Trump’s Top Russia Aide to Depart
Fiona Hill will be replaced by the arms control expert Tim Morrison, signaling a possible shift toward nuclear talks.
Fiona Hill, U.S. President Donald Trump’s top Russia advisor, who is widely credited with trying to forge a tough approach to Moscow in an administration defined by Russia-tinged controversies, is expected to step down from her post at the National Security Council (NSC) in August. She has been in the job for nearly two and a half years.
Hill is to be replaced by the arms control expert Tim Morrison, who currently serves as the senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense at the NSC. Hill’s departure and Morrison’s appointment were first reported on Twitter by Peter Baker of the New York Times and confirmed to Foreign Policy by former U.S. officials familiar with internal deliberations.
With Hill’s departure, the administration loses an experienced Russia hand widely respected by regional experts and policymakers on both sides of the aisle, a rarity in Trump’s hyperpoliticized Washington. Her appointment as the senior director for European and Russian affairs two months into the Trump administration was welcomed by longtime Russia watchers at a time when the president’s relationship with Moscow was under investigation and U.S.-Russia relations were at their lowest ebb since the Cold War.
Former officials and experts say the change-up at the NSC signals a shift in Trump’s approach to Russia. With special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation largely behind him, Trump is eyeing arms talks as a top priority in his dealings with the Kremlin.
“He wants to see, by the end of his presidency, Russia and China coming to the table and striking a Reaganesque bargain on lowering the threshold on nuclear arms between these great-power rivals,” said James Carafano, an expert on foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank. “This is part of the preparation for that. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, it’s not going to happen next week … but expect that push.”
For months, Trump has signaled his interest in striking an arms control deal with Russia and China and said he has broached the subject in his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I think we’re going to probably start up something very shortly between Russia and ourselves maybe to start off, and I think China will be added down the road,” Trump told reporters last month. “We’ll be talking about nonproliferation, we’ll be talking about a nuclear deal of some kind, and I think it’ll be a very comprehensive one.”
Hill’s expected replacement, Morrison, could play an outsized role in the administration’s arms control and Russia policies as the landmark New START arms control treaty is set to expire in 2021 unless it is renewed and as the United States prepares to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. Morrison worked as an aide for former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, a vocal opponent of the New START treaty, which limits the stockpile of strategic nuclear missiles in both countries.
“I hope Mr. Morrison has developed his own independent views on this treaty, which I believe should be extended,” Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, told Foreign Policy. “In fact, extending the New START treaty should be his highest priority for U.S.-Russia relations.”
When asked for comment, NSC spokesman Garrett Marquis said: “We don’t comment on personnel.”
Hill’s expected departure also comes amid a growing hole in senior positions overseeing Trump’s policy toward Russia. Jon Huntsman Jr., Trump’s ambassador to Russia since 2017, is expected to leave his post at the end of the year, according to a report in the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Trump’s top diplomat to Europe and Eurasia, A. Wess Mitchell, left his job in February. The post is being filled in an acting capacity by Philip Reeker, a career diplomat.
A British American academic, with decades of knowledge about Russia under her belt and a doctorate from Harvard University, Hill kept a low profile during the tumultuous early days of the Trump administration, when the NSC was gripped by constant hirings and firings. She was first tapped by then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was in the job for only three weeks before being sacked. Flynn now faces sentencing for lying to the FBI over conversations with a senior Russian official during the probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Since leaving her job as a scholar at the Brookings Institution to join the administration in 2017, Hill has played a behind-the-scenes role in some of Trump’s most distinctive moves on Russia, from his much-criticized summit with Putin in Helsinki last year to the administration’s hard-line response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
While Trump has spoken fondly of his warm relationship with Putin, his administration has simultaneously taken the opposite approach: delivering arms shipments to Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists; expelling Russian diplomats after the nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom; tightening sanctions on Moscow; pushing to scuttle a gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany; and increasing the U.S. military’s footprint in Europe. As NSC senior director for Europe and Russia, Hill had a hand in these policies.
At times, according to some current and former officials, Hill was marginalized and sidelined in the policymaking process. Others disputed that narrative, saying she played a pivotal role in managing the day-to-day work of Trump’s Russia policy and coordinating with European allies—despite the roiling tensions between Trump and his European counterparts over Iran and trade disputes.
“Fiona is not only an expert (and respected) Russia hand, but has been one of the steadying, constructive forces in the Administration maintaining lines of communication with the Europeans at the professional level,” Daniel Fried, a former U.S. diplomat who served in senior roles in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, said in an email to Foreign Policy. “She will be missed on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer