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tv   Firing Line With Margaret Hoover  PBS  October 22, 2021 11:30pm-12:01am PDT

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>> american democracy in danger this week on "firing line." a behind-the-scenes civil servant who took center stage in president trump's first impeachment hearings. >> the impacts of the successful 2016 russian campaign remains evident today. our nation is being torn apart. >> dr. fiona hill is a british-born naturalized citizen and an expert on russia and vladimir putin. she took a top post the trump white house, advising the president on the kremlin. she was there in helsinki when trump sided with putin over his own intelligence agencies. >> people came to me, they said they think it's russia. i have president putin. he just said it's not russia. >> her impeachment testimony made her a target. >> i can't, for the life of me, understand why respected person like fiona hill continues to embarrass herself. >> but threats against
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democracy, here and now, have her sounding the alarm. what does dr. fiona hill say now? >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible in part by... and by... corporate funding is provided by... >> dr. fiona hill, welcome to "firing line." >> thanks so much, margaret. >> you write in vivid detail in your new memoir, entitled "there is nothing for you here," about your childhood in the north of england, a place that was left behind by modernization, and your family growing up that lived on the margins financially. you are the daughter of a miner and a midwife, and you rose, quote, "from the coal house to the white house."
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maybe you can expand on how the experiences of the places left behind have led to populism and even authoritarianism. >> well, thanks very much, margaret. what i wanted to do with the book was tell a much bigger story than just my own biography. in fact, i use the biography as a vehicle to really kind of point to the pers of populism, because my experience growing up in the northeast of england, it was quite obvious that, you know, people were searching around for a fix to their predicament. and i started to see, you know, around me as a teenager people in the town would get swept up in these anti-immigrant movements, looking for someone to blame. and i've seen that through my whole career. once i moved on and out of my hometown and i ended up getting, you know, a scholarship to go to study in russia, the soviet union, at the end of the 1980s, the beginning of the collapse, really, of the soviet union. the time that i was there, there was also a kind of sense
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that there had been this massive collapse, and who was to bme for this collapse? and, you know, i saw that also in the united states firsthand. it just took some time for me to basically piece it all together. you know, so it's the observation in my own life about how my family were downwardly mobile, hoi personally became upwardly mobile and moved out of this predicament, and the lessons that i learned along the way that i wanted to convey so that, you kw, i'd help give other people a bit of perspective on how we got to this point in the united states where we elected what is, you know, without a doubt, a populist president in the form of donald trump in 2016. >> you write about being slurred for your russia expertise in the trump white house, but, in fact, you are an expert in russia. you wrote a book about vladimir putin, entitled "mr. putin: operative in the emlin," and your expertise in russia began at an early age as a student in moscow in 1987. i'd like to bring the conversation forward to today
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and draw on your expertise on russia and vladimir putin. putin served two terms, left the presidency, and then returned in 2012. after signing a law this past april, resetting his own term limits, putin could remain in power for more than another decade, until 2036. you had an incredibly close-up experiences with putin, both in direct interaction and in your research. explain to the viewers what concerns you most about his leadership. >> well, what concerns me most is this present moment. so, this decision that you lay out here, to stay in power, not indefinitely, but essentially so because if he is in power until 2036, he will have been at the helm in the kremlin, one way or another, for 36 years. he just turned 69. so by, you know, that period, he'll be 84. so, i mean, this is, you know, already getting himself into the realm that we recall fr history of czars, you know, who basically
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go into their dotage and die, or, even worse, the secretary generals of the soviet union, the guys who used to stand on the mausoleum and were just one step away from being interred in it. and so, you know, you have here somebody who has become the be all and the end all of russian politics. some of his advisers say, "there is no russia without vladimir putin." and so that's what worries me. it's that prospect of instability and uncertainty in russia. and, you know, in many respects, putin has to kind of prop himself up or basically give people the kind of confidence that he is going to kind of stay in power by mobilizing all the time against a common enemy or against an external force, and that's the united states. and that puts us in a dangerous position, as well, because, you know, vladimir putin is always railing against the west, railing against the united states, to present himself as the champion, as the only person who can protect russia and rusans against hostile external forces. >> you served in the george w. bush administration
