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Tim Cook’s careful but profitable dance with the Trump White House

The CEO’s appearance alongside Ivanka Trump this week is a reminder of Apple’s uncomfortably close relationship with an unpopular POTUS.

Tim Cook’s careful but profitable dance with the Trump White House
[Photos: Roy Rochlin/ Stringer/Getty Images; lucky-photographer]
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On Tuesday, the Trump White House announced a new solution to the unemployment crisis that sounds as vague and empty as its spokesperson, Ivanka Trump. The “Find Something New” campaign, which consists mainly of an ad and some website links, is meant to inform workers of nontraditional skills training routes to better jobs. The initiative was thrashed on social media as naive and tone-deaf, in light of the 18 million Americans currently out of work in the U.S. And who was sitting right next to Ivanka (on Zoom, anyway) at the announcement of the new initiative? Apple CEO Tim Cook, in yet another cringe-worthy example of Apple’s awkward dance with the Trumps.

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Find Something New grew from the work of the Ivanka-led American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, on which Cook also sits. The Ad Council chipped in to help produce the TV ad, which features people who used apprenticeships or trade school degrees to get new jobs. “I got laid off twice, but you got to keep going,” one man in the ad states. “Now I’m a consultant in the tech space.”

But with an unemployment rate of 11.1% and coronavirus cases surging anew, it seems unlikely that anybody, employed or not, has a lot of time to think about some future dream job. This view was shared by many on Twitter Tuesday. “Telling people to get out there and ‘Find Something New’ during a pandemic and depression is some of the most tone-deaf shit I have ever heard,” tweeted Tommy Vietor, host of the political podcast Pod Save America. “Surprised the logo isn’t @IvankaTrump stepping on a peasant as she struts into her castle.”

Cook’s friendly relationship with the White House began almost immediately after Trump took office in 2017, when Trump invited Cook to sit on his American Technology Council. Two other Trump business councils disbanded after numerous corporate leaders objected to the president’s comments about right-wing violence in Charlottesville, North Carolina. In 2019, Apple hosted Trump at its facility in Austin, Texas, for a walkthrough, during which the president indirectly took credit for the jobs Apple has created in the U.S.

In addition, Cook has dined with the president more than once at his golf resorts, and Trump calls Cook a friend and “great business leader.” Trump claims that Cook calls him directly “when there’s a problem,” and if Trump has a critique on the iPhone, he tweets directly at Cook.

If it’s a friendship, it’s likely a transactional one, because the two men share few values in common. Cook has personally spoken out on LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, and environmental protection. Trump’s administration is actively working against those things.

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But so far, the transaction has worked out pretty well for Cook and Apple—and for Apple’s balance sheet. Apple has saved many billions in taxes via Trump’s 2018 tax cut, which lowered the corporate tax rate and allowed Apple to pay less tax to bring home the $285 billion it held overseas. Taxes, in fact, were Apple’s number one policy initiative in 2017 and 2018. It could scarcely have done better. For its part, Apple had only to promise to spend $350 billion creating jobs in the U.S. And it returned more than $100 million of its windfall to shareholders.

Apple also managed to dodge several bullets in Trump’s trade war. Most of Apple’s products are assembled in China, then imported to the U.S., which puts the company at risk of trade war tariffs. But while the White House intended to put a 15% tariff on consumer electronics, it ultimately withdrew the plan after reaching a deal with the Chinese in December. AirPods are still tariffed, but a tariff on the Apple Watch was lifted in March.

When Apple employees questioned Cook’s relationship with Trump in 2017, the CEO explained in a company-wide email: “Personally, I’ve never found being on the sideline a successful place to be. The way that you influence these issues is to be in the arena.” That has proved correct. Cook entered the arena and won. But Apple has paid a price, too.

“A low moment in Apple’s proud history”

The Apple faithful will never forget the image of Cook sitting next to Donald Trump at the White House in 2017. They also likely remember when Apple hosted a media event with Donald and Ivanka at its manufacturing facility in Austin, Texas, that seemed designed to showcase Trump’s job-creating power. After presenting Trump with a plaque that said the new iMac is designed in California and manufactured in the U.S., Cook talked up the strength of the U.S. economy to the press corps. He stood silently by as Trump then talked about his own impeachment and prattled on about “the fake press.”

Apple blogger John Gruber wrote at the time that Cook’s participation in government panels doesn’t necessarily imply his or Apple’s support for Trump, but that the press event in Austin was a step too far. “A low moment in Apple’s proud history, and a sadly iconic moment for Tim Cook,” Gruber wrote. “I hope avoiding those tariffs is worth it.”

But Cook’s repeated appearances with the Trumps do suggest something like support—or at least an acceptance of the Trump agenda. They associate Cook’s face, name, and company with a president who sided with white supremacists in Charlottesville, put children in cages along the southern border, and allegedly attempted to convince foreign powers to meddle in U.S. elections—an action for which he was impeached. His denial and inaction bear some responsibility for the nearly 140,000 U.S. deaths so far from the coronavirus.

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Though Cook has advocated on behalf of immigrants’ rights (including DACA), LGBTQ rights, and the environment, Cook has influenced none of those issues. Cook says he tried, for example, to convince Trump to keep the U.S. in the Paris Agreement, to no avail.

Now Trump’s worldview is increasingly unpopular with Americans, as reflected in his falling poll numbers. The president’s actions may become increasingly extreme as he grows more desperate for a route to reelection in November. How long will Cook continue to associate with Trump?

Apple didn’t immediately respond to questions about Cook’s appearance today. But the company has said in the past that Cook intends to engage with the administration “based on policy, not politics.”

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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