Fiona Hill warns about Russian political meddling in 60 Minutes interview

President Trump's former top adviser on Russia talks with Lesley Stahl about the differences between briefings in the Trump and Obama administrations, how Vladimir Putin operates and how both Republicans and Democrats have played into his hands.

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You may remember Fiona Hill from her passionate testimony, and English accent, during the impeachment hearings of President Trump. She held one of the most sensitive jobs at the White House as the president's top adviser on Russia. She's considered by scholars, the intelligence community, and politicians - both Republicans and Democrats – to be one of the world's leading experts on Vladimir Putin.

When we sat down with Dr. Hill on Tuesday for her first interview since testifying, she told us her goal was to sound the alarm about Russian meddling in our political system – which is tearing us apart. 

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Fiona Hill CBS News

Fiona Hill: Putin, sadly, has got all of our political class, every single one of us, including the media, exactly where he wants us. He's got us feeling vulnerable, he's got us feeling on edge, and he's got us questioning the legitimacy of our own systems.

Lesley Stahl: But how much of our polarization, of the fact that we are heads butting in this country, how much of that came from the Russians?

Fiona Hill: Well, certainly in 2016, a lot of it did. But they don't invent the divisions. The Russians didn't invent partisan divides. The Russians haven't invented racism in the United States. But the Russians understand a lot of those divisions and they understand how to exploit them. 

Lesley Stahl: Do you think we're in a second Cold War?

Fiona Hill: I don't think that we're in a second Cold War. The one thing that people need to bear in mind is that the Russian military still has the capacity to wipe out the United States through a nuclear strike. But there is no ideological struggle. The Cold War were two systems against each other. In a sense we're in the same system. We're competitors.    

By the time Fiona Hill testified at the impeachment hearings, she had already left the Trump White House after spending over two years on the National Security Council. As a witness, she stood out for her passion and purpose in warning that Russia is up to no good -- again.

Hill at impeachment hearing: Right now Russian security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 elections. We are running out of time to stop them.

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Hill arrives to testify at a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on November 21, 2019. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Lesley Stahl: Talking about 2020, there've been a lot of stories saying that the Russians are hoping that Bernie Sanders will be the candidate, the Democratic candidate. Does that make sense to you?

Fiona Hill: It does make sense because what the Russians are looking for is the two candidates who are kind of the polar opposites. They're looking, you know, to basically have the smallest possible number of people supporting those two candidates with everybody else kind of lost in the middle. So that it exacerbates, exaggerates as well, the polarization in the country. 
 
Lesley Stahl: I'm listening to you. And yet, my mind is going over all the other factors that have so greatly contributed to this, like Facebook, Fox News, MSNBC. I mean, there are so many factors here.

Fiona Hill: I think it's important for us to understand those factors and to do something about them. I'm deeply disappointed in the fact that Facebook and other outlets have not stepped up to the occasion to really address things that are just outright lies and falsehoods.

Lesley Stahl: This whole issue of blaming Ukraine for meddling in the 2016 election that you spoke out against during the hearings. I mean, that really–- isn't it that really is spreading Russian disinformation, right?

Fiona Hill: This is very much a fictional narrative that has been propagated by the Russian intelligence services. 

Lesley Stahl: And a lot of those Republicans were promoting it. And do they not know that it's Russian disinformation?

Fiona Hill: Members of Congress have been briefed repeatedly on issues like this.

Lesley Stahl: What about the Democrats? Have they also propagated any Russian disinformation?

Fiona Hill: Yes they have. In the sense of talking about the President being illegitimate.

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CBS News

She had worked as an intelligence officer on Russia under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. At the Trump White House, she was in charge of all of Europe. But she's best known for her shrewd analysis of Vladimir Putin. She's written what's been called the definitive book about him, and has met with him several times over the years.

Fiona Hill: He wasn't a professional politician. He came out of the KGB. He had learned certain skills there. You're basically figuring out how to size someone up and then to figure out what makes them tick, what their vulnerabilities in particulars might be so how can you hone in on those to get people to do what it is you want them to do.

Lesley Stahl: Do you think that he studied President Trump and did find some vulnerabilities and honed in on them with our president?

Fiona Hill: He does this with absolutely everybody that he interacts with. 

For example with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at one of their first meetings.

Fiona Hill: Putin knew from all of his research on her that she was very scared of dogs. Putin has a very big black Labrador called Konni. And has the black Labrador come into the room and the black lab immediately comes and starts sniffing around the chair of the chancellor. The whole purpose of that was intimidation. 
 
Lesley Stahl: Sure.

Fiona Hill: The chancellor is, of course a professional. And she's a woman who is used to having people try to intimidate her and she kept it together.

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Lesley Stahl: Why do you think the president seems so allergic to criticizing Putin? He almost can't do it, or he won't do it.

Fiona Hill: President Trump understands that President Putin does not like to be insulted. Putin takes it very personally. He harbors a grudge. He doesn't forget. And he will find some way of getting some degree of revenge as a result of that.

Lesley Stahl: But for a lot of people, that the president has never and will never criticize Putin in any way has seemed strange.

Fiona Hill: It's also a tactic that the president, President Trump, has employed with other world leaders as well.

Lesley Stahl: You know, he's insulted our allies, the leaders of-- in the West.

Fiona Hill: I mean he looked at the allies, you know, many times as though they're business counterparts. And so he brought the same style that he would've applied in, you know, pretty hard-nosed business discussions. I think that that did and has, in many respects, done some damage to many of our key relationships.