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d the obama administration. the day after president trump's inauguration, you write in your book tha you attended the women's march outside the white house. so you clearly had some concerns about president trump. and the very next day, you were offered a job in the white house, in trump's national security council. and you write, and i've heard you say, that you thought you could contbute something to the country's response to russia's meddling in the 2016 election. what did you hope to achieve? >> well, i really felt it was worth the effort for the national-security perspective. and i'll be honest, i did think that, you know, once i was in the administration and that the people in the administration, that their minds would be focused by the national-security risks. of course, i saw, you know, much to my, you know, shock, i have to say, though perhaps not surprised but shocked that, really, you know, there were people in the administration, political appointees, you know, and others in that very tight circle around trump,
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who didn't care at all about the national-security implications and what had happened. it was more just about the private, personal, or domestic political game. and that was, you know, of course, you know, deeply troubling, not just disappointing. and it did make it very difficult -- the circumstances even more difficult to push back on what the russians have done and try to prevent that from happening before. and, you know, i became convinced in my time there that our domestic arena was even more problematic than the foreign-policy perspective. >> you just said, dr. hill, that there are people in the president's inner circle who just didn't care about their national-security implications. do you mean the president himself or people in his inner circle? who are you talking about? >> well, yes, i do mean the president himself and, you know, people in, the press office around him, everything was very much, you know, focused on the president, you know, his constant campaigning and his views of everything. i mean, one example that i can give you, i don't really write about this in the book, but it's obviously seared
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in my mind from my own personal history and experience. when he retweeted some videos that had been made by britain first, a white-supremacist, you know, highly reactionary alt-right party or movement in the united kingdom, and these were videos purporting to show muslims in various different capacities attacking christians or non-muslim white, you know, kind of people. and the president retweeted them. and there was an immediate, incredibly strong reacon from the british government, because many of the people from this movement had been arrested, you know, for all kinds of assaults. and i went over to talk to raj shah in the press office and said, "look, you've got to do something about this. you've got to push back. the president is giving not just a voice but credence, you know, to the outrageous statements and positions of these people."
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and theyasically said, "we don't care." and i pointed out that if raj, you know, with his personal background, had been living in the u.k., he would be a target of this group. >> what did he say when you raised this to him? >> he just shrugged at me d looked at me and said, "that's just not relevant. that's not what this is about." and i said, "well, it is about this because the president retweeted these videos from this specific group." but obviously, i made no headway whatsoever. >> you write extensively about donald trump's, quote, "autocrat envy," including for putin. what similarities and differences do you see between donald trump and vladimir putin? >> well, i think the differences are very telling because they fit in with this issue of trump's divisiveness and deliberately pitting one group against another. putin tries to avoid any kinds of these major ethnic conflicts. trump, on the other hand, seeks them out and pits groups against each other -- racial groups, ethnic groups, religious groups, people from,
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you know, different genders. i mean, you name it, i mean, he's looking for divisiveness because that stokes outrage and enables him to divide and conquer and play everyone off against each other. putin does that externally but not internally. but the similarities are also telling, as well. it's this pushing out of term limits, this desire to stay in power indefinitely, this perspective of bringing in your friends and associates and personalizing power at the very center of power, be it in the kremlin, in the white house, and basically having the presidency only tied to the people and opinion polling. trump has himself almost basically abandoned the republican party, which may seem an odd thing to say, but he's said that there is no republican party, only the party of trump. so everyone in the republican party has to pay loyalty toim, basically, and lip service to anything he says, including the big lie, that he won the election
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in november 2020. and if they don't pass through these loyalty tests, then he'll make sure that, as he said, they'll be primaried and maybe replaced by loyalists. and you see that in russia, as well, that, you know, putin has loyalists around him, that people pay lip service, you know, to him, that there is no party that he's part of, which is, you know, basically the idea that trump is putting forward, as well. >> based on your experience, dr. hill, do you believe that donald trump believes in american democracy? >> i don't believe he does at all. i don't think he actually knows what american democracy is. you know, in my interactions with him, it was very clear that i don't think he really understood the way that the government was structured. i don't think he really cared. he didn't think that he needed to actually unrstand all that. he seriously thought that he could run the whole of the united states out of the white house from behind the resolute desk with a small group of people. he didn't see any need, as we all saw, to put people in positions through the government apparatus.
