The Fragmentation of Society

Lately, my life has been completely packed with speeches, meetings, and in-depth, often lengthy, conversations. Plus ongoing research and writing, of course. It all culminated Thursday afternoon at the beginning of a business meeting with the leadership team from a firm that will become a significant new business partner. At the very beginning of the meeting, the head of the firm leaned over to me and asked, “What’s on the top of your mind? What are you thinking about?” The previous night we had a small group of about 15 people in my living room after dinner, and the question was similar, “What keeps you up at night?”
It has become an emotional question for me, because the answer does not come easily, is complex, and can be more than a little unsettling. It is, however, evolving out of the research and writing I’m doing on my new book, The Age of Transformation. Whether audiences and readers agree with my answer or not, it is not a feel-good message, which is somewhat frustrating because I’m the biggest long-term optimist in the room. But I acknowledge that what I am talking about suggests that the ride between today and the long-term happy ending is going to be more than a bit bumpy.
This week’s letter is going to be a passionate summary of my answer. In form, it will be something like a conversation between you and me, sitting in your living room or mine, or in a restaurant, maybe sipping an adult beverage, thinking through the future together, and wondering at how the world is transforming in front of our eyes.
In part, the impetus for this letter was a video I did with Patrick Cox last week, one in a four-part series that Patrick is doing called “Riding the Gray Tsunami.” We had a candid conversation about the future that lasted an hour, though our outstanding moderator and editor Jonathan Roth, one of our team members, will likely edit it to about 30 minutes. Patrick’s other guests will be Dr. Mike Roizen, the chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic; Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of SENS Research Foundation and one of the true experts on longevity science; and finally, our friend Jim Mellon, self-made British billionaire and avid biotech investor. You can sign up to participate here. You really don’t want to miss this. Now let’s jump to the letter.
The Fragmentation of Society
In the interest of brevity, let’s take it is a given that we’re going to see massive technological change in the next 20 years. In fact, we will see more change – and improvement – in the next 20 years than we’ve seen in the last hundred. Think where we were 100 years ago and how much has changed since then. That much and more is going to happen in the next two decades. Global society really is going to transform that fast.
Let’s start with some good news. In 1820 some 94% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. By 1990 the figure was 35%, and in 2015 it was just 9.6%. Forty percent of those who remain impoverished live in just two countries, Nigeria and India, both of which are growing rapidly and will see their extreme poverty significantly decrease in the next 20 years.
There is research to show that, on a global basis, the poor are getting richer faster than any other group. However, if you look around the US or Europe, that is not the conclusion you come to. But Africa or Asia? Absolutely. Let’s be clear: The Industrial Age and free-market capitalism, for all of its bumps and warts, has lifted more people out of poverty and extended more lives than has any other single development. The collapse of communism has been a great boon to humanity (even if it is still talked about favorably in Western universities).
Because of where the emerging-market economies are in the development cycle, they have the potential for vast, rapid improvement in the lives of their people. But most of my readers do not live in the emerging markets. We live in the developed markets; and here, some of the outcomes of the Age of Transformation will not be so comfortable. Let’s start with this chart (hat tip, Downtown Josh Brown).
Obviously, the rig count in US oilfields is rising rapidly – no surprise there. But distressingly, the number of oilfield workers is continuing to fall. How can this be?
There is an answer to that conundrum in the long article that is the source of this chart and others I’ll use later. There is a new robotic machine called an Iron Roughneck that reduces the human labor required to connect pipe from a crew of 20 down to a crew of five. And those jobs were quite high-paying. Here’s a picture of this new robotic roughneck. Fifteen workers per site at well over $100,000 a year each?
Does that machine look like it cost more than a few million? I bet it amortizes pretty quickly, and that’s why it is being rapidly adopted.
Now look back at the chart. The amazing thing is that this transformation happened in two years; it didn’t take a generation or even half a generation. You were an oilfield worker with what you thought was potentially a lifetime of steady, well-paying – if dangerous, nasty, and dirty – work. And then BOOM! The jobs just simply disappeared. Your on-the-job experience doesn’t translate to any other industries very easily, and now you and your family are on the skids.
I could actually spend this entire letter talking about the amazing transformation of the oilfield. Oil production is now a technology business. Computers and artificial intelligence are used in abundance in the oilfield. Future wells are going to be a magnitude more productive and less expensive. There are oilfield operators here in Dallas running around with pro formas, raising money, talking about how they can do very well at $40 and even $30 per barrel. And with oil at $54 and looking as though it could well go to $60, they are raising money and punching holes. Just with fewer workers.
From the report on the Iron Roughneck we get the following alarming quote. (Note that the report is full of links to academic research. While I don’t like the author’s conclusions, his work is at least well researched).
A landmark 2017 study [dismal reading – John] even looked at the impact of just industrial robots on jobs from 1993 to 2007 and found that every new robot replaced around 5.6 workers, and every additional robot per 1,000 workers reduced the percentage of the total population employed by 0.34% and also reduced wages by 0.5%. During that 14-year period of time, the number of industrial robots quadrupled and between 360,000 and 670,000 jobs were erased. And as the authors [Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo] noted, “Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, we do not find positive and offsetting employment gains in any occupation or education groups.” In other words, the jobs were not replaced with new Jobs.
It’s expected that our industrial robot workforce will quadruple again by 2025 [more troubling MIT research – John] to 7 robots per 1,000 workers. (In Toledo and Detroit it’s already 9 robots per 1,000 workers.) Using Acemoglu’s and Restropo’s findings, that translates to a loss of up to 3.4 million jobs by 2025, alongside depressed wage growth of up to 2.6%, and a drop in the employment-to-population ratio of up to 1.76 percentage points. Remember, we’re talking about industrial robots only, not all robots, and not any software, especially not AI. So what we can expect from all technology combined is undoubtedly larger than the above estimates.
Automation has been happening right under everyone’s noses, but people are only beginning to really talk about the potential future dangers of automation reducing the incomes of large percentages of the population. In the US, the most-cited estimate is the loss of half of all existing jobs by the early 2030s.
You can find people who estimate that technology will eliminate as many as two billion jobs, while also creating a large number of jobs – but nowhere near as fast. I don’t buy those extreme estimates, as I think they amount to sensationalism, but if you want to predict 30 to 40 million jobs lost in the US by the middle of the 2030s (that’s 17 years from now), I’m not going to argue with you. How many jobs will be created? We’ll get to that in a minute.
