'Can I actually say something?' Unflappable expert takes on lawmakers in Trump hearing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A British-born U.S. national security expert never lost her cool during hours parrying heated questions from the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee on Thursday, and emerged as the latest star of the congressional impeachment inquiry.

Fiona Hill, former senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, returns after a recess break at a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 21, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Fiona Hill, who resigned in July after 2 -1/2 years as the White House’s top expert on Russia and Europe, scored point after point during more than five hours of close questioning, calmly absorbing criticism from Republican committee members and at times making the chamber’s audience laugh.

“Can I actually say something?” she eventually asked in her north-eastern English accent after a speech from Representative Brad Wenstrup, an ardent defender of President Donald Trump who was chiding her for her opening statement faulting those who push a false narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, sought to meddle in the 2016 election.

Wenstrup, Hill noted, was the third congressman in a row who had used up their allotted five minute question period without asking her a question during the proceedings, the final public hearing scheduled by Democratic lawmakers leading the historic inquiry into Trump’s Ukraine dealings. The lawmakers are looking into whether Trump asked Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden in return for a White House meeting or the release of U.S. security aid.

Later, Democratic Representative Jackie Speier asked about a story often cited in profiles of Hill as an indicator of her strength of character: When she was a girl, a boy set her hair on fire during a test. She put the fire out with her bare hands, and finished the test.

“It is a true story ... It’s one of the stories I occasionally tell because it had some very unfortunate consequences. Afterwards my mother gave me a bowl haircut,” she said, to laughter in the hearing room.

“So for the school photograph later in that week I looked like Richard the Third.”

Hill, 54, has decades of expertise on Russia and Europe. She was an intelligence analyst under Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama from 2006 to 2009, and joined the Trump administration in 2017.

On Thursday, she urged lawmakers not to promote “politically driven falsehoods” that cast doubt on Russia’s election interference, saying: “We must not let domestic politics stop us from defending ourselves against the foreign powers who truly wish us harm.”

The notion that Ukraine interfered in 2016 was one of two issues that Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate in a July 25 phone call that is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

Hill stressed that she had come to testify to the committee without an agenda, to describe what had happened.

“I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction, except toward the truth,” she said.

At one point in the proceedings, a lawmaker asked her about the testimony of another witness who had described Hill as having at one point become irritated with Gordon Sondland - the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who played a central role in the U.S. effort to get Ukraine to open investigations.

Hill noted that women’s justified anger is often ignored, and said she understood why Sondland had not often communicated well, given what she learned later about his involvement in an “irregular” policy channel.

“I had not put my finger on that at the moment, but I was irritated with him and angry with him that he wasn’t fully coordinating. And I did say to him, ‘Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is also going to blow up,’” she said.

“And here we are,” she added.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; writing by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Grant McCool