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he couldn't understand what the functions were, and he certainly didn't believe in representational democracy. so there's no intermediaries, no political party, no representatives in congress. it's just him. and congressional oversight, he rejected it entirely. we saw that during two impeachment trials, and we see that now in the investigation into the events of january 6th, where former president trump is basically telling people around him that they must not basically respond to the subpoena, and he's trying to invoke the idea of executive privilege, meaning his personal privilege. again, he's very much focused on the powers of the president as a person and not on the actual system of the executive branch or of the other parts of government. remember, he kept talking about "my generals," "my judges," including "my supreme court judges," showing, you know, first and foremost, that he only understands the presidency in terms of raw power. >> it's a remarkable thing to hear a senior national security council staffer say about the president
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of the united states. >> yes, and it's very disturbing. i mean, i did think he had a bit of a better grasp of it at first. but, you know, this is just from close-up observation over, you know, the two-plus years that i was there. >> take me inside helsinki in 2018, when president trump and putin stood side by side in that press conference, which you tried desperately to advise against. trump was asked who he believed about russian 2016 interference, his own intelligence agencies, who concluded that it happened, or putin, who denied it. take a look at this. >> i have great confidence in my intellence people, but i will tell you that president putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. and what he did is an incredible offer. >> i mean, what you wrote about that pivotal moment is that you were so distraught, you even considered faking a seizure. i mean, you really thought about faking a seizure? >> i did. i mean, i wanted it to stop, because it wasn't just humiliating for him personally,
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it was deeply humiliating for him, although he obviously didn't realize this until later. but, i mean, what a profound humiliation for the united states. i mean, it showed us in the worst possible light, because we had elected someone who could only think about himself and was only also fixated on the person next to him who was, as he said, very strong and powerful. >> what is the consequence of a president that doesn't believe his own national-security staff, doesn't believe his own intelligence agencies, doesn't believe any of the information, only trusts and respects people with similar degree of power and rength that he perceives he has? >> yeah. so this is really problematic, because, for trump, the presidency is everything, and he is everything. and the only peers were people of similar status, which there were very few. status and stature. vladimir putin, president xi of china, you know, the two kind of great
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superpowers, in a military perspective, because he also assumed that military strength also equated to political strength. individuals like president erdogan of turkey or prime minister orban of hungary, who had unchecked, in his view, political power at home. then people like the queen of england, somebody who commands great respect, has enormous celebrity. so, for him, there was a very small, elite group that he saw him in, very rich, very powerful, very famous. and everybody else was weak in that context. and so anyone in his staff, no matter who they'd been previously, like secretary of state rex tillerson, who'd been the ceo of the world's largest company. once this started to work for him, they become just stuff. so they were no longer of any importance, and i don't believe that he thought that any information that they brought to him had any impact. and so when someone was strong and powerful in his peer group, he already deferred to them. >> you said that you think that he doesn't believe
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in american democracy, but given his focus on these authoritarian leaders that he envied, do you think that he is a danger to american democracy? >> there's no question he's a danger. he was a danger, he is a danger, and he will continue to be danger. >> even now that he's out of office? >> out of office, he is still a danger because he's compelling people around him in the republican party to basically take steps that put our democracy at an even greater peril. the suppression of voting rights, for example. trump is trying to push those ba because he knows that he only has a minority of support, and those around him are enabling this effort, you know, to really try to enforce here minority rule, to make it very difficult for someone to prevail through the popular vote and to kind of really kind of constrain the votes that will be counted for the electoral college. these are all part of a cycle,
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because authoritarian leaders, which i actually include trump in, always figure out how to get themselves to the positions they want to through the ballot box. putin rose to where he is through the ballot box and through the manipulation of the elections. and we're witnessing this happening in real time here in our own country. >> how grave is the danger, dr. hill? >> i think the danger is very grave. it's very severe. i'm extraordinarily worried. and i became really worried, you know, during my experience in the first impeachment trial, and even more so by the fact that there was a second impeachment trial after the mob stormed the capitol building. i mean, that should have really been a wake-up call for everyone watching, including in the republican party. >> help me understand why the impeachment trials make you worried about our democracy. >> well, i saw that, among the members of cess, ere were many who saw this exercise
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as just a political game, just another round in the kind of games that have been played in partisan brinkmanship over the previous four years. there were a lot of people who didn't take in any of our testimonies in the whole exercise at all seriously. they were all, you know, basically, you know, one way or another, particularly on the republican side, although, you know, also some on the democratic side, playing out a kind of a -- a partisan game of who wins and who loses, trying to score points. and so there was not sufficient attention being paid to themportance of the checks and balances in the system and the role of congress in exerting oversight and also being able to hold a president to account. i mean, that was their responsibility. it was their obligation. and, you know, they didn't -- they didn't pick up on this. and so i think, you know, for myself and for the fact witnesses who came forward at great risk to ourselves, it was very disappointing, disheartening, dispiriting -- you know, you name it.