The Future of Work
People frequently talk about the loss of trucking and taxi jobs that will result from the automation of driving. RethinkX, in a 77-page report, concludes that 90% of all driving in the US will be TaaS (transportation as a service) by 2030, although that will utilize only 60% of the cars. The good news is that the average family will save $5,600 per year in transportation costs, keeping an extra $1 trillion per year in Americans’ pockets. Think of all the time that will be freed for activities other than driving, not to mention the traffic jams that will be reduced. The authors believe that freeing time now spent commuting to work, plus faster transport times, will lead to an increase in GDP of between $500 million to as much as $2.5 trillion. Public sector budgets will benefit because highway infrastructure costs will fall, and vast amounts of land will be freed from parking lots and publicly owned right-of-way properties next to highways. Of course, governments will lose as much as $50 billion in gasoline taxes as we shift from internal combustion engines to electric and other alternative forms of power systems.
The really bad news is that a lot of people will lose their incomes.
The report projects that the adoption of TaaS will come about in typical technological adoption fashion: slowly and then seemingly all at once. The authors talk about the end of individual car ownership. Why would you own a car if it was far cheaper and more convenient just to pick one up via an app on your phone? Not owning a vehicle frees a lot of garage and parking space and might even eliminate the hassle of picking up your kids and getting them to and from their various activities. Of course, the system will work much more effectively in urban and suburban areas than in the rural world.
And it is not just the six million taxi and truck driver jobs that are threatened. Automated driving will save some 30,000 lives per year just in the US, which is something to be applauded. But it will also dramatically decrease the number of people going to emergency rooms from automobile wrecks, reducing the need for healthcare workers. Since cars won’t be in wrecks, the number of people required to repair them will be radically reduced. There are 228,000 auto repair shops in the country, employing some 647,000 workers (at a minimum – data from BLS). When a new car will last for one million miles and have fewer than 30 moving parts, those auto repair people are going to be like the Maytag repairman in the commercials of my youth: very lonely and increasingly unemployed.
If driving is TaaS, then automobile dealerships are in trouble, as are most car salesmen and the 66,000 people who work in automotive parts and accessories stores. What about auto insurance salesmen? And all the gas stations that will not be needed? (When an automated car gets low on electricity, it will simply pull into a spot and replug – automatically, of course, aided by robotics.)
The US auto industry employs 1.25 million people directly and another 7.25 million indirectly. Not all driving jobs will be lost, but the authors estimate that around 5 million will be, with a reduction in national income of $200 billion.
And if we need fewer cars? That shift would put a lot of automotive manufacturing companies and their workers under severe strain. I’m not certain how the authors arrived at the number, but they estimate new-vehicle annual unit sales will drop by 70% by 2030, to around 5.6 million vehicles versus the 18 million that will be sold in 2020. Ugh. If we actually do see  wholesale conversion to electric vehicles, US oil demand for passenger road transport could drop by 90% or more. Oil production companies may need to figure out how to make life work at $25 per barrel, if that’s the case.
Personally, I think the report is a little over the top. (Well, maybe more than a little.)
But if they stretch those projection figures to 2035 or 2040? Totally in the ballpark.
And frankly, as I will note in a few paragraphs, whether it’s 2030, 2035, or 2040, the change will seem like it came overnight and totally out of left field – especially for the workers who no longer have work.
The End of Cancer
I was talking with my friend Dr. Ray Takigiku, chief executive and chief scientist of Bexion Pharmaceuticals. The company is now 15 months into a phase I trial to determine the safety of a drug called BXQ-350, which is basically a full-on silver bullet for mass-tumor cancers. It has so far been a small trial in four medical research universities, with a limited but growing number of patients who have pancreatic cancer and brain tumors. The results have been very promising. Ray told me about one patient at the University of New Mexico who has a very rare form of cancer and who was given the drug. This is a cancer for which there is no treatment – it’s basically a death sentence. It occurs in adults but more frequently in children. Ray was initially concerned about treating this patient, as the study is about safety and you really don’t want to have any issues associated with a safety trial. But the patient’s doctor talked him into proceeding, and they began to administer the drug. It hasn’t been very long, but the patient is improving, and the cancer is regressing. He had lost partial use of his right side but is now walking and using that side again.
Because it’s a phase I trial, we don’t really have much information about how effective the drug is, apart from anecdotes; and distressingly, the researchers must sometimes stop administering the drug because that’s part of the required protocol. The rules simply want to make me pull my hair out.
In the US, one million people per year get cancer, and half a million die. Those are ugly statistics, but they could change drastically within less than 10 years. Cancer could become a nuisance rather than a threat to life. I lose more and more friends every year to cancer. We all do. I will be so glad if that stops. So will you.
Full disclosure: I was a first-round investor in Bexion, and so I have a strong home-field bias in wanting BXQ-350 to succeed, but the reality is that its success will be extraordinarily good for humanity. And frankly, one of the main risks to my investment is not that the drug won’t actually work, but that any of several other companies that Patrick Cox and I are looking at will actually come up with a drug that is cheaper, better, and faster. Or maybe, as in treating AIDS, you end up with a cocktail of drugs to fight cancer.
One way or another, cancer is going to go the way of measles and polio. You’ll be diagnosed by means of a simple blood test that will be part of your annual medical checkup, and you’ll be informed if you have cancer. Next you will undergo further tests to determine what type. And then, whatever the therapy is, it is likely that you will simply go to your doctor’s office for regular treatments. In the case of Bexion’s drug, treatment will (hopefully) amount to a few months or less of three visits per week, no side effects, and your cancer goes away. That is the extrapolation from mouse studies. We’ll know more after phase II studies are underway sometime next year. Since it is now public information, I can mention that John McCain will be given access to this drug at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Randomly, McCain has one of the types of cancer that the phase 1 trial has focused on. And he also actually qualifies for the trial (which is not easy to do). With all Americans, I wish him the best.
