Fiona Hill: The blunt-speaking British miner's daughter who tried to steady Trump

Ms Hill testified on the final day of public impeachment hearings on Thursday - REX
Ms Hill testified on the final day of public impeachment hearings on Thursday – REX

The road to the impeachment inquiry witness desk for Fiona Hill was a long and unlikely one, starting in northern England and winding its way through the Soviet Union and the halls of Harvard. 

The soft County Durham accent on display as she testified about Donald J Trump gave away Ms Hill’s British roots, a heritage she touted at length before the House Intelligence Committee. 

Ms Hill, 54, was born to a coal mining family, with her father Alfred, sent down the pits aged just 14 to join his father, brother, uncles and cousins trying to “put food on the table”, in her words. 

When the mines closed in the 1960s, Alfred, born in Bishop Auckland, dreamed of relocating to West Virginia or Pennsylvania to work in coal mining there, but the move never came about. 

Instead the family stayed in the North East. Ms Hill’s studies did not always go smoothly – once, aged 11, her pigtails were set alight while taking a test by a boy in class. 

She put out the flames with her hands and completed the work.  

Ms Hill tried for Oxford University, but described the trip for her interview as “like a scene from Billy Elliot”, with her accent a point of ridicule. She studied at St Andrews University in Fife instead. 

It was on an academic exchange to the Soviet Union, where she saw US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, that convinced her to head to America. 

A stint at Harvard, where she secured a PhD, was followed by a career as a Russian policy expert. She has served three US presidents, acting as a national intelligence officer focussing on Russia under George W Bush and Barack Obama. 

Seeing Russia’s nefarious activities in stark detail made her deeply suspicious of the country’s new leader, Vladimir Putin, and his motives. “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” was the title of a 500-page book she co-wrote during a break from government in 2013. 

Ms Hill returned to the White House’s National Security Council in 2017, handed the senior role of overseeing not just Russia but the whole of Europe. She was willing, she said, to help Mr Trump improve relations with the Kremlin. 

Yet things did not start well. In one of her first encounters with the US president, in the Oval Office, Mr Trump reportedly handed her a marked up memo and asked her to rewrite it. He appeared to think she was a secretary. 

Despite the turbulent episodes she witnessed while in the White House before her July departure, not least her alarm as the Ukraine scandal began to unfold, Ms Hill remains upbeat about her move across the Atlantic. 

“I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent,” she told the impeachment inquiry on Thursday. 

“In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement. This background has never set me back in America.”