Donald Trump Called Fiona Hill 'Darling,' Thought She Was a Press Secretary

The following is an extract from Fiona Hill's book, There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity In The Twenty-First Century, published by Mariner Books, October 2021. In this extract, Hill was at the time working at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs.

My next encounter with the president came on May 2, 2017. It was disastrous. Only a month in, it could easily have marked the end of my tenure at the NSC. I fully anticipated being sacked in the aftermath and joining the roster of officials who were removed in those early days and throughout Trump's presidency with increasing alacrity.

Syria and its ongoing civil war were the primary focus for this call. On April 7, in my very first week on the job, the president had ordered retaliatory U.S. missile strikes against a Syrian military airbase after the government launched a chemical weapons attack against civilians in opposition-held towns. Russia was clearly not happy with the U.S. action. There had been some tense public exchanges in the interim, but this would be the first direct contact between the American and Russian presidents since the missile strike.

When we got into the office, Rex Tillerson and his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, were already there. The secretary of state was sitting in one of two chairs right in front of the Resolute Desk, and Margaret was discreetly off to one side. McMaster took the other chair. Derek and Joel pressed ahead of me to take two other strategically placed chairs behind them. I was left wondering where to place myself when Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, came in and sat down on one of the sofas.

I was surprised, and a bit thrown off. Ivanka and Jared were both senior advisers, but I had had no idea they would be sitting in on the Putin call. It wasn't exactly their remit, but obviously this call was going to be a family affair. I quickly sat on the other sofa, opposite them and alongside Steve Charon, the staffer from the Executive Secretariat.

This was generally not a good day for me. Less than a week before the call, I had developed an infection. My doctor put me on a short course of antibiotics. I had a reaction to the medication and was feeling particularly unwell — slightly dizzy and nauseous, with a pounding headache.

I figured I should concentrate on keeping myself together and taking good notes: listening carefully to what Putin had to say and how he was saying it and how the whole conversation was being translated on both sides. After years of observing Putin and studying Russian, I knew how deliberate he was in his speech and the way he presented things. I was the only Russian-speaker in the room. Surely the president and others might be interested in discussing what Putin was emphasizing. Was there something missing in the moment from the translation? I was completely overthinking everything.

Fiona Hill book jacket
There's Nothing For You Here, by Fiona Hill Mariner Books

The call began. The president was listening on his phone, with the rest of us on speakerphone. The volume was soft. It was hard to hear. I was straining to catch everything, my headache increasing in intensity. I scribbled notes to myself of pertinent things to flag for the others. Then it was over. President Trump professed great satisfaction with the call. It was good — good tone, good vibe. Putin seemed calm, measured, friendly even. Ivanka and Jared concurred. I was not so sure. That might be the impression from the translator and the translation, yes, but I had detected more menace in what Putin had to say. There were some issues that we should pay attention to. I was gathering my thoughts as best I could through my headache to interject, but the president was now busy with the press release. He didn't want to discuss the call, even with Tillerson and McMaster. He had no interest in the substance at all, just the fact that he had a "good" call with Putin and that Ivanka and Jared had agreed. The whole thing was slightly surreal.

Then Trump wanted to rewrite the press release in his own words. He was dictating some changes. I didn't have a copy. My colleague, Charlie, had all the prep materials and he was in the listening room. I didn't know the drill. There had been no prior discussion on how things might unfold in the Oval and who would do what.

There was an exchange between the president and McMaster that I didn't catch. Then the president raised his voice: "Well, can she do it? Can she go type it up and bring it back?" She? I thought. What? What just happened? Only then did I realize Trump was talking about me. "She" could only be me. There were three shes in the room, and the she in question was certainly not Ivanka and unlikely to be Margaret Peterlin. Suddenly he was practically yelling — "Hey, darlin', are you listening? Are you paying attention?"

I looked up. I actually wasn't. Classic deer-in-the-headlights moment. No one said anything. McMaster and Tillerson were both looking at me directly. Derek and Joel were glaring. Margaret was examining her shoes. I did not make eye contact with Ivanka and Jared, but I could tell they were also staring at me. The president clearly thought I was part of the Executive Secretariat, and in fact I was sitting next to Steve Charon beside the phone, so it was an easy mistake. He wanted me to type up the revised press release.

I hesitated just a little too long. I thought at least someone might tell him who I was, introduce me again, or even help me out a bit with the next steps. McMaster was now holding out the press release with the president's edits all over it. I jumped up, grabbing my notebook and my pens, and took the paper. I hadn't prepared the press release. I had had no idea I would be asked to do this. I was still finding my way around and figuring things out. I didn't have enough information or experience in that moment to be creative. What was I supposed to do?

Fiona Hill testifies 2019
Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s former senior director for Europe and Russia, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in November 2019. Hill's new book is published in October 2021. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Adapted from the book THERE IS NOTHING FOR YOU HERE: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century by Fiona Hill. Copyright © 2021 by Fiona Hill. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.