Elon Musk landed in Spain in late June 2018, just in time for his brother Kimbal’s wedding and a needed respite. For months, his friends had grown increasingly worried about him as he eschewed their invitations to unwind, telling them he was needed at the factory. His public comments about his now ex-girlfriend Amber Heard seemed unhinged. His newest flame, Claire Boucher, didn’t fit neatly into Musk’s type.
There was no denying the gravity of what he had achieved—nor was there time to bask in it. His attention needed to turn to an equally pressing challenge: delivering cars to customers. An inability to sell the Model S five years earlier, once the factory had fixed its problems, had nearly wrecked the company. This time around, Tesla needed to deliver far more than 4,750 cars, and the goal was more than simply breaking even. This wasn’t about making a point, it was about making cash—to pay suppliers whose bills were mounting. More than just deliver cars, Tesla needed to move beyond its lone assembly plant outside San Francisco; it had to prepare to take the company global, to give it the kind of sales volume and scale it needed to compete against the likes of General Motors.
And yet despite the conflicting needs—rest, refocusing on sales—Musk’s mind was drawn elsewhere. He was on the verge of a public meltdown that might not only tarnish his reputation and distract Tesla from completing its goal of ushering in a mainstream electric car, but might do the one thing that Musk had fought so hard over the years to avoid: cause him to lose control of the company.
Musk’s Twitter habit seemed harmless enough. He obsessively checked the social media platform throughout his day, but then, who didn’t? Some of his earliest public blunders had occurred on the site. He’d unnerved onlookers months earlier with an April Fool prank suggesting the company was broke. He’d taken to the platform to gloat when Tesla’s market value overtook Ford’s more than a year earlier, jabbing at short sellers—those investors betting against him—who were feeling the pinch.
This time, an unfolding drama on the other side of the world caught his attention: a boys’ soccer team was trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. As the world watched rescuers try to save them, someone on Twitter urged Musk to intervene. At first he demurred, but within days he was proclaiming that his engineers would design a mini-submarine to rescue the kids—even if it wasn’t clear that the rescuers in Thailand wanted such help. He documented his efforts on Twitter.
Tesla’s team was preparing for Musk to meet with Chinese government leaders, to celebrate the automaker’s deal to open a factory in China—a hugely consequential move that could propel Tesla beyond a niche car company. Instead of drawing attention to that triumph, Musk had other plans. En route to China, Musk had his jet stop in Thailand, where he rushed to the cave site. He posted pictures on Twitter. “Just returned from Cave 3. Mini-sub is ready if needed. It is made of rocket parts & named Wild Boar after kids’ soccer team. Leaving here in case it may be used in the future. Thailand is so beautiful,” he wrote on July 9, even as a daring (and ultimately successful) rescue attempt was underway.
Musk’s sub was never used, and Narongsak Osottanakorn, head of the operation coordinating the rescue, told reporters the submarine wouldn’t have been practical for the mission. By then, Musk was in China. He received a text from Boucher, better known as Grimes, alerting him to the statement and warning that the media was turning against him. He reached out to his staff: “I just woke up in Shanghai. What’s happening?” As the team tried to figure out who Osottanakorn was, Sam Teller, Musk’s chief of staff, weighed in with an email: “He’s the fucking regional governor who has ignored our calls.”
Musk couldn’t let the perceived slight go. He wrote back: “We need to go all out and make this guy retract his comment.”
The sentiment only grew worse. A couple days later, a British man named Vernon Unsworth, a spelunker who helped rescuers with his knowledge of the caves, was interviewed by CNN. In a passing question, he was asked about Musk’s submarine. He called it a PR stunt and said that “it had absolutely no chance of working” and that Musk had “no conception of what the cave passage was like.” He said Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
The video clip quickly began making the rounds on Twitter. By July 15, Musk was furious, attacking Unsworth in a series of messages on Twitter that included this one: “Sorry pedo guy. You really did ask for it.”
This didn’t create a Twitter storm. It caused a category 5 hurricane. Shares plunged 3.5 percent, wiping out almost $2 billion of valuation. James Anderson of Baillie Gifford, one of Tesla’s largest investors, weighed in during an interview, calling the event “a regrettable instance” and saying Tesla needs “peace and execution.” Major news outlets began reaching out to Tesla’s communications department to ask if Musk was, in fact, calling Unsworth a pedophile. The team closely monitored the coverage, following more than two dozen headlines from the BBC to Gizmodo. One aide wrote a memo analyzing the situation: “Media continue to cover E’s tweet, with some stories mentioning that the ‘outburst’ comes ‘just a week after he said in a Bloomberg interview that he would try to be less combative on Twitter.’” It went on to say that a number of investors and analysts “believe his comments are adding to their concerns that he’s distracted from Tesla’s main business.”
