She was shoved out of the room

The State Department is sinking into a slough.

On the first Friday in May, Foreign Affairs Day, the staff gathers in the flag-bedecked C Street lobby of the State Department beside the memorial plaques for the 248 members of foreign affairs agencies who have lost their lives in the line of duty. A moment of silence is observed. As president of the American Foreign Service Association, Barbara Stephenson helps organize the annual event. This year, she was set to enter a delegates’ lounge to brief Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on its choreography before appearing alongside him. Instead, she told me, she was shoved out of the room.

Stephenson, a former ambassador to Panama, is not used to being manhandled at the State Department she has served with distinction for more than three decades. She had been inclined to give Tillerson the benefit of the doubt. Transitions between administrations are seldom smooth, and Tillerson is a Washington neophyte, unversed in diplomacy, an oilman trying to build a relationship with an erratic boss, President Trump.

Still, that shove captured the rudeness and remoteness that have undermined trust at Foggy Bottom.

Tillerson’s a neophyte but he gives no visible sign of humility or willingness to be educated.

An exodus is underway. Those who have departed include Nancy McEldowney, the director of the Foreign Service Institute until she retired last month, who described to me “a toxic, troubled environment and organization”; Dana Shell Smith, the former ambassador to Qatar, who said what was most striking was the “complete and utter disdain for our expertise”; and Jake Walles, a former ambassador to Tunisia with some 35 years of experience. “There’s just a slow unraveling of the institution,” he told me.

The 8,000 Foreign Service officers are not sure how to defend American values under a president who has entertained the idea of torture, shown contempt for the Constitution, and never met an autocrat who failed to elicit his sympathy. Trump seems determined to hollow out the State Department in a strange act of national self-amputation.

I read somewhere, earlier today, that we don’t even have a goddam ambassador to South Korea. Trump hasn’t even bothered to nominate one.

The president signaled early on that military might, not diplomatic deftness, was his thing. Soft power was for the birds. This worldview (in essence no more than Trump’s gut) has been expressed in a proposed cut of about 30 percent in the State Department budget as military spending soars; a push to eliminate some 2,300 jobs; the vacancy of many senior posts, including 20 of the 22 assistant secretary positions requiring Senate confirmation; unfilled ambassadorships — roughly 30 percent of the total — from Paris to New Delhi; and the brushoff of the department’s input in interagency debate and in pivotal decisions, like withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Days are now marked by resignations, unanswered messages and idled capacity.

It’s really horrifying.

Tillerson, who declined my request for an interview and whose spokesman never responded to calls and an email, insists he knows what he’s about.

Yeah see that’s what I mean. So does Trump, and look how well that’s going.

The former chief executive of Exxon Mobil is a methodical man. He’s an engineer; nuance is not his forte. “What’s the rush?” he’s been heard to say, apparently oblivious to the storm brewing. At Exxon, he occupied the so-called God Pod, known for its remoteness. At the State Department, his chief of staff is widely seen as having walled him off. His well-regarded deputy, John Sullivan, has initiated some much-needed outreach, but top leadership is still so depleted that communication stalls.

Olympian aloofness may work at an oil company. It won’t at a government agency whose leader is the nation’s face to the world.

Tillerson has plans to streamline and slash.

“The unanswered question with the cuts is: to what end?” McEldowney said. Another senior official, who has since left, pressed Tillerson for direction and was told: “It’s very simple. End terrorism. End radicalization. Deal with China.”

Oh yes, it’s very simple. You just give this screw a half-turn and all your troubles are over.

On May 3, in his one town-hall meeting (if an event where he refused to take questions may be called that) with the department staff, Tillerson declared, “If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”

This suggested Tillerson’s acquiescence to the valueless, transactional foreign policy emerging from the White House, a zero-sum game in which “Pay up” is the constant admonition to allies — and forget about any shining city on a hill. It’s hard to overstate how disturbing this is for many in the State Department. They know diplomacy is a tough business built around sometimes ugly compromise. But human rights are not some bargaining chip in the quest for the ultimate deal.

It’s not even just us bleeding-hearts libbruls who are appalled.

Asked about the situation at the State Department, Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, told me: “Our interests in the end rest on our values. I am concerned because the country seems to be veering away from values that are so foundational for us.” David Rank, the top American diplomat in China who quit last month over Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate agreement, echoed that: “It’s disturbing to have an administration so nakedly uninterested in our values.”

It’s horrifying is what it is.

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