Lost in all the fake news about President Trump’s alleged affinity for Russia is the real news that he has tapped a harsh critic of Vladimir Putin to be the White House senior director for Russia and Europe. The Putin-critic he reportedly has selected is Fiona Hill, a former intelligence officer now with the Brookings Institution.
Hill was on the National Intelligence Council from 2006-09, serving under Presidents Bush and Obama. She has argued in favor of keeping sanctions in place on Russia in response to Moscow’s aggression in Crimea and Ukraine. In addition, she has argued that Putin’s desire for a “weakened U.S. presidency” is behind his meddling in the 2016 president election. If so, as I have suggested, it’s looking like a case of “mission accomplished.”
Hill is more than just a conventional critic of Putin. She is the co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. According to The New Yorker, the book describes Putin’s system as a “protection racket” in which he views himself as the “CEO of Russia, Inc.,” and is served by “crony oligarchs.” “In reality,” Hill writes, “his leadership style is more like that of a mafia family Don.”
The selection of Hill has been praised by liberals who have expressed what I assume are good faith concerns about what the Trump administration’s Russia policy will end up being. For example, Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Obama called it a “great hire,” adding that “Fiona is both a first-class scholar and an experienced former government official.”
In addition, Celeste Wallander, who was Obama’s leading adviser on Russia, considers Hill “a respected analyst in the Washington Russia community [who] has been very tough and really hardheaded about who and what Putin is and about U.S.-Russian policy.”
But other liberals offer a darker take. David Remnick and Evan Osnos say that “many members of the foreign-policy community in Washington are stunned” that “Hill could take such a post when the Trump Administration is under scrutiny for its relations with Russian officials.” They are said to “wonder if Hill is deluded in thinking, somehow, that she can play a positive and decisive role in a White House clouded by the prospect of congressional investigations and influenced so markedly by ideologues like Steve Bannon.”
I wonder whether “many members of the foreign-policy community in Washington” are deluded. They have worked themselves into a frenzy, choosing to construe Trump’s statement of the obvious — that Putin is a strong leader — as a statement that Putin is a good guy, and electing to view allegations of contacts between members of Trump’s team and high-ranking Russians as evidence that Trump has reached a nefarious bargain with Putin.
Throw in the obligatory Steve Bannon reference, and suddenly a highly respected analyst can be written off as delusional. The anti-Trump narrative is preserved.
But the selection of Fiona Hill is better evidence of how Trump views Russia than anything the president’s liberal critics are citing. Moreover, a close reading of Hill’s statements to Remnick and Osnos suggests, contrary to the conclusions the two journalists seem to draw, that she does not subscribe to the anti-Trump line on his approach to Russia. Hill understands that Putin’s goal was to discredit Hillary Clinton — who they presumably thought would win the election — and to discredit our electoral system, not to help Donald Trump become president.
In addition, Hill rejects the view of Donald Trump as a “Manchurian Candidate.” She argues that the Russians want to create that impression for their own purposes.
Presumably, she is too diplomatic to add that liberal journalists like Remnick and Osnos are doing that work for Putin.