Early the next morning, July 17, Teller, the 32-year-old chief of staff, tried to reason with Musk, saying it was time to apologize. He told him that he had talked with all of the people Musk held in deep regard—board member Antonio Gracias, CFO Deepak Ahuja, general counsel Todd Maron (his former divorce lawyer), and others—and they all agreed that an apology and a break from Twitter “sets you back on the right path internally and externally.” Teller had even taken the liberty of writing out what an apology letter could say. He told his boss: “Everyone will love and respect you more for openly admitting the mistake and showing how much you care about your employees and the company mission.”
An hour later, Musk responded. “After sleeping on this, I’m not happy about the suggested approach.” Musk worried an apology offered so quickly after Tesla’s shares had dropped would be dismissed as disingenuous and cowardly. “We need to stop panicking,” Musk said.
Later that night, however, Musk relented. In another tweet, he said: “My words were spoken in anger after Mr. Unsworth said several untruths & suggested I engage in a sexual act with the mini-sub, which had been built as an act of kindness & according to specifications from the dive team leader.”
As the Twitter winds swirled, Tesla’s executives kept their heads down. They had met the goal of churning out five thousand Model 3s in a single week at the end of June, but re-creating that and more, as Musk promised, was proving an uphill battle. The delays meant Tesla hadn’t been generating the kind of sales it had hoped for to keep the business afloat. Cash on hand had fallen to $2.24 billion at the end of June. Now Tesla not only needed to increase sales, it needed to cut costs—and quickly.
The gravity of Tesla’s financial situation weighed on Musk. At one point, he thought aloud about how Apple and its war chest of $244 billion might help. By all accounts, the iPhone maker’s efforts to develop a car had been a struggle.
Musk reached out to Apple CEO Tim Cook about meeting for a possible deal. Perhaps Apple would be interested in acquiring Tesla for about $60 billion, or more than twice its value when Cook had originally inquired? A back and forth began between the two men’s camps to find a time to meet, but it quickly became clear that Cook’s side was dragging its feet, seemingly uninterested in finding an actual meeting time, a person familiar with the situation said. Instead, Apple hired back Doug Field, fresh from his work on the Model 3, to help guide its own car program.
Musk awoke at one of his Los Angeles mansions on August 7 and was greeted with a story in the Financial Times that revealed something that had been quietly brewing at Tesla. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund had reportedly taken a $2 billion stake in the company, instantly making it one of the carmaker’s largest shareholders. Minutes later, as Musk headed to the airport to fly to the Gigafactory in Nevada, he typed out a fateful message on Twitter: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.”
It was the kind of half-cocked, uncensored messaging that Musk was known for—precisely what made his Twitter account a must-read for tens of millions of people, fans and detractors alike. Musk wasn’t remotely prepared for the onslaught that these nine words would bring.
The reaction on Wall Street was instantaneous. Shares, which had already been rising, soared. Musk arrived at the Gigafactory almost giddy, asking managers if they knew what 420 stood for? It was a marijuana reference, he told them. He laughed.
Normally, a company alerts the NASDAQ ahead of the maneuver Musk was now casually proposing, and trading is halted. It isn’t a courtesy, it’s the trading exchange’s rule; companies are supposed to notify the exchange at least ten minutes before any news that might create significant volatility in the stock price, such as an intention to go private, so trading can be stopped to allow investors to digest the new information. The announcement caught them off guard—Tesla hadn’t said a thing. NASDAQ officials frantically tried to reach their contacts at the company.
Little good that did. Tesla’s head of investor relations was caught off guard, too. He messaged Musk’s chief of staff, Sam Teller: “Was this text legit?” Reporters reached out, too. “Quite a tweet! (Is it a joke?),” one wrote. Another emailed Musk directly: “Are you just messing around?”
About thirty-five minutes after the tweet, CFO Deepak Ahuja texted Musk: “Elon, am sure you have thought about a broader communication on your rationale and structure to employees and potential investors. Would it help if Sarah [O’Brien, head of PR], Todd [Maron, general counsel] and I draft a blog post or employee email for you?” Musk said that would be great.