But let’s think for a minute about the impact of the success of a drug of this type beyond the many lives that will be saved and the significant reduction of pain and suffering. I couldn’t determine the number of healthcare workers specifically associated with the treatment of cancer, but it has to be in the hundreds of thousands, and they have relatively high-paying jobs. Then there are all the hospital beds filled by cancer patients – easily many tens of thousands. Plus all the ancillary workers that are associated with the care and welfare of cancer patients. The good news is that with the rising need for healthcare workers, those workers will be able to relatively quickly moved to an associated field. And let’s not forget the estimate Kyle Bass gave me, that at least $500 billion of market cap in big Pharma will be destroyed by a cure for cancer.
So there are just two examples of major disruptions to employment that will be caused by near-future technological change. We haven’t even gotten into the brick-and-mortar retail jobs that online sales firms like Amazon are taking away. And warehouse workers? The list could go on and on of whole job classifications that are endangered species. These changes are going to disrupt our lives and the social cohesion of our country. And of course these shifts are coming not just in the US, but in the entire developed world. And even technology centers in the developing world are going to find themselves at risk of employment dislocations.
Just so that I don’t appear to be a total Gloomy Gus, let me quickly note that the very technologies that are destroying job are also going to result in tens of millions of new and in many cases better jobs. Many of them will be high-paying, more life-fulfilling, and far less dangerous than the occupations they replace. I’ll write a letter in the near future in which I’ll talk about where those tens of millions of new jobs will hopefully come from.
The glib answer to the question, “Where will the jobs come from?” has always been “I don’t know, but they will.” That is what has always happened in the past. We went from 80% of laborers working on the farm in the 1800s at barely subsistence-level incomes to 2% producing far more food today. As these farm workers became redundant, they moved to where the jobs were. And with a lot of ups and downs, we managed over time to find jobs for nearly everyone. But that transition took place over 200+ years – 10 generations. There was time for people to adjust and for markets to adapt. Even when whole industries appeared and then disappeared again, it happened over generations. Everybody bemoans the loss of US manufacturing jobs, but few realize that we are producing almost as much as we ever have – just with fewer people. And this trend will continue. More production, with fewer workers. Just like we see in the oilfields.
The transformations I am talking about are going to happen in one half a generation, or at the most a full generation. That is not much time for adjustment, especially for a country like the United States where 69% of families have less than $1,000 in savings. (I have seen the figure quoted that 47% have less than $400.) That is not enough to deal with the loss of your job.
The classic Republican answer to this problem is that we need to unleash the entrepreneurial tide in the United States that has been dammed up by bureaucracy and excessive taxation. And there is a point to that. But for whatever reason – and this is a topic for another letter (and it’s one I have addressed in the past) – for the past five or six years the country has had more firms close than be created, and for the first time in our history.
Angst in America
Let me emphasize that ultimately we’ll arrive at a very happy ending. Our heroes and heroines will walk off into the sunset, holding hands and living happily ever after.
Literally living happily ever after, because of the new life-extension technologies that are just around the corner in a world of amazing abundance and ever-cheaper products, with even greater lifestyles than today’s. Flying to the Moon and Mars…
The problem is not the happy ending. The problem is the transition, which is going to be bumpy and frustrating and potentially divisive. I’m going to show you three graphs from Pew Research. Analysts have been conducting studies (see and since 1994, trying to discern political polarization. These three charts look at the years 1994, 2004, and 2017. Even as late as 2004, notice the broad crossover between the median Democrat and median Republican. And then notice how wide the divide is today.
Not only are the median positions of both parties further apart, but both parties have also shifted farther to their respective extremes in the last 13 years. The middle ground is much smaller, and to my eye it looks like the Democratic group is somewhat bigger than the Republican. You can see the same thing in the breakdown of the vote by states and counties; but since political commentary is not my genre, I’m going to avoid going any further down that rabbit hole.
But I will say that the internet, social media, and the media we consume on TV have allowed us to live in echo chambers where we are not really hearing much from the other side. We talk to people who think like we do and who tend to confirm that we are correct in our beliefs. That constant cycle of reinforcement makes our positions even more hardline, to the point where we trivialize or disparage the other side. It has seemingly become acceptable for an American congressman to say that he doesn’t feel sorry for those killed in the mass Las Vegas shooting because they were likely Trump supporters and against gun control.
And for white hate groups to blatantly and publicly espouse racist positions. Antifa groups can call for the random killing of white people, simply for being white. And fewer than 30% of Millennials think that democracy is clearly the superior system of government.
And that is where we are today. Where are we going to be when unemployment is well over 12% and rising to 15%, the government is routinely running multitrillion-dollar budget deficits, state and local pensions are defaulting, and taxes are high and still rising?
And all this is going to happen at a time when wealth and income disparity are going to rising even faster than they are today. It’s all there in the data if you take the time to look. I am working hard to document not just the technological changes but the social, demographic, and political changes, along with the economic realities we will face in the book I’m currently writing. My greatest challenge will be to keep it under 300 pages!
And so, yes, when people ask what is in my worry closet, it is the fragmentation of society. As a country, we are going to have to begin to think the unthinkable. We really don’t know how to accurately measure GDP or inflation, and we certainly don’t have any way to statistically measure the improvements in lifestyle over the years.
And we will need those tools. As conservatives and Republicans, we are going to have to think about something like universal basic employment, as opposed to universal basic income. Good work and participating in society give us meaning in life. Income just gives us a way to scrape by, but not personal life satisfaction or meaning, which is why we have an epidemic of opioid deaths, suicides, and rising deaths from alcoholism in the United States among white unemployed workers between 45 and 54. They have lost meaning and hope in their lives.
The calls for a guaranteed basic income (like Mark Zuckerberg’s) are just beginning, but that is going to become a major political theme in our future. Like King Canute, we cannot stop the tides – but perhaps we could get creative and channel that tide.
What do we think of shorter work weeks? Just as Roosevelt put men to work during the Depression, maybe we need to think about finding jobs around our communities that need to be done. Guaranteed basic employment. Mull that over….
Yes, that offends every Hayekian neuron in my brain, but in a world of an unimaginable and unmanageable future, we are going to have start thinking the unthinkable.
Voters are going to want politicians to solve their problems. Politicians can’t really solve the problems we already have, let alone the problems of the future, so I expect we are going to see shifts from one political extreme to the other.
Let’s be clear, these problems are not all going to show up next year, and most won’t even start to be understood until the early 2020s. But they’re coming, and we need to begin to plan for them now, for our country, for our own and our families’ lives, and for our portfolios. I look forward to being part of your journey and hopefully helping you to plan.
