As a former Russia expert on the US national security council and one of the officials with knowledge of a scheme to withhold vital aid to Ukraine, Fiona Hill has transfixed Capitol Hill while giving evidence to Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing.
But Hill – who grew up in County Durham, north-east England, and is the daughter of a coal miner and a nurse – has had an unconventional route to the heart of power in Washington DC.
Hill, 54, began her testimony on Thursday by describing her childhood. “The men in my father’s family were coalminers whose families always struggled with poverty,” Hill notes in her written statement. “When my father, Alfred, was 14, he joined his father, brother, uncles and cousins in the coal mines to help put food on the table.”
The industry began to decline after the second world war, resulting in the closure of many pits in Durham. Hill said her father had wanted to move to the US to work in coal mines in West Virginia or Pennsylvania, but was forced to stay in England to care for his mother. Her mother, June, still lives in the county.
In 2017, June Hill told the Times that her daughter called her on a daily basis and still sought her advice. “There are things she can’t discuss because her work is pretty ‘hush hush’. I believe we have been security checked – all the family, even my godson,” she said.
In her written testimony, Hill said her background had never held her back in the US, and drew a contrast with the UK.
“I can say with confidence that this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional development.
“This background has never set me back in America.”
Her “hardscrabble” childhood is highlighted in a New York Times profile, which notes: “When she was 11, a boy in her class set one of her pigtails on fire while she was taking a test. She put the fire out with her hands, and finished the test.”
Hill studied history and Russian at St Andrews University and in 1987 won a place on an academic exchange to the Soviet Union, where she witnessed the signing of the intermediate nuclear forces (INF) treaty, and the meeting between the leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. She went on to study a PhD at Harvard University and worked at a Washington thinktank.
Hill was thrust into frontline politics when she started work at the White House under Trump’s second national security adviser, HR McMaster. And she has co-written a book on the Russian president, titled Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.
Hill resigned from the national security council on 19 July, six days before Trump’s infamous call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
She told Republicans on the House intelligence committee they should not propagate a “fictional narrative” that somehow Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
“If the president, or anyone else, impedes or subverts the national security of the United States in order to further domestic political or personal interests, that is more than worthy of your attention. But we must not let domestic politics stop us from defending ourselves against the foreign powers who truly wish us harm,” she said, in reference to Russia.