Her journey to Washington was a steep, tough climb. She grew up poor - a coal miner's daughter in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, in Northern England. But she ended up with a Ph.D. from Harvard and a top job at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. After 9/11, she became an American citizen. In her role at the White House, she was involved in briefings with the president.

Lesley Stahl: Does President Trump ask good questions?

Fiona Hill: He does, actually, because he's challenging assumptions. Again, this is somebody who hasn't come in from a government position. You know, obviously, there was a lot of insightful questions about why are things set up, how did that start. And a lot of questions about how much do things cost. I think the big disadvantage of constantly challenging is the fact that, you know, this disruption, this constant disruption, often makes it very difficult to move forward.

Lesley Stahl: Now, as you've mentioned, you've also worked for President Barack Obama. I wonder how this president is different in how he makes decisions and what the whole process is in the White House.

Fiona Hill: So with President Obama, he's a very different style. Very thoughtful, posed. He would often, you know, sit with his hand on his chin and just be looking at you and not really moving. And you'd be, you know, I have to say, feeling just a little, "Is he-- is he listening?" You know, he hasn't moved. And then he would ask maybe one or two really insightful questions. And obviously, President Trump has a much more freewheeling style, much more eclectic. He has his briefings with different people. And he just gets information from a lot of other sources.

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Hill arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Lesley Stahl: What about the fact that the president seems to be getting rid of, purging almost people with expertise, people with a lot of experience in intelligence or diplomacy and replacing them with people who are loyal to him.

Fiona Hill: We've got ourselves into a situation where government service is somehow seen to be a political act rather than an act of civic duty or of public service. There's been a lot of bandying around this term of "radical unelected bureaucrats." We're in the middle of a public health crisis. You don't want somebody who's just looking up on Google or Wikipedia, looking up, you know, kind of the coronavirus online. Most of the public health officials are public servants and experts. We need those experts at times of crisis. And so it's deeply disturbing to see people trying to bring them all down for, you know, their own domestic political purposes.

Lesley Stahl: I'm sitting here and every time I ask you a question about President Trump you defend him. And then you say things like that. And I keep thinking, "Well, she's criticizing the president," without saying his name.

Fiona Hill: There's an awful lot to criticize for everybody, correct? And I don't think that at this stage where we are in our political life that it does any good about doing any kind of personal criticism on anybody.

But at the hearings, she seemed far more critical, describing a chaotic White House with NSC officials like her left in the dark, while rogue operators were off on missions for the president, like then-Ambassador Gordon Sondland. 

Hill at impeachment hearing: Because he was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security-foreign policy and those two things had just diverged. And I did say to him, "Ambassador Sondland – Gordon- I think this is all going to blow up." And here we are.
 
Lesley Stahl: When you took the job, I know that there were some of your friends who had urged you not to. I wonder if any of your friends stop talking to you. 

Fiona Hill: There were some people in the professional circles in which I move through [who] certainly took, let's just say, some took offense, frankly, at the fact that I had decided to get this. They had given me counsel not to do the job. And they, you know, actually did believe that I would be aiding and abetting something nefarious by joining the administration. I felt very strongly, however, that we were in situation where we were to a confrontation with Russia that someone like myself, who was not political, someone who was an expert should step up and try to do something.

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Correspondent Lesley Stahl and Fiona Hill CBS News

Lesley Stahl: Right after you started at the White House, there was a smear campaign against you. Public, distressing I'm sure. What was that all about?

Fiona Hill: Well, I'm still trying to get to the bottom of some of that, to be honest.

Alex Jones in YouTube clip: He's got a major Soros mole discovered in The White House, breaking now...   

In May 2017, right-wing conspiracists launched an online campaign to discredit her. 

Roger Stone with Jones in YouTube clip: George Soros has penetrated the Trump White House. A woman named Fiona Hill-- 

Fiona Hill: I have to say that the scale of this did take me by surprise.

Lesley Stahl: This was Roger Stone--

Fiona Hill: It was, Roger Stone, Alex Jones. And I did think--

Lesley Stahl: So from the right?

Fiona Hill: "--Why me?"

Lesley Stahl: Were there death threats?

Fiona Hill: There were death threats. There was-- quite a number of them, especially online.

She found it disturbing. And she doesn't rattle easily, as the public saw at the impeachment hearings as she held her own when committee members challenged her. In becoming an overnight public figure, she found herself contending with the anxieties of her 13-year-old daughter.

Lesley Stahl: How did she absorb all of this?

Fiona Hill: Initially, she was, you know, somewhat concerned about the whole thing.

Lesley Stahl: She must have been worrying all that time?

Fiona Hill: But she also helped me put things into perspective. Because on the day before I was meant to testify in public, and obviously I was trying to prepare myself for this, she was preparing for a big test. And she was having me quiz her in the car when I was driving her to school. And she was getting quite anxious. And you know, I was kind of trying to pull rank on this one and said, "Look, put it into perspective. You know, Mommy, tomorrow has to, you know, kinda testify before Congress and millions of people might be watching. And you know, I mean, this is a test. And she just looked at me and she said, "This is much worse." And I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "Well, you just have to tell the truth."

Produced by Shachar Bar-On. Associate producer, Natalie Jimenez Peel. Broadcast associates, Claire Fahy and Maria Rutan. Edited by Matthew Lev.

  • Lesley Stahl
    Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.