(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Fiona Hill was in some ways an ideal witness for the Democrats in Thursday’s impeachment hearings.
In her opening statement, the former Russia director of the National Security Council warned Republicans: “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.” She explained that she had come to learn that Gordon Sondland, the hotelier turned ambassador to the European Union, was “involved in domestic political errands” on behalf of President Donald Trump when it came to his Ukrainian diplomacy. She affirmed that her boss, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, described the schemes of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani with regard to Ukraine as a “drug deal.”
But Hill also had a warning for Democrats. In response to questions from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Hill said: “The Russians’ interest is frankly to delegitimize our entire presidency,” noting that her point would likely resonate with Republicans. “The goal of the Russians was really to put whoever became president, by trying to tip their hands on one side of the scale, under a cloud,” she said. “We need to be very careful as we discuss all of these issues not to give them more fodder than they can use in 2020.”
Democrats have been ignoring this admonishment since 2016. To this day, Hillary Clinton says Trump is an “illegitimate president.” Meanwhile, during the Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday, Andrew Yang was asked what he would say, if elected, to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He responded: “Sorry I beat your guy.” For the #Resistance, it is accepted wisdom that Trump is a Russian asset.
The genesis of the Trump-Russia theory is the so-called Steele dossier, a collection of opposition research compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British spy who oversaw counterintelligence against Russia. It was commissioned by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, and one of its most important claims is that Russia fed damaging information about Clinton to the Trump campaign through a low-level aide named Carter Page. No evidence has ever come forward to support this allegation, yet it was echoed and repeated throughout 2017.
Not only did the Steele dossier help the FBI obtain a surveillance warrant against Page. It also helped shape the initial media narrative of the Trump presidency. Schiff himself read some of the dossier into the Congressional Record in 2017.
Fast forward to Thursday. In her testimony, Hill said that she believed the Steele dossier was a “rabbit hole” and that Steele had been “played.” She was more specific in her closed-door deposition in October, when she said she believed the dossier was likely Russian disinformation. “The Russians would have an ax to grind against (Steele) given the job that he had previously,” she said. “If he started going back through his old contacts,” she said, it “would be a perfect opportunity for people to feed some kind of misinformation.”
To be clear, this is speculation — though very well informed speculation. Hill is one of the world’s foremost experts on Russian disinformation. And she came to these judgments before rejoining the government.
That said, if Hill is correct, it’s damning. It would show that, in their zeal to prove a Russian plot to install a stooge as an American president, leading Democrats themselves succumbed to Russian disinformation.
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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