Trump and Ukraine: Former Advisers Revisit What Happened

Trump’s ignorance of world affairs would have been a liability under any circumstances. But he put him at a pronounced disadvantage when it came to dealing with strongmen for whom he felt a natural affinity, like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Once, while Trump was discussing Syria with Erdogan, Hill recalled: “Erdogan goes from talking about the history of the Ottoman Empire to when he was mayor of Istanbul. And you can see that he is not listening and has no idea what Erdogan is talking about.” On another occasion, he told me, Trump gleefully joked with Erdogan that the basis of most Americans’ knowledge of Turkey was “Midnight Express,” a 1978 film that takes place primarily inside a Turkish prison. “Bad image, you need to make a different movie,” Hill recalled Trump telling Turkey’s president as she thought to herself, Oh my God, really?

When I mentioned to Hill that former White House aides had told me about Trump’s clear preference for visuals over text, she exclaimed, “That’s perfect. There were several moments of utter embarrassment when he would see a story in a magazine about one of his favorite leaders, be it Erdogan or Macron. He would see a photo of them and would want it sent to him through the embassies. And when we read the articles, the articles are not flattering. They are quite critical. Obviously we can’t ship this! But then she wanted to know if they had received the photo and the article, which she had signed: ‘Emmanuel, you look wonderful. Looking so strong.’”

Hill found it doubtful that such a selfish and undisciplined man could have colluded with Russia to win an election victory in 2016, a concern that led to investigations by both the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Robert Mueller, the special counsel. In addition, he told me, he had met several times in Moscow with the Trump campaign’s foreign policy adviser, Carter Page. “I was in disbelief as to how anyone could think that he could be a spy. I thought he was out of his league.” The same thing happened with George Papadopoulos, another foreign policy adviser. “Every campaign has a lot of clueless people,” he said.

Still, he came to see in Trump a kind of aspirational authoritarianism in which Putin, Erdogan, Orban and other autocrats were admired role models. He could see that he regarded the United States government as his family business. Seeing how the Trump cabal acted in his presence, Hill settled on the word “slave,” evoking both mystical attraction and servitude. Trump’s speeches routinely emphasized mood over thought, to powerful effect. It did not escape Hill’s attention that Trump’s main speechwriter, indeed the gatekeeper of everything that made its way into the president’s speeches, was Stephen Miller, who always seemed close to Trump and whose influence on the administration policy was “huge,” she says. Hill reminded me of a time in 2019 when Trump was visiting London and found himself traveling around the city in a vehicle with Miller. “He was talking about all the knife fights immigrants were causing in these areas,” she said. “And I told him, ‘These streets were a lot rougher when I was little and they were run by white gangs. Immigrants have actually calmed things down.’” (Miller declined to comment on the record.)

More than once during our conversations, Hill made reference to the Coen brothers’ filmmaking team. In particular, she seemed to identify with the character played by Frances McDormand in the movie “Fargo”: a usually unflappable police chief immersed in a narrative of bizarre misdeeds for which nothing in her long experience has prepared her. Hill was appalled but not surprised, she told me, when President Trump went on to speak from a Democratic rival, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to a foreign leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, referring to Warren as “Sen. Pocahontas,” while Merkel she looked open-mouthed. astonishment. Or when, upon learning from Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg of her country’s reliance on hydropower, Trump took the opportunity to share his usual comment about the ills of wind turbines.

But she was alarmed, Hill told me, by Trump’s anti-democratic monologues. “He was constantly telling world leaders that he deserved to redo his first two years,” she recalled. “He would say that his first two years had been taken away from him due to the ‘Russian deception.’ And he said that he wanted more than two terms.”

“He meant it as a joke,” I suggested.

“Except that he clearly meant it,” Hill insisted. He mentioned David Cornstein, a jeweler by trade and a longtime friend of Trump’s whom the president named as his ambassador to Hungary. “Ambassador Cornstein spoke openly about the fact that Trump wanted the same arrangement as Viktor Orban,” referring to the autocratic Hungarian prime minister, who has held the post since 2010, “where he could push the margins and remain in power without checks. and balances.” (Cornstein could not be reached for comment.)

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