The next day, the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation.
Musk’s approach wasn’t inconsistent with the way he had run Tesla for much of its history: Announce something, then figure out how to make it happen. The problem here was that as the CEO and chairman of a publicly traded company, his public statements about Tesla took on greater weight. It’s a prosecutable crime to say something about your business that you know to be false. Given that his announcement on Twitter seemed so off-the-cuff, and the scant details that emerged seemed not fully thought through, suspicion was immediately ignited. Companies normally introduce such deals only after extensive vetting, with statements well parsed by lawyers. Tesla was racing to put together a team to evaluate the deal, post-announcement.
Musk tried to put out the fire he’d set; instead he fanned the flames. He wrote a blog post indicating that the details of the deal were far from complete, that all would come in due time. “It would be premature to do so now,” Musk wrote. “I continue to have discussions with the Saudi fund, and I also am having discussions with a number of other investors, which is something that I always planned to do so since I would like for Tesla to continue to have a broad investor base.” As for the “funding secured” part of his tweet, he explained that he’d met with the Saudi fund at the end of July, when he “expressed his support for funding a going private transaction for Tesla at this time.”
He concluded that “if and when a final proposal is presented,” the company’s board would consider it and, if approved, shareholders would get a chance to vote.
The post only threw Wall Street into greater confusion, sending shares plummeting. Rumors began circulating that Musk might not survive this latest misstep. Influential New York Times business columnist James Stewart heard that Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier who had pled guilty to a sex crime involving a teenage girl, was compiling a list of candidates for Tesla chairman, at Musk’s behest. It was a wild claim, in the midst of an unbelievable period. Stewart reached out to Epstein about the rumor, then found himself at the financier’s Manhattan home on August 16 for an interview on the condition it would be “on background,” meaning the information could be reported on but couldn’t be attributed directly to Epstein. Stewart found Epstein evasive.
The newspaper reached out to Musk as well, and Musk went ballistic. “Epstein, one of the worst people on Earth, actually told NYT that he was working with Tesla and me on the take-private,” Musk fumed to Juleanna Glover, a high-powered PR consultant in Washington, D.C., brought in to help him navigate the media, “and, under that guise, confided in them ‘concerns’ that he had about me. That was incredibly creepy and diabolical.” He got on the phone with the Times to deny Epstein’s claim, but once they were connected, Musk proceeded to self-implode for an hour, recounting all of the hardships he’d faced in recent months trying to get the Model 3 out—nearly missing his brother’s wedding, spending his birthday on the factory floor.
The resulting headline read “Elon Musk Details ‘Excruciating’ Personal Toll of Tesla Turmoil.” It described him as emotional, having “choked up multiple times” during the interview. He talked of his use of Ambien to combat sleep troubles; some board members were said to be worried about this. They claimed it contributed to his late-night Twitter sessions.
Musk just wanted it all to end. “Don’t they have something else to write about?” he asked his PR consultant. “It is so tiresome to see myself in the news!”
Musk’s behavior over the past year had troubled close observers, but his latest missteps catapulted him and his woes into the mainstream. Investors freaked out; shares plunged almost 9 percent the day after the New York Times interview was published. Wall Street analysts began pulling back their expectations for the company, telling investors they thought the stock was overvalued. Tesla’s board, close allies of Musk, was put in a tough position. They could be held liable if they turned a blind eye to his latest episode.
On Thursday, sixteen days after Musk had sent his going-private tweet, Tesla’s board of directors flew to the Fremont factory to go through their options with a small cadre of advisers and lawyers. They presented their case, then left the room. With the board remaining, attention turned to Musk. What did he think?
He said that based on the information he had gathered, he was withdrawing the proposal. Tesla would remain public. “In my opinion, the value of Tesla will rise considerably in the coming months and years, possibly putting any take-private beyond the reach of any investors,” Musk said in an email after the decision was made. “It was now or perhaps never.”
It marked the end of two of the most unsettled weeks in Tesla’s history. But as much as Musk might have liked to simply retract his tweet and move on, he had painted himself into a corner. Now he had to convince the SEC that he had in fact had funding secured for the deal when he tweeted it, that he hadn’t misled investors. Musk and other board members were slated to give depositions under oath to investigators in coming days. The SEC, led by the San Francisco office, was moving quickly.
