I think that will be really important for people to hear as well is this has been one of the main counters that Republicans during the testimony that hey, you create metal too. She's going to push back online and say there's really no evidence for it. And I do think that it could move the needle just because she is a very dramatic, straightforward, forceful person. And so I don't think that her testimony will be easy to ignore it.

HB:

All right. Before we let you go, Natasha, what did you bring for the kicker to wrap all this up.

NB:

My favorite thing is a Donald Trump tweet from yesterday where he tweeted, "Even though I did nothing wrong, and don't like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will. I like the idea and will strongly consider writing answers and testifying before Congress essentially in the impeachment inquiry. This is really interesting to me because he did the same for the Mueller investigation and now those answers that he submitted in writing are under investigation by the house Democrats for potential perjury.

HB:

Time is a flat circle. Thank you so much to Natasha for taking the time to join us today and go back to reporting and doing a great job at that.

NB:

Thank you so much.

HB:

All right, it is time to testify and tomorrow Wednesday we have another three people up to bet including one of the most eagerly anticipated characters in this whole drama fest, US ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland will be first up in front of the committee on Wednesday morning. And who is he in for a grilling, like Memorial Day weekend your dad is overly enthusiastic with how much lighter fluid he uses grilling.

Multiple people have said in their testimony that Sondland was not only in touch with president Trump, but he at least claimed to be acting on Trump's behalf in Ukraine. Sondland has already revised his closed door testimony once clarifying that he did in fact tell Ukrainian official that military aid would probs only be restored once Trump got the investigations he wanted.

But Sondland has also been described as a bit of a fabulist, so be prepared to take his testimony with a grain of salt. And do go back and listen to our episode from November 7th welcome to the hotel impeachment to get a refresher on Sondland's whole deal. Then tomorrow afternoon we have two foreign policy professionals appearing. Deputy assistant secretary of defense, Laura Cooper, a Pentagon staffer who handles Russia affairs and David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. Cooper has testified earlier that Ukrainians were very aware of the hold on aid and tried to get her to tell them what was going on. I talked about Hale's testimony earlier this episode, so it's going to be interesting to hear him give his view from near the top of the state department as chaos was raining in Ukraine.

Okay, that's it for today. Tomorrow we'll have all the and lows from Tuesday's impeachment hearings. It's short to be a genteel, somber, clusterfuck of the highest order. But before we go, as always, we want to hear from you and this week we want to know as the hearing start to pile up what do you still or newly confused by. What doesn't make sense. We're here to at least try to solve your impeachment mysteries.

We're basically like the Scooby-Doo gang, except the ghost is always Mick Mulvaney. But gotten away with the two if it weren't for you meddling state department employees.

Anyway, open the Voice Memo app on your phone, record your message and send it to us at impeachmentatbuzzfeed.com. Or just send me a direct message on Twitter. I'm at HB and my DMs are always open. Be sure to subscribe on the the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows - and maybe leave us a rating and a review. Also, tell your friends about the show as we all figure this out together.

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