Denver, Lugano, and Hong Kong
On November 7, I will be speaking to the Denver CFA Society. I’m going to try to go to the Rice University homecoming that the following weekend, because there will be a special reception for former editors of the student newspaper. Editing the Rice Thresher is one of my fondest college memories and was a tremendous learning experience. Understand, we had no journalism classes and no faculty oversight. The paper was entirely student-run. The size of the paper depended on how many ads we sold. We were still printing the paper on an old letterpress with handset type. I was told by the printers that I was the first editor in 50 years who actually knew how to come in and set the time, run the presses, etc. I grew up in a print shop setting type and still have ink in my blood. The third-generation owners of the printing company that produced our paper had been printing the Thresher for over 50 years. They possessed a wealth of historical knowledge. At homecoming there will also be a public lecture by Dr. Vernon Smith, Nobel laureate and one of my personal economic heroes. Maybe I can even wrangle an invitation to dinner.
 One week later I will fly to Lugano, Switzerland, for a presentation to a conference – and I’ll try not to push myself quite so hard on this next trip across the Pond. Shane and I will also be in Hong Kong for the Bank of America Merrill Lynch conference in early January.
This week has been one meeting after another and one call after another, and I still have 437 emails in my inbox. This letter is already too long, so I am going to hit the send button and push out my plan to share my Thanksgiving mushroom recipe to a future week.
One of the rarest commodities today is time to pay undivided attention to anything, and the fact that that you give me some of your attention is truly humbling. I know that most of you are just as busy as I am. I try to make my writing worth your time and to make you think. I know today’s letter has been a little on the dark side, but I tell you, we will figure out together how to Muddle Through. And I hope I can help you do much better than simply Muddle Through.
Have a great week. Take somebody with a different political view to lunch and have a sensible and agreeable conversation. Listen to other people’s perspectives and try to grasp what they’re saying. Maybe they will pass on the courtesy. Have a great week.
Your more optimistic about life and the future than ever analyst (even though the transition will be bumpy),

John Mauldin

Rex Tillerson and the Unraveling of the State Department

With an isolated leader, a demoralized diplomatic corps and a president dismantling international relations one tweet at a time, American foreign policy is adrift in the world.


One afternoon in late September, I sat down with Rex Tillerson on what, in hindsight, may well have been his last comparatively normal day as secretary of state. It was a little more than 72 hours before President Donald Trump would take to Twitter to declare that Tillerson, his top diplomat, was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” as the president now refers to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and admonish Tillerson: “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Which was a few days before NBC News would report that Tillerson, after a July meeting with Trump, called the president a “moron” and wanted to resign until Vice President Mike Pence talked him out of it. Which was just a couple hours before Tillerson would hold an extraordinary news conference in the State Department’s Treaty Room — the magisterial, blue-walled chamber where secretaries of state typically greet foreign dignitaries — in order to tell reporters that Trump “is smart”; deny that he ever considered resigning; and refuse to answer a question about whether he had indeed called the president a moron.

But even before all that, sitting in a silk-upholstered chair in front of a fireplace in his office, his State Department-seal cuff links peeking out from the sleeves of his navy blue suit, the impossibility of Tillerson’s assignment was apparent. He was about to embark on his third trip to Asia as secretary of state, part of his efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, so I asked him if Trump’s tweets on the topic — threatening in August that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded,” and in September that if the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy #NoKo” — were in any way helpful to what he was trying to accomplish.
Tillerson let out a short sigh. “Look, on the president’s tweets,” he said, “I take what the president tweets out as his form of communicating, and I build it into my strategies and my tactics. How can I use that? How do I want to use that? And in a dynamic situation, like we deal with here all the time — and you can go walk around the world, they’re all dynamic — things happen. You wake up the next morning, something’s happened. I wake up the next morning, the president’s got a tweet out there. So I think about, O.K., that’s a new condition. How do I want to use that?” Tillerson continued: “Our strategies and the tactics we’re using to advance the policies have to be resilient enough to accommodate unknowns, O.K.? So if you want to put that in an unknown category, you can. It certainly kind of comes out that even I would say, ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’ But it doesn’t mean our strategies are not resilient enough to accommodate it.”
Accommodating the president, rather than working with him, is not a normal mission for a secretary of state — and for Tillerson, it seems to be an increasingly doomed one. “The president’s always saying, ‘Rex’s not tough,’ and ‘I didn’t know he was so establishment,’ ” says one Trump adviser. After Tillerson’s “moron” gibe became public, the president, while dismissing the report as “fake news, ” also told Forbes, “if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare I.Q. tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.” The question among many people inside and outside the Trump administration is not necessarily what’s keeping Tillerson from resigning; it’s what’s stopping Trump from firing him. One Trump-administration official offered me a tentative theory: “Losing a chief of staff in the first year is a big deal, but losing a secretary of state is an even bigger one.”

On the afternoon I saw Tillerson at the State Department, he’d just returned from several hours at the White House. This was hardly unusual. When he’s in Washington, he often spends part of his workday at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in formal and informal meetings with Trump. Tillerson, a former Eagle Scout who years later served as the Boy Scouts of America’s national president, always comes prepared for those encounters, keeping a 2-inch-by-8-inch notecard in the inside pocket of his suit jacket with a handwritten list of matters he wants to discuss with the president. After meeting with Trump, he’ll then add to the list the things Trump wants him to take care of.
Many political eminences, including Tillerson’s hunting buddy, the former Secretary of State James Baker, had advised Tillerson that his relationship with Trump would be the most important factor in determining his success in his new job. And this was an area in which Tillerson, in his previous job as chief executive of Exxon Mobil, had excelled. “I have over my life had to build relationships with heads of state, not just this one, but heads of states all over the world,” he reminded me. At Exxon Mobil, he did business with a rogue’s gallery of world leaders, from Vladimir Putin (who in 2013 awarded Tillerson Russia’s Order of Friendship) to Hugo Chavez (who in 2007 seized Exxon Mobil’s assets, prompting the oil giant to leave Venezuela). I asked Tillerson if Trump had any similarities to the heads of state he dealt with as an oil executive. “Yeah, there are other leaders that share the qualities that he has,” Tillerson replied, before adding, “and I’m not gonna name names, because then you’ll go — everybody will go dissect that.”