A less brash executive might have been chastened. But amid all of this, Musk returned to Twitter. His outburst in The New York Times earlier that month had led to a debate about whether female founders could get away with crying on the job. “For the record, my voice cracked once during the NY Times article. That’s it. There were no tears,” he tweeted at 8:11 a.m. on August 28. That drew scorn from some. “Elon, your dedication to facts and truth would have been wonderful if applied to that time you called someone a pedo,” a Twitter user wrote. Musk responded: “You don’t think it’s strange he hasn’t sue me? He was offered free legal services.”
By then, Unsworth had a lawyer, who chimed in: Check your mail. The tweets set off another round of media, piquing the interest of BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Mac. Mac emailed Musk on August 29. Emails went back and forth until Musk, a day later, began an email “Off the record,” then suggested Mac call people in Thailand “and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole.” Musk dug himself a deeper hole. “[Unsworth is] an old, single white guy from England who’s been traveling to or living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years, mostly Pattaya Beach, until moving to Chiang Rai for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time. (Unsworth, in fact, didn’t take a child bride. His longtime Thai girlfriend was then 40.) There’s only one reason people go to Pattaya Beach. It isn’t where you’d go for caves, but it is where you’d go for something else. Chiang Rai is renowned for child sex trafficking. He may claim to know how to cave dive, but he wasn’t on the cave dive rescue team and most of the actual dive team refused to hang out with him. I wonder why…”
He then added: “I fucking hope he sues me.”
Mac had never agreed to go off the record, abiding by a long-standing tradition in journalism that said a reporter and interviewee could make such an agreement only before an exchange. BuzzFeed published Mac’s story on September 4.
Musk knew immediately that he was in trouble. Glover, the PR consultant, moved in D.C. political circles; she forwarded Musk an email from Jeff Nesbit, a politically savvy environmentalist, who offered assistance and voiced concerns about what Musk’s Twitter rants might mean for the company: “One or two more of these and I can guarantee that there will be a no confidence vote on the BOD [board of directors].”
Musk wrote back that he knew it was “extremely bad.” He had intended only for BuzzFeed to investigate the guy. “I’m a fucking idiot,” he concluded.
Glover suggested he do an interview, on the record, “to kill this nonsense, speculation around your mental state.” She wanted to get him out in public again, presented in a way that made him look decisive, droll, and self-aware. Musk suggested comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.
Two days later it was arranged. Glover advised Musk that Rogan’s interviews can run several hours. “Joe doesn’t interrupt much so he will let you roll (he is funny and curses on air as no FCC rules for podcasts),” she prepped Musk. He needed to figure out with his lawyers what to say if Rogan asked about the ongoing SEC investigation. Also, if he asked about Unsworth, she pleaded, avoid answering. “Pls, pls, pls, pls if the Thai diver comes up pls just say you think you have gotten into enough trouble on that already and are not going to say more,” she wrote.
The live interview, streamed on YouTube, began late on the West Coast. Musk, dressed in a black T-shirt that read “Occupy Mars,” seemed in good spirits. In many ways, Rogan was the perfect interviewer for Musk, allowing him to talk at length about his interests, from space travel to tunnel digging. As the night wore on, Rogan and Musk began drinking whiskey. Near the end of the nearly three-hour interview, Rogan lit what he said was a marijuana-tobacco blunt and asked if Musk had ever smoked marijuana before. “I think I tried one once,” Musk said laughing. “You probably can’t because of stockholders, right?” Rogan asked.
“I mean, it’s legal right?” Musk said from the California studio.
“Totally legal,” Rogan replied. He handed the spliff to Musk, who took a puff. The conversation turned heady. Rogan wondered about the role of inventors in furthering society. What if there were a million Nikola Teslas? he asked. Musk said things would have advanced very quickly. Right, Rogan added, but there’s not a million Elon Musks. “There’s one motherfucker,” Rogan said. “Do you think about that?”
Musk checked his phone.
“You getting text messages from chicks?” Rogan asked.
No, Musk said. “I’m getting text messages from friends saying, ‘What the hell are you doing smoking weed?’ ”
When the Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal landed the next day, its front cover featured a picture of Elon Musk in a cloud of smoke, holding the blunt. To those watching, it wasn’t clear that Musk or his company would ever exit the haze.
From the book POWER PLAY: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century by Tim Higgins, to be published in the US on August 3, 2021 by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, and in the UK on August 5, 2021 by WH Allen. Copyright © 2021 by Tim Higgins.
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