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Was Fiona Hill’s Testimony A Slam Dunk?

November 22, 2019 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: ImpeachmentDonald TrumpFiona HillForeign PolicyRussia

Was Fiona Hill’s Testimony A Slam Dunk?

Ukraine and Russia policy has become war by other means in American domestic politics.

The Democrats concluded their impeachment hearings on Thursday and the verdict is already in from the major establishment organs. “Fiona Hill Nails the Case Against Trump,” blared the CNN headline. Then Paul Krugman, a columnist for the New York Times, noted in a tweet: “One side lesson from this inquiry is that the Deep State contains some really impressive, principled people. Which is why Trump hates it so much.”

Well, no. Perhaps the main reason Donald Trump views the “deep state” with apprehension is because he has been fighting a defensive war against it since before his election. Trump’s victory signified a shift in public opinion, a buck against the post–Cold War policies of the United States’ managerial elites, including the unelected bureaucrats crafting internationalist policies that went beyond the time limits of individual administrations. This deep state’s response to Trump’s election was a three-year investigation into an election collusion conspiracy (partially fueled by disbelief that the American people could have voted the “wrong way”), and without skipping a beat has manifested itself into the current impeachment inquiry over Ukraine policy.

The praise of Krugman as well as nearly countless members of the foreign policy establishment was directed principally at the witnesses at yesterday’s hearing. One of the two was David Holmes, who currently serves as a counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine. Holmes was able to spin a single vignette—a phone call he overheard in a restaurant between EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Trump—into a forty-five-minute opening statement.

The more significant appearance was that of Dr. Fiona Hill, who until August was responsible for coordinating all of policy regarding Europe for the National Security Council. Hill, a Russia expert and author who was a student of Richard Pipes at Harvard University, and previously worked at the Brookings Institution, joined the administration early on. Brought in as a “fact witness,” her performance was probably the most commanding of the entire week, delivering crisp answers with a calm, almost expressionless demeanor. 

But is it the job of a former member of the National Security Council essentially going into battle for the Democrats? Is it an appropriate mission to “nail,” as the CNN headline put, the Democratic case, or is it to function as a fact witness—which is what was supposed to be her ostensible role at the hearing.

Yet Hill showed no hesitation about berating the Republican members of the committee, going where previous witnesses were not prepared to go. In effect, she accused them of being useful idiots for the Kremlin, unwitting pawns of Russian president Vladimir Putin who were, higgledy-piggledy, serving as transmission belts for propaganda emanating from Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

Hill said she left Brookings to work in the administration precisely because she agreed with the president’s stated foreign policy goals. “I heard President Trump say that he wanted to improve the relationship with Russia. I believe we have to. We can’t be in this unending confrontation with Russia,” she said during the hearing. There she was in accord with Trump’s own professed intentions during the 2016 campaign.

But Hill’s means do not match her ends. Despite being one of the few officials under Trump to convey her opinion that tension must be relieved from the Russian-American relationship, her descriptions manifest themselves as indistinguishable from the hawkish response of a foreign policy establishment that remains stuck on automatic pilot. As with previous witnesses, Ukraine was depicted as some kind of virginal innocent that Trump was defiling. Worse, it was a calumny, Hill suggested, to consider that Ukraine might have sought to poke a stick in the wheels of the Trump campaign in 2016. What she did not consider is that Russian interference did not preclude that the Ukrainians sought to meddle as well. Perhaps not on as great a scale, but surely it was worth a preliminary inquiry into what actually developed and occurred on the Ukrainian side during the turbulent election campaign?

Hill was having none of it. She focused exclusively on Moscow. In her opening statement, Hill said the idea that Russian intelligence may not be solely responsible for conducting interference into the 2016 presidential election “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” Stating that Russia “attacked our democratic institutions,” this is “the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies” and is “beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.”

Repeating the same debunked talking point of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Hill went beyond the actual findings of the intelligence community. The furthest the intelligence community went was this: it issues a January 2017 report based on the findings of select analysts from only four of the country’s seventeen intelligence agencies. These analysts were handpicked by former CIA Director John Brennan, one of the principal disseminators—and perhaps originators—of the original collusion conspiracy that issued in the Mueller report. Nor is this all. It’s worth recalling the FBI never gained access to the Democratic National Committee’s servers, instead trusting the conclusions of a privately hired third-party. For her part, Hill went rather far in stating that the DNC or John Podesta’s email account are part of the United States’ “democratic institutions.”

There is another problem. To trust the intelligence community blindly when it purports to have full-proof, non-public details defies credulity. After decades of both purposeful malfeasance and egregious mistakes, including the bogus claim that Saddam Hussein was feverishly working to construct nuclear weapons, many of which were explicitly decried by Trump in his presidential campaign, the American public can hardly be blamed if it casts a wary eye at the claims of the CIA and FBI.

This is what Hill views as the greatest, most negative consequence.“Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined,” she said in her opening. She’s correct. American institutions, both government and social, are crumbling and becoming ineffective. But this is not because of a foreign bogeyman or even Trump. It’s because of thirty years of misrule by American elites, especially in the realm of foreign policy. Was the election of Trump the cause of this dismal state of affairs or a reaction to it?

It’s telling that many Americans aren’t yet convinced that the hearings are a slam dunk. Quite the contrary. The latest polling from Emerson says 45 percent of independent registered voters opposed impeachment, while 43 percent supported it. This is a six-point swing against Democratic-led proceedings since last month. And in a Marquette University survey found that in Wisconsin, one of the key 2020 battleground states, a majority (53 percent) don’t believe Donald Trump should be impeached. The case against Trump that Hill and her confreres are promoting is far from closed. Still, the most remarkable aspect of the testimony may be that it was delivered at all. The greatest imponderable of the Trump administration is how the president ended up appointing a cadre of aides whose views were opposed to his own—and how he continues to appoint them. Stephen Biegun, who testified this past Wednesday before Congress to become Deputy Secretary of State, went out of his way to laud former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch as “a very capable foreign service officer” who was “slandered” by her detractors in Ukraine, while Trump went on to denounce her on Friday as “not an angel.” He added, “This ambassador that, you know, everybody says is so wonderful, she wouldn’t hang my picture in the embassy.” True or not, Trump, and Trump alone, is the one who bears the responsibility for who executes his policies. So far, he hasn’t shown that he really cares.

Hunter DeRensis is a reporter at the National Interest.

Image: Reuters