Fiona Hill, former senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, at the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump on November 21 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LOREN ELLIOTT
Fiona Hill, former senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, at the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump on November 21 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LOREN ELLIOTT

Washington  — Fiona Hill, a scholar of Russia with a British accent and a historian’s grasp of context, endured three Republican lawmakers lecturing her about the flaws of the impeachment inquiry at which she was testifying under subpoena before she seized the moment.

“Could I actually say something?” asked Hill, a former national security council (NSC) senior director. “All of us who came here under a legal obligation also felt we had a moral obligation to do so. We came as fact witnesses.”

Hill seemed to be speaking on Thursday for the dozen witnesses who appeared before the House intelligence committee in public impeachment hearings over the past two weeks. Most of those summoned have been career foreign service officers and civil servants, and several spoke out to defend the honour of government professionals US President Donald Trump derides as members of the “deep state”.

Hill’s argument also carried an implicit rebuke of all the high-level political appointees who have spurned subpoenas to testify and hand over documents, including her former boss John Bolton, secretary of state Michael Pompeo, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

Hill warned that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is preparing to interfere in the 2020 election and lamented that partisan rancour offered a tantalising opening to exploit.

‘Inappropriate’ pressure

Lt-Col Alexander Vindman, director of European Affairs on the NSC, cast his testimony that Trump exerted “inappropriate” pressure on Ukraine’s president as the fulfillment of every American’s duty to stand up for what’s right.

“This is America; this is the country I’ve served and defended, that all of my brothers have served — and here, right matters,” said Vindman, whose family came to America from the Soviet Union when he was a child.

He attracted attention — and some criticism — for wearing his dress uniform with the Purple Heart that he was awarded after being wounded in Iraq.

Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted from her post as ambassador to Ukraine, said the “smear” campaign against her provided a template for taking out career diplomats who don’t bend to political manipulation. “How could our system fail like this?” Yovanovitch asked in her testimony. “How is it that foreign corrupt interest could manipulate our government?”

Hill, who was described as “steely” by Democratic representative Jackie Speier, successfully jousted with Steve Castor, the counsel for the intelligence panel’s Republican minority.

When Castor advanced the argument that Trump had every right to take foreign policy advice from whomever he wanted — including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and political contributor-turned-ambassador Gordon Sondland — Hill said that was absolutely right.

She said she only gradually realised that Sondland had been assigned a very different agenda by Trump. “He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy,” Hill said of Sondland. “And those two things had just diverged.”

The women and emotions cliché

For good measure, she took down Sondland, who testified in a closed-door session that Hill became “pretty emotional” when she confronted him over the policy chaos surrounding Ukraine.

“I was actually, to be honest, angry with him,” Hill said. “I hate to say it, but often when women show anger it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often, you know, pushed onto emotional issues perhaps, or deflected onto other people.”

Republican lawmakers portrayed the Ukraine inquiry as only the latest episode in a three-year effort by Democrats to bring down Trump, calling the proceedings a “farce” and “impeach-a-palooza”.

“What you’ve seen in this room over the past two weeks is a show trial,” representative Devin Nunes of California, the panel’s top Republican, said. “This spectacle with its secret depositions and mid-hearing press conferences is not meant to discover the facts.”

Time and again, the witnesses were asked by Republicans if they were “Never Trumpers”, a phrase that questions their loyalty if not their patriotism.

“I obviously don’t know what the definition of a Never Trumper is,” Hill said. “It’s a puzzling term to be applied to career or non-partisan officials.”