In the last week, I’ve spoken with a dozen current and recently departed State Department employees, all of whom asked for anonymity either because they were not authorized to speak to the press and feared retribution by an administration on the prowl for leakers, or did not want to burn their former colleagues. None of these sources were political appointees. Rather, they were career foreign service officers or career civil servants, most of whom have served both Republican and Democratic administrations—and many of whom do not know each other. They painted a picture of a State Department adrift and listless.
Sometimes, the deconstruction of the administrative state is quite literal. After about two dozen career staff on the seventh floor—the State Department’s equivalent of a C suite—were told to find other jobs, some with just 12 hours’ notice, construction teams came in over Presidents’ Day weekend and began rebuilding the office space for a new team and a new concept of how State’s nerve center would function. (This concept hasn’t been shared with most of the people who are still there.) The space on Mahogany Row, the line of wood-paneled offices including that of the secretary of state, is now a mysterious construction zone behind blue tarp.
With the State Department demonstratively shut out of meetings with foreign leaders, key State posts left unfilled, and the White House not soliciting many department staffers for their policy advice, there is little left to do. “If I left before 10 p.m., that was a good day,” said the State staffer of the old days, which used to start at 6:30 in the morning. “Now, I come in at 9, 9:15, and leave by 5:30.” The seeming hostility from the White House, the decades of American foreign-policy tradition being turned on its head, and the days of listlessness are taking a toll on people who are used to channeling their ambition and idealism into the detail-oriented, highly regimented busywork that greases the infinite wheels of a massive bureaucracy. Without it, anxiety has spiked. People aren’t sleeping well. Over a long impromptu lunch one afternoon—“I can meet tomorrow or today, whenever! Do you want to meet right now?”—the staffer told me she too has trouble sleeping now, kept awake by her worries about her job and America’s fading role in the world.
“I used to love my job,” she said. “Now, it feels like coming to the hospital to take care of a terminally ill family member. You come in every day, you bring flowers, you brush their hair, paint their nails, even though you know there’s no point. But you do it out of love.”
Some try to conduct policy meetings just to retain the muscle memory and focus, but, said another department employee, “in the last couple months, it’s been a lot more sitting around and going home earlier than usual.” Some wander around the streets of Foggy Bottom, going for long, aimless lunches. “I’m used to going to three or four interagency policy meetings a week,” the employee added, referring to the meetings in which policy is developed in coordination with other government departments. “I’ve had exactly one of those meetings in the last five weeks.” Even the torrent of inter-department email has slowed to a trickle. The State Department staffer told me that where she once used to get two hundred emails a day, it’s down to two dozen now. “Not since I began at the department a decade ago has it been so quiet,” she said. “Colleagues tell me it’s the same for them.”