But building a good rapport with the head of state of his own country has, so far, proved to be beyond Tillerson’s formidable abilities. According to some people who are close to Trump, his disappointment with Tillerson is as much personal as it is professional. “Trump originally thought he could have a relationship with Tillerson that’s almost social,” says one Trump adviser, “the way his relationships are with Wilbur Ross and Steve Mnuchin.” But unlike Trump’s commerce and Treasury secretaries — plutocrats who, like Trump, are on their third, younger wives — Tillerson, who is 65 and has been married to the same woman for 31 years, has shown little interest in being the president’s running buddy; instead of Saturday-night dinners with Trump at his Washington hotel, Tillerson favors trips home to Texas to see his grandchildren or to Colorado to visit his nonagenarian parents.
In his office, Tillerson contemplated what has turned out to be his most difficult diplomatic mission. “I’ve had to build a relationship with President Trump because he didn’t know me — I mean he certainly knew of me, just as I knew of him — but to understand how my thought processes work, for me to understand how his work, for me to understand how he makes decisions, because he makes decisions in a very different way than I do,” Tillerson said, spinning his fingers around his head to indicate cognition. “I’m an engineer by training. I’m a very systems, process, methodical decision maker. He’s an entrepreneur. Different mind-set. He makes decisions differently. Doesn’t mean one is better than the other, but I’ve had to learn how he processes information and how I can help him process the information and how I can give him good advice that makes sense to him. So for both of us there’s a communication to be worked out.”
Although the State Department is no longer quite the ivied redoubt it was a half-century ago, when men like George Kennan and Paul Nitze roamed the halls of Foggy Bottom and its global outposts, its employees still tend to be a bit tweedier than your ordinary government bureaucrat. This is especially true of the nearly 14,000 members of the Foreign Service, with their rigorous entrance exam and a strict up-or-out promotions system, not to mention their cosmopolitan ethos and fluency in multiple languages. They consider themselves elite.
This elite might have been more simpatico with President Barack Obama, given his appreciation of diplomacy and soft power, than with Trump, but neither of Obama’s secretaries of state was particularly beloved by the department’s rank and file. There were complaints that Hillary Clinton subordinated the department’s needs to those of her political ambitions, creating a new and unwieldy cadre of special envoys and ambassadors at large that seemed designed to appeal to Democratic constituencies. Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, was viewed by some as an imperious boss who treated the department as a kind of playground, bringing his yellow Labrador retriever to work and letting the dog roam the building’s seventh-floor suite of executive offices known as Mahogany Row.
But after Trump’s election, many State Department officials braced for much worse. Some of the initially rumored potential secretaries — John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani — often seemed more inclined to blow up Foggy Bottom than to run it. When Trump picked Tillerson, the news was greeted not only with relief but even with optimism.
It was true that Tillerson was never going to be a conventional secretary of state, especially not working for Trump. “His idea for the job when he took it was that he and Trump can be negotiators, the best negotiators, for America,” says a Trump adviser. “His idea of foreign policy isn’t one that would make sense to people who read Foreign Policy.” But his combed-back silver hair and Texas-inflected baritone — in which a Foggy Bottom commonplace like “partner” becomes a mellifluous “pardner” — radiated the kind of authority admired by Trump, who asked Tillerson to be his secretary of state during their first meeting at Trump Tower in December. “He’s much more than a business executive,” Trump told Fox News shortly before announcing Tillerson’s nomination. “He’s a world-class player.” Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House adviser who attended that first Trump-Tillerson meeting, says: “The president puts a ton of weight on first impressions. As soon as Rex walked in the room, I knew the job was his.”
To external appearances, the work Tillerson did at Exxon Mobil seemed to reflect the zero-sum negotiator’s view of foreign policy that Trump has espoused ever since “The Art of the Deal.” “He’s led this charmed life,” Trump said of Tillerson at a black-tie dinner in January. “He goes into a country, takes the oil, goes into another country.” Tillerson’s future employees took a different comfort in Tillerson’s résumé. As chief executive of Exxon Mobil, where he worked for 41 years, Tillerson led a nearly 75,000-person corporate behemoth with a global footprint that rivaled that of the United States itself, requiring it to have, in effect, its own foreign policy. In fact, Exxon Mobil operated its own sort of mini-State Department, a division called the International Government Relations Group, staffed with foreign-policy experts, including a number who previously served in high-ranking positions in Foggy Bottom. As Tillerson traveled the world cutting deals for Exxon Mobil in Russia and Africa and the Middle East, he relied on the I.G.R.G. for expertise and advice much the same way secretaries of state typically rely on the Foreign Service.
Tillerson was originally recommended to the Trump team by the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, both mandarins of the Republican foreign-policy establishment who had consulted for Exxon Mobil, on the grounds that his vast knowledge of foreign governments and their leaders made him a perfect fit for the job. “The expectation was that Tillerson would be a grown-up and provide ballast,” says a 30-year veteran of the Foreign Service, “that he was someone who believed in America being the glue that created global stability and would be interested in upholding the world order as we have it.”
Trump transition officials had sent a small beachhead team, led by Charles Glazer, a former Wall Street executive and Republican donor who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to El Salvador, to use the office. Few saw Tillerson set foot in it. A space that could accommodate 50 people wound up being filled by not even a dozen. What’s more, some State Department officials were told by the Trump transition team that they were not to contact Tillerson at all. “The attitude was that anyone who worked with Obama must be suspect,” one Trump transition official says.
In December, Nikki Haley, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, set up a conference call with two senior State Department officials: Kristie Kenney, the State Department counselor, and Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management. Haley wanted to ask them questions about the logistics of her new job: basic matters like what her salary and benefits would be and where her family would live in New York City. Kenney and Kennedy told her about the federal employee health insurance plan and offered to send her floor plans of the U.N. ambassador’s apartment. When word of the call got back to Trump’s transition team, the two department officials were reprimanded by Glazer and told never to speak with Haley again.
Kenney and Kennedy were among the small cohort of foreign-policy professionals who held the Foreign Service’s equivalent of a three- or four-star general rank in the military. These senior diplomats were responsible for handling America’s most vexing global challenges, everything from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to North Korea’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction to the Iran nuclear deal. Members of this elite group, who served under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, had submitted their pro forma letters of resignation upon the end of the Obama administration, as was the custom during presidential transitions. The letters typically occasion a conversation with the incoming secretary and his or her team about whether these diplomats should remain in their current jobs or, if not, what other senior positions inside the department they might be moved to. In a worst-case situation, they would usually be rotated into a sleepy ambassadorship.
