In a curious set of circumstances, former nat-sec adviser Fiona Hill has begun testifying before House committees this morning. The expert on Russian affairs served the last three administrations in various posts, most recently as an aide to Donald Trump’s national security advisers. Hill had already been scheduled to appear this morning on her own volition, but her attorney announced that the House had issued her a subpoena on top of that:
Our client, Dr. Fiona Hill, former Dep Asst to Pres, received a congressional subpoena, will comply and answer questions from Members this morning starting at 10 AM.
— Lee Wolosky (@LeeWolosky) October 14, 2019
Why a subpoena if Hill had already agreed to appear? It might relate to document demands that accompanied the request for her testimony issued last week:
Democratic committee chairmen Adam Schiff (Calif.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.) and Elijah Cummings (Md.) sent a letter to Fiona Hill asking her to testify on Oct. 14. She would testify in front of the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform committees, a letter released by Axios said.
The letter, dated Wednesday, said Hill’s testimony would be considered part of the impeachment inquiry sparked by Trump’s request to the Ukrainian president to look into potential 2020 opponent former Vice President Joe Biden. …
The letter includes a list of documents requested from Hill, who left her position in August, dating back to Jan. 20, 2017, including documents related to phone calls and interactions between the presidents of the U.S. and Ukraine or efforts by the Trump administration to work with Ukraine to investigate Biden.
The subpoena might have been requested by Hill to get around any potential claims of privilege or of executive-branch work product. The last-minute nature of the subpoena would also make it more difficult for the White House to obstruct Hill’s testimony with a court challenge, while letting Hill off the hook in other ways.
All of this is curious for another reason. A week ago, the White House insisted that it would refuse to cooperate with the House impeachment “inquiry,” in part because the full House never authorized these committees to conduct one. Yet it did nothing to stop former US ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from testifying last week, and now it appears they have taken no steps to keep Hill from talking and providing documentation to the committees. Has the Trump administration changed their strategy again in dealing with the House on impeachment, or are they just resigned to its inevitability at this point?
Perhaps the White House is less concerned about Trump in Hill’s testimony than Rudy Giuliani might be. According to Politico, Trump’s attorney might be the subject of Hill’s interrogation:
Democrats view Fiona Hill’s testimony as critical to their understanding of the extent to which Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, bypassed official U.S. government channels by pressuring Ukrainian officials to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s possible opponent in the 2020 presidential election. …
Hill worked on the National Security Council overseeing U.S. policy toward Russia and is a longtime critic of Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin, in stark contrast to a president who has openly challenged the intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election to boost Trump. A fluent Russian speaker, Hill helped engineer the administration’s harsh response to a Russian chemical attack in the U.K., among other internal efforts to promote a more skeptical approach to Moscow.
WBUR expects Hill to highlight the cowboy nature of Giuliani’s diplomacy in Ukraine and tie it to Gordon Sondland:
Hill, who declined to elaborate on her planned testimony, is expected to discuss concerns she raised over the ouster of longtime diplomat Marie Yovanovitch, whose removal as the ambassador of Ukraine has become a key topic in the impeachment inquiry. She is also likely to speak about how, in her view, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, were operating a Ukraine policy outside of the National Security Council.
“She will certainly explain that the channel that was apparently open by Ambassador Sondland and Rudy Giuliani, these were things that were going on outside the purview of the National Security Council,” said Angela Stent, the director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.
That may be interesting, but in and of itself it means little. The NSC exists for the president’s benefit, not the other way around. The president can set policy with or without the NSC’s approval, and can also conduct diplomacy with or without the NSC’s blessing too. The “purview” of the NSC consists entirely of whatever the president chooses to share with it and whatever advice he chooses to take from it. The members of the NSC have their own jurisdictions where their authority runs more strongly, but diplomacy ultimately is policy directed by the president.
Furthermore, it’s not clear to what extent Hill can elucidate on the NSC’s knowledge of Ukraine matters. Hill did not hold a position that would normally participate in NSC meetings, although she may well have attended some or all of them. The national security adviser and deputy NSA are regular attendees, but no one below that rank has a seat at the table. Hill’s testimony might be second-hand to NSC operations, which isn’t necessarily conclusive but could be useful to pointing out where to go next in an inquiry.
Democrats seem intent on pulling on that thread, anyway. What’s curious is the White House’s lack of action to stop them from doing so.
Update: Rep. Matt Gaetz reports that Democrats threw him out of the deposition:
Gaetz sharply criticized Adam Schiff, saying it’s a “sham process”
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) October 14, 2019
Technically, Adam Schiff et al might be correct, but it looks strange to eject a member of the House from what’s supposedly an impeachment inquiry. Gaetz may have attended just to be provocative, but if so, Schiff made it easy for Gaetz to make his point.