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Fiona Hill's new memoir discusses her time in the Trump administration

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So many books have come out about the Trump administration that we now have different perspectives on the very same incidents. One of the books out today is by former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. She says when Donald Trump met Russia's president, Vladimir Putin used an attractive female interpreter. This detail was noticed by the administration's Russia specialist, Fiona Hill, who has her own memoir also out today and who says the incident with Putin's interpreter is true.

FIONA HILL: He was like, oh, look who I've brought, you know, my gorgeous interpreter, making a point, and then making a comment about all of the other women. And you know, he made sure that, you know, Trump was constantly looking towards the interpreter while he was just basically pushing buttons all the time.

INSKEEP: Fiona Hill had a post at the National Security Council, and in a normal administration, the public would rarely learn very much about her work. But she became a witness against Trump at one of his impeachment trials. In writing her memoir, she tries to take in far more than Trump. She writes of him instead as a symptom of a divided society. Fiona Hill grew up in the U.K. and says some people wrote her off as soon as they learned what her father did for a living.

HILL: My father had been a coal miner, and then he'd lost his job as the coal mines closed down, and he'd become a hospital porter, an ancillary or auxiliary worker - an orderly in a hospital, which was pretty much, at that point, on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

INSKEEP: Her father encouraged her to leave the coal mining region, saying there is nothing for you here, which is the title of her book. Fiona Hill did get out and later became an American, but she says that both her native country and her adopted one deny many people the opportunity to get ahead.

HILL: My own story is not just a story of individual success and going to Harvard or St. Andrews University in Scotland or all the things that I've done, but it's also proof that it actually takes a team effort to help people get ahead because all the way along the way, from Bishop Barrington Comprehensive School in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, I got a grant for education. I got assistance from a local organization - the Rotary Club, for example - business community, friends and neighbors, the Durham Miners' Association - all to help me pay for my education. I came to the United States on a scholarship, and it's these kinds of things that have disappeared for a larger group of people.

INSKEEP: What is the connection between the social reality you're describing and the politics of the administration that you joined for a time?

HILL: Well, I think the obvious correlation is that we ended up having a populist president, someone who claims the support of the people, claims to be able to speak in the name of the people, claims to be the champion of the people without any real personal connection to ordinary people, but who has completely and utterly removed any intermediaries, either a political party or even Congress and the Senate, any representation in between. But he is very similar to many of the same presidential and leadership types that we see in history and also internationally. Vladimir Putin is the same example in Russia since the end of the 1990s. Viktor Orban in Hungary, President Erdogan in Turkey fall into that same category of people who are appealing to a larger people as they define it, and it is we're short circuiting politics and democracy.

INSKEEP: Why do you write that the United States is becoming politically more like Russia, a country you know very well?

HILL: Well, because of this polarization and the short circuiting of democracy - because this is actually what we saw in Russia in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the precipitating factors for the collapse of the Soviet Union was loss of faith in the Communist Party. It was kind of meaningless. People didn't believe in it anymore. And those structures collapsed as well, and new parties emerged. And the 1990s was a period of massive infighting. There were multiple coups. Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president after the collapse of the Soviet Union, shelled the parliament building in October 1993. I mean, this was a period of political chaos very reminiscent of the - you know, the period that we've gone through here. And out of it, there was a desire for something new and for someone who could just get control of everything again. And Vladimir Putin comes in. He said he's going to fix everything. He's going to make Russia great again. If we think about the way that Vladimir Putin has organized himself, you know, the groups of people around him and what he was really responding to, which was a period of dislocation politically, economically and socially in Russia for a long decade, we've had the same in the United States since the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

INSKEEP: Did you feel you understood Trump any better for having worked for him?

HILL: Well, he's not a cartoon character in some of the ways that he's depicted, you know, this sort of one dimensional way. He definitely had some empathy. He really hated, you know, seeing people suffering - for example, you know, the gassing of women and children in Syria, which then made him decide to launch a missile strike against Syrian airbases. He was deeply affected by the injuries of American soldiers. That was part of his feeling about - we have to remember he is the one who wanted to pull out very precipitously from Afghanistan initially. I mean, there were occasionally flashes on which you felt that there was somebody else underneath all of that. But you know, they were very deeply concealed by all of the superficiality and, you know, this person who was kind of living out there all the time in a virtual world.

And also, I have to say that he asked a lot of questions, hard questions that we really needed to be asking for ourselves. What he did afterwards is another matter. But he put all the spotlight on things we should have been fixing.

INSKEEP: What were some of the questions he posed that were the right questions?

HILL: Some of the questions about whether the political system is, you know, really satisfying the needs and the desires of large swaths of the American public. And I think the answer to that is no, right? He was asking half the time about, you know, why are we doing things like this in foreign policy? Why do we have these forever wars? What is, you know, the nature of our relationship with this country and that country? You know, often these are the questions well, yes, we should have stood back and reassessed these. Some cases, we'd have said, no, this is worth doing. We need to continue with it because he became just a big wrecking ball to many of these issues. And in other cases, we did need to stand back and do things differently. Of course, he didn't then give us the space to be able to do it.

INSKEEP: I almost feel like you're telling me this was a wasted opportunity, that he had tremendous talent that was wasted.

HILL: He had some talent, but he didn't have any coherence. He didn't really have an ideology. He wanted to, for example, make a big arms control deal with Russian - with the Russians. Well, that's really tragic because he might have been able to pull something off. But he was so ill-suited to the task. So it was a colossal wasted opportunity and a tragedy for everyone here.

INSKEEP: Fiona Hill is the author of "There Is Nothing For You Here." Thanks so much.

HILL: Thank you so much, Steve. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OD NEIL COWLEY TRIO'S "MISSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.