WASHINGTON — Fiona Hill, President Trump’s former top Russia and Europe adviser, met with House impeachment investigators Monday prepared to testify that she and other officials objected strenuously to the removal of the ambassador to Ukraine, only to be disregarded.
Hill, who stepped down from the White House’s National Security Council staff over the summer, viewed the recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from Kyiv as an egregious abuse of the system by allies of Trump who were seeking to push aside a perceived obstacle, according to a person familiar with Hill’s account. Yovanovitch told the investigators in closed-door testimony last week that the president had personally pushed for her ouster for months, based on “false claims.”
The removal of Yovanovitch has emerged as a key episode in the narrative under examination by the House as part of its impeachment inquiry against Trump. A career diplomat, Yovanovitch was targeted by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, and other allies who were seeking to press Ukraine to investigate Trump’s Democratic rivals.
Hill’s interview kicked off what promises to be another active week of investigation by the House, where Democrats opened a formal impeachment inquiry late last month based on an intelligence officer’s whistle-blower complaint that alleged that Trump had abused his power to try to enlist Ukraine to interfere on his behalf in the 2020 election.
The recall of the ambassador was a case study in how Giuliani and his allies pursued their goals by sidelining or circumventing the government officials, like Yovanovitch and Hill, who were formally overseeing policy toward Ukraine. Hill was kept out of the loop by Giuliani and the president’s allies as they negotiated separately with Ukrainian officials, including on issues clearly in her area of responsibility.
Hill was the first person who worked in the White House to be deposed by House investigators and appeared despite the administration’s declaration last week that it would refuse to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry or allow its staff to do so. The White House did not attempt to stop Hill from testifying, according to the person familiar with her account, but White House lawyers exchanged letters with Hill’s lawyer about precedents regarding the confidentiality of presidential communications.
The House Intelligence Committee issued a last-minute subpoena Monday morning to compel Hill to speak with the investigators, according to an official involved in the investigation. The arrangement was similar to one used last week to secure Yovanovitch’s cooperation, allowing both witnesses to more easily justify ignoring the White House’s clear opposition to cooperation with the House inquiry.
Hill, who was described as sensitive to the concerns of executive confidentiality, may limit her answers regarding direct interactions with the president. But her testimony has been highly anticipated, in part because she has a long history as a skeptic of President Vladimir Putin of Russia who nonetheless worked for two years for Trump as he made friendship with the Russian leader a high priority.
Hill is a widely respected, British-born former Brookings Institution scholar and intelligence officer. She is the author, with Clifford Gaddy, of “Mr. Putin,” a critical biography of the Russian leader, and she served as senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council staff from 2017 until last summer.
She turned over her duties to her successor July 15 and left July 19, just days before the July 25 telephone call in which Trump pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate conspiracy theories about Ukrainian help to Democrats in the 2016 election and supposed corruption by former vice president Joe Biden.
Hill was prepared to testify that she opposed the idea of the phone call because she did not understand its purpose. While it was described as a congratulatory call after parliamentary elections in Ukraine, Trump had already made a congratulatory call to Zelensky in April after his own election.
Hill has told associates that while she was the president’s top adviser on Russia and Ukraine, she was cut out of decisions and discussions as Giuliani and others ran a shadow diplomacy intended to benefit Trump’s political position.
She was not told that Trump would use the July 25 call to press for an investigation into Biden nor did she know about the president’s decision to withhold $391 million in US assistance to Ukraine until shortly before her departure, according to the person informed about her account.
Her testimony would not establish a quid pro quo between the suspended aid and Trump’s pressure for investigations, the person said. But she would confirm that the administration leveraged a coveted White House invitation for Zelensky to a commitment to investigate corruption, which was seen as code for investigating Democrats.
Hill took her objections to the treatment of Yovanovitch, who was targeted by Giuliani and conservative media outlets, to John Bolton, then the national security adviser, as well as others. Bolton shared her concerns, according to the person, and was upset at Giuliani’s activities, which Hill viewed as essentially co-opting US foreign policy toward Ukraine.