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to see other people not holding up their side of the bargain and to take this all seriously and to really pay attention, all the gamesmanship about who would testify, who would not. you know, we're seeing this all playing out also on the events of january 6th, that people are just pushing back against the commissioner, refusing to take it seriously, and refusing to live up to their own obligations and responsibilities, people who entered public service. >> you have said that if donald trump makes a successful return to the presidency in 2024, quote, "democracy's done." what do you mean by that? >> what i mean by that is that he is basically trying to come back again on the basis of a lie. he has repudiated the outcome of the 2020 election, and yehe's expecting, you know, to be re-elected in 2024 on that very basis. so that is the main thesis, that's the man propelling force behind his bid for re-election. so just that basic fact of how he is campaigning is in itself a massive problem
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because he is rejecting the democratic system and the outcome of the 2020 election. >> dyou believe, though, in the scenario where he runs again in '24 and is justly elected, democratically elected through the electoral college, that his presence in the white house means democracy is done? >> well, this will be on the basis of a minority rule, because we're already seeing, you know, in key states, swing states, that there are efforts being made by republican political leaders to constrain the votes of people who are not republicans. and, again, look, i'm not a partisan person. i find it very painful to have to call this out. but there was one political party here that is trying to stop fellow americans from voting. you know, every system that you see where there is a minority rule is deeply unstable. i mean, we know that in russia, for example, you know, that's
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essentially what putin has done. and we've seen that in many other settings, as well. and, again, this is inherently unstable and really has an awful lot of, you know, risks for the future of the united states. so it might be legally legitimate, as you said, in the electoral college, but it will be seen in the eyes of all of those who, you know, votes and their votes are counted through, you know, the popular vote as inherently, deeply illegitimate. and we then are setting ourselves for even more violence if people feel that their voices are no longer heard through the ballot box and they have to take to the streets. then we end up in, you know, the potential of an open civil war. we're already, in my view, a cold civil war. we have periodic eruptions of violence, and people are now seeing that the ballot box -- and trump has been telling them that the ballot box is not fair, you know, kind of "your vote doesn't count." well, that will kind of be also the message to, you know, the majority of people who won't vote for him in 2024. >> you have said, dr. hill,
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quote, "i am really worried about biden," with respect to the promises that he made to reinvigorate democracy in the united states and around the world. what should the biden administration be doing that they're not? >> well, the real challenge for biden himself and for the administration is to pull the democratic party around behind them. i mean, i really, you know, hope that people who are in the democratic party in congress, that their minds get concentrated by the real peril and challenge here, because this is a time, in fact, for all americans, no matter who they are, to put all of these divisions aside, to stop thinking of things in terms of a win or a, you know, defeat for your team over another, you know, your team narrowly defin, be it blue or red, and think about the united states and the real risks to our democracy. and that's the real challenge for biden. i think biden himself gets it, but i'm not so sure that the people -- all the people around him, are on the same page at this point.
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>> in a conversation on the original "firing line" with william f. buckley jr. in 1990, president ronald reagan, who was just out of office, reflected on the respect and the affection that he had for the soviet leader mikhail gorbachev, who was opening the soviet union to the west. listen to this. >> there was a chemistry that was beginning there between us and the things that were taking place. and now, being there and seeing, he is talking openly of free enterprise, and he is talking openly opening up the land of the soviet union to private ownership. in other words, bring in capitalism in these areas. >> you write in your book, when you were in helsinki, preparing for the summit with trump, images of reagan and his meeting with gorbachev played on a continuous loop in the state rooms where you sat. you know, there was a real sense of hope at the end of the cold war, not just that the
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soviet union would cease to be a military threat but that russia might adopt the model of western democracies, capitalist economies. what was the purpose of showing those images of mikhail gorbachev and ronald reagan? >> the whole idea, i think, was to focus everyone's minds, including trump's, on that hopeful period exactly as we saw, not just in the hope that we might return to arms control and some of the unfinished business of the 1980s, but to remind us that there was a period when the relationship was on a different trajectory and that perhaps it just could be again at some point. i mean, i think it was kind of a reminder of, you know, the futility of these kinds of confrontations and the fact that time had moved on. and even at the peak of the cold war, reagan and gorbachev had found that they actually had some, you know, not kind of admiration for fellow strongmen but actually some fellow feeling, some real human connection.
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and they'd actually found a way to talk to each other, not talk at each other or talk past each other, and that that's real, true communication. that fellow feeling, that shared perspective that they needed to get something done had changed the world in that moment, and it really had a very profound impact. but i think that those sentiments still hold true. we do have to think about how we can create a better future here. that should be concentrating in our minds, not just in america and about the future of america and american democracy, but also in international affairs. we've got so many huge issues ahead of us. the pandemic and climate change are two of the biggest existential threats to mankind, not just, you know, the constant threat of nuclear weapons, that we need to get some collective action, and it comes through real, direct communications and human fellow feeling. >> that's wonderful. dr. fiona hill, thank you very much for your time. thank you for joining me here on "firing line." >> thank you so much, margaret. it's been a pleasure. >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made
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