But this time around, every letter was greeted with silence. Not only did the officials not know how Tillerson intended to use them; they didn’t know if, come the Monday after Trump’s Friday inauguration, they would even have jobs. As one of them later recalled, “Every conversation would end with, ‘Have you heard anything from Tillerson?’ ”

Credit Illustration by Kelsey Dake       

Finally, with only a few days until the inauguration and still no word from Tillerson, one of the senior officials, Victoria Nuland — who once was Hillary Clinton’s State Department spokeswoman but had also been a foreign-policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and was at the time the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs — opted to retire. The others chose to make a go of it. On the Monday after the inauguration, they showed up for work, as usual, at Foggy Bottom.
Two days later, Kennedy was told to retire and given three days to clean out his office. Kennedy had spent 44 years in the Foreign Service and was not particularly political, focusing instead on management and operations; he’d been appointed to his under-secretary position by President George W. Bush. But he had become a central figure in conservative conspiracy theories about Benghazi and Clinton’s private email server. Tillerson aides later joked that Kennedy’s defenestration was like something out of the Soviet Union, dragging a political foe out into the street and shooting him in the head so as to send a message to others.
A few weeks later, Kenney, who as counselor was the State Department’s No. 5 policy official, was told that her services were no longer needed, and she retired. And in the weeks after that, half a dozen other top diplomats were shown the door — fired, forced into retirement or warehoused at a university fellowship. “If you took the entire three-star and four-star corps of the military and said, ‘Leave!’ Congress would go crazy,” one of the recently departed said.
In a few short months, Tillerson had rid the State Department of much of its last several decades of diplomatic experience, though it was not really clear to what end. The new secretary of state, it soon became evident, had an easier time firing people than hiring them — a consequence of the election that delivered him to Foggy Bottom.
During the campaign, the “Never Trump” movement gathered many of its most devoted adherents from Republican foreign-policy circles, with scores of G.O.P. national-security professionals signing open letters declaring their opposition to the eventual Republican nominee. Although internecine foreign-policy squabbles were hardly unusual, they typically ended when the primaries did, with the losers rallying around the victor. But in 2016, representatives of all the various factions of the Republican foreign-policy world — realists and neoconservatives, hawks and isolationists — were united in their opposition to Trump, not only on ideological grounds but because they viewed him as personally unfit for office. And, given the personal nature of the criticism, Trump and those around him didn’t forgive it.
Tillerson’s early choice for deputy secretary of state was Elliott Abrams, a longtime Republican foreign-policy hand who served as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser. At Tillerson’s instigation, Trump met with Abrams in early February and came away favorably disposed to his nomination, according to White House officials. But after the meeting, Trump apparently saw Rand Paul on Fox News disparage Abrams as a Never Trumper. (During the campaign Abrams wrote an article for The Weekly Standard titled “When You Can’t Stand Your Candidate.”) Trump told Tillerson that Abrams could not work for him after all.
According to a senior administration official, other potential hires were knocked out of consideration for sins as minor as retweeting some of Marco Rubio’s “little hands” jokes about Trump. “The hiring pool is very different from your normal hiring pool,” the official says. “The people the Senate would expect to confirm have all been taken off the table.”
In the early days of the administration, according to State Department officials, White House officials, especially Bannon, sent over many names for State Department posts. But Tillerson, after looking at their résumés and in some cases conducting interviews, felt he had no choice but to reject them. “They didn’t meet the qualifications for the actual jobs,” another senior administration official says.
Amid this impasse, power in the State Department has accrued to the relative handful of figures who have actually been hired, like Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin. Peterlin served in the early 2000s as a national-security aide to Dennis Hastert, who was then speaker of the House, but she had been out of international-affairs work for more than a decade, first as a Commerce Department official, then as an executive for the Mars candy company before she left to raise her children. Peterlin was tapped by a Trump transition official, a fellow former Hastert staff member, to shepherd the secretary-of-state nominee through his confirmation process. Tillerson subsequently asked her to become his chief of staff.
By the spring, however, Peterlin had become a particular source of irritation to White House officials, some of whom told me they believed that she was dragging her feet on nominations in order to preserve her newfound power. In April, according to multiple sources, Reince Priebus, who was then chief of staff at the White House, went so far as to set up a weekly meeting among himself, Peterlin and the White House personnel director, Johnny DeStefano, to review applicants in the hope of moving things along.
In the past few months, the pace of nominations for the State Department has picked up. But even so, few of the nominees have qualifications that match those of their predecessors. For instance, Tillerson’s nominee for under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs — a post that was held by the former White House senior adviser Karen Hughes during George W. Bush’s administration and the former Time editor Richard Stengel during Obama’s — is a New York City marketing executive named Irwin Steven Goldstein who once worked at the same company as Peterlin’s husband.
With so many crucial assistant-secretary positions — including some responsible for Asia, the Middle East, and South America — still either vacant or filled with acting officials, Hook has had to pick up the slack. “He’s trying to do the job of 30 people,” a 25-year veteran Foreign Service officer says. “He’s just knee-walking.” Worse, the office of policy planning, which has traditionally functioned as the secretary of state’s in-house think tank, is now tasked with handling day-to-day operations at the expense of formulating long-term strategy. “The problem is there’s no conceptual motor at all,” says Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies who served as counselor of the department under Rice. “It’s the random thoughts of Donald J. Trump and a very weak State Department and a secretary of state who hasn’t thought deeply about these things.”
When I recently met with Hook in his seventh-floor office at the State Department, he seemed wary of any implication that, in light of his establishment pedigree and association with Cohen and Edelman, he wasn’t sufficiently pro-Trump. I noted that on his conference table he had a book by Daniel W. Drezner, an international-politics professor at Tufts University who writes regularly for The Washington Post website and is a frequent critic of Trump and of Tillerson. In fact, just that morning, Drezner had published a column calling on Tillerson to resign. I jokingly told Hook that he might want to hide the book. Instead, R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s communications director, who was sitting in on the interview, immediately seized it.
“This is the guy who has the thing at The Post?” Hammond asked Hook. “Where’s your trash can?”
He made as if he was going to throw the book across Hook’s office. Hook raised his hand to block Hammond.
“No!” Hook said. “It’s a book on policy planning! This was written before Rex Tillerson was even considered.”
“Trash can,” Hammond reiterated. Hook kept his hand up. The fifth of Bombay gin and the liter bottle of tonic water on his desk suddenly made more sense.
On June 5, Tillerson was in Sydney, Australia, with the defense secretary, James Mattis, when he learned that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt were all severing relations with the tiny Persian Gulf nation Qatar and imposing an air, sea and land blockade.
The countries took these actions, they contended, because of Qatar’s support for Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and its warm relations with Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field. But it was most likely not a coincidence that the move came on the heels of Trump’s goofy and garish visit to Saudi Arabia, during which he was photographed laying hands on what appeared to be a mysterious glowing orb, announced a $110 billion arms deal and called for a Sunni alliance to combat terrorism and Iran.
Tillerson had participated in the festivities, joining Trump and their Saudi hosts in a ceremonial sword dance — “not my first sword dance,” he later told reporters. But Qatar is also a country Tillerson knows well. At Exxon Mobil, he worked closely with its emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, who was then Qatar’s interior minister, to help develop the world largest liquefied-natural-gas complex in Ras Laffan Industrial City. He happened to be in Doha, on Exxon Mobil business, the night Trump was elected. According to Hammond, when Tillerson returned to the country for the first time as secretary of state, in July, he tapped Hammond on the shoulder as his airplane was making its approach and pointed down to Ras Laffan. “Do you want to see what $250 billion looks like?” Tillerson asked.
But other members of the Trump administration argued against such a move, especially Jared Kushner. Ever since Trump’s election, Kushner had been the focus of an intense courtship by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi; and the two men quickly formed a close friendship with the president’s son-in-law. So close, in fact, that the crown princes convinced Kushner not just of Qatar’s perfidy but of the opportunity the blockade provided to further tilt American foreign policy toward the Saudis and away from Iran, according to the Trump adviser. “Rex saw it as a crisis to solve,” the adviser says. “Jared saw it as an opportunity to seize.”
Back in Washington, Tillerson suggested summoning the parties to Camp David. When that idea gained no traction, Tillerson proposed an American-sponsored meeting in Kuwait, to no avail. While Tillerson publicly called on the Saudis to end their blockade, Trump pronounced the action against Qatar “hard but necessary.” The “special relationship of prince to prince,” as the senior administration official describes the Kushner-Mohammed bin Salman alliance, seemed to be carrying the day.
Finally, in mid-July, Trump acquiesced to Tillerson’s request to be allowed to go to the region himself to conduct a round of shuttle diplomacy. In Doha, over a dinner of goat and baby camel, Tillerson negotiated with Qatar’s emir. In Jidda, he cajoled the Saudis and their allies to end their blockade. Nothing seemed to work, especially because each side was receiving the opposite message from other officials in Washington. On his flight back to the United States, Tillerson vented some of his frustrations. “It is a lot different than being C.E.O. of Exxon because I was the ultimate decision maker,” he told two reporters on board. The federal government, by contrast, is “not a highly disciplined organization, decision making is fragmented and sometimes people don’t want to take decisions.”
But Tillerson continued to quietly work the issue, concentrating as much on the head of state at home as on the heads of state in the gulf. When the quartet excluded Qatar from a military exercise in which it had traditionally taken part, he made a note of it on his list of things to talk to Trump about and brought it up to him at the White House. When Mohammed bin Salman welcomed a rogue member of Qatar’s Al-Thani royal family to Mina, lending credence to Tillerson’s suspicion that the Saudis hoped to use the crisis to engineer a regime change in Doha, Tillerson alerted Trump.
After several months, Tillerson finally won Trump over to his view. In early September, Trump told the Saudis and the Qataris that it was time to end the dispute. After Trump brokered a call between the emir of Qatar and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the two sides immediately began fighting again, and the crisis remains unresolved, but at least it was a start.
When I spoke to Tillerson about what caused the initial split in the administration on Qatar, he said that it boiled down to experience. “I think I started from a different place perhaps because I’ve known all the leaders involved for a long time, and I’ve seen these kinds of issues emerge in the region over the 20-plus years I’ve been dealing with the region,” he said. “So this was not new for me, and so I guess my reaction to it was perhaps immediately measured because I’ve seen it before. To those who have not seen it before” — and here Tillerson didn’t bother to name names, but it seemed he was talking about Kushner — “there are a lot of concerns expressed about Qatar that are legitimate concerns. The U.S. government has had some of these concerns, and we’re addressing them now through the engagement with Qatar and the memorandum of understanding we put in place when I was over there, and it’s going very well. We have issues with the other countries as well, and so I think the way we reacted was just based upon, in my case, that past experience versus those who perhaps had not seen this before.”
It was amid the Qatar episode that, in July, Tillerson and Mattis convened a special meeting with Trump to give the president a tutorial on, as The Associated Press later described it, “American Power 101.” Sitting in a windowless meeting room at the Pentagon known as the Tank, Tillerson and Mattis reportedly used charts and maps to explain to Trump why the United States needed to have so many diplomatic, military and intelligence assets deployed around the world. In at least one respect, their message had its intended effect: A month later, Trump would reverse his promise to withdraw from Afghanistan and announce that he was sending more troops there.
But when the meeting broke up, that development was hardly assured; and it was after spending 90 minutes tutoring Trump — including, according to NBC, about why the tenfold increase in nuclear weapons Trump desired would be a bad idea — that Tillerson reportedly called the president a “moron.” It may well be the harshest criticism Tillerson has directed at his boss, but it’s far from the only one. According to a former administration official, in private conversations with aides and friends, Tillerson refers to Trump, in his Texas deadpan, as the dealmaker in chief. And in meetings with Trump, according to people who have attended them, he increasingly rolls his eyes at the president’s remarks. If Trump disagrees with Tillerson, the official said, his secretary of state will say, “It’s your deal.”
The friction hasn’t been confined to foreign policy. In July, Tillerson was reportedly outraged by Trump’s politically charged speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, where, a few days earlier, Tillerson himself was honored for his service to the organization. In August, after Trump’s response to a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville — in which he said there were “very fine people” on “both sides” of the violent clashes there — Tillerson was asked on Fox News about whether the “president’s values” reflected America’s values. “The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson replied.
The souring of Tillerson’s relationship with Trump has left him not just without the support of the most crucial ally, his boss, but also without the support of any real allies at all. “The conundrum for Rex,” says a Trump-administration official sympathetic to Tillerson’s plight, “is that he’s on this island.”

During his first eight months in Washington, Tillerson spent so much time focusing his energies on Trump that he neglected other crucial constituencies. Bob Corker, the Republican senator from Tennessee who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has praised Tillerson — along with Mattis and the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly — for helping to “separate our country from chaos”; but Tillerson has few other allies on Capitol Hill, and now that Corker’s own relationship with Trump is on the rocks, it’s unclear how much his support of Tillerson will mean. Nor has Tillerson developed any new, close ties with foreign leaders, and many of the ones he had from his days at Exxon are now complicated by the realities of his current job.
His interactions with the press, meanwhile, have been grudging at best. Previous secretaries of state traveled the globe on a Boeing 757 that could accommodate as many as a dozen members of the State Department press corps; Tillerson has usually opted to fly on a smaller 737, with very limited room for reporters, and has studiously avoided the media in Washington. He has been sparing with his major policy speeches. “I speak when I have something I think’s important to say,” Tillerson told me.
“I don’t need a lot of time talking to. ...” He nodded curtly in my direction.
And then, of course, there’s Tillerson’s relationship — or lack thereof — with the State Department itself. For a secretary of state, speaking to the public, either in speeches or through regular interactions with the press, is a vital way of speaking to the department’s employees, especially when the secretary is planning to upend their lives, as Tillerson currently is. Not long after he was sworn in last February, Tillerson announced that he would be undertaking a grand “redesign” of the department. He hired a small consulting firm, Insigniam, that did work for him at Exxon Mobil to conduct a “listening tour” of State Department rank and file through an online questionnaire and about 300 personal interviews.
Many State Department employees found that Insigniam’s questions, both online and in person, betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what they did. “They came away with the impression that we’re very ‘patriotic’ and ‘professional,’ ” a senior State Department official says. “You don’t need a [expletive] survey to know that. It’s completely demeaning.”
At the same time Tillerson was getting ready to carry out his redesign, he was also trying to accommodate the Trump administration’s demand to drastically slash the State Department’s budget, ultimately acquiescing to a 30 percent cut. Tillerson insists that one has nothing to do with the other.
“The budget and what we’re doing organizationally have no relationship whatsoever,” he told me. But others inside and outside the State Department see them as inextricably linked. “It’d be like Exxon Mobil starting with a budget number and then deciding if it was going to produce oil or gas,” a former senior State Department official says.
“I have just the utmost respect for the Foreign Service officer corps here, and they’re vital,” Tillerson told me. “They’re vital and critical to the country’s ability to carry out its foreign policies.” As for the perception by many inside and outside Foggy Bottom that he wants to gut the Foreign Service, he said he doesn’t quite know how to respond. “I’m mystified by it,” he said. “I’m perplexed by it.”
But even the cuts he has planned, some State Department veterans fear, will cripple the department for years to come, especially as the lower and midlevel ranks of the department are reduced. “You can’t have captains if you don’t have lieutenants,” a senior State Department official says. “You can’t have majors if you don’t have captains.”
In nearly 300 embassies, missions and consulates around the world where State Department officials work to promote and defend America’s interests, diplomats complain about not just a dearth of resources but also a lack of guidance. “I’d request instructions on action items, saying I need a decision, and I’d hear absolutely nothing,” a recently returned ambassador said. Meanwhile, foreign leaders are increasingly emboldened in their attempts to drive a wedge between America’s diplomatic corps and the president. Earlier this year, according to Foreign Policy, Trump pushed out the United States ambassador to Jordan at the request of the country’s king. And this month, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has cultivated a close relationship with Trump, declared the American ambassador to his country persona non grata after a visa dispute. “We do not see him as the representative of the United States in Turkey,” Erdogan said.
A result, according to the nearly two dozen current and former State Department officials with whom I spoke, is that the department’s morale has never been lower. For that, almost all of them blame Tillerson. “When we’re put up for confirmation and swearing in, we thank the president and the secretary of state for having confidence in us, but I’m not sure I can honestly say that anymore,” the 25-year veteran of the Foreign Service confessed. “It’s not even about the president for me. It’s that I am deeply, deeply anguished about the secretary of state, and I have never felt like that.”
After Tillerson’s punishing turn in the media glare in recent weeks, the assumption among many that I spoke to in Foggy Bottom (outside Tillerson’s closest advisers) was that his departure was now a question of when, not if. Some believed that the only holdup was that Trump had not yet decided on Tillerson’s replacement, with Haley and the C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, being the most frequently mentioned candidates. Others speculated that Tillerson had asked to delay his exit until he’d been in his position for a year, in order to avoid a huge capital-gains tax hit on the stocks he had to divest from in order to take the job.
The “moron” remark had actually elevated Tillerson in the estimation of some in Foggy Bottom — “I feel like it’s curiously redemptive,” the 25-year veteran Foreign Service officer told me — but even these people conceded that they believed he could no longer do his job effectively.
“This just isn’t sustainable,” a senior State Department official said. “You can’t have a secretary of state going around the world who’s not seen as representing the president’s foreign policy.”
But even if Tillerson leaves, the fear among many in the State Department is that the hangover from his tenure will be long-lasting. The Foreign Service officer recalls a recent meeting of acting assistant secretaries, where the most pressing matters discussed were the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests and the number of typographical errors in memos to the secretary’s office. “The world is going to hell in a handbasket,” the Foreign Service officer fumed, “and the greatest minds in our diplomatic service are talking about FOIA requests and [expletive] typos.”

All of which can lead to some dark thoughts. More than one State Department official told me that they believed all of this wasn’t a case of simple mismanagement but of something more sinister. “I’ve lived in a lot of countries where conspiracy theories abound because people feel like they lack self-determination,” Nancy McEldowney, a 30-year career Foreign Service officer who retired in June, says. “And a great many people inside State are now hypothesizing about what the goal of all this is. Why are they firing people and shrinking the department down? It can’t simply be a budget-cutting exercise. If it were purely for reform, they would have done it differently.”