The Texas Plant Tour Was a Lose/Lose Situation for Tim Cook

The news started out benign enough, at least in the context of living in today’s timeline. The Twittersphere couldn’t contain its giggles when US President Donald Trump took to his legislative platform of choice to announce that he’d just “opened” a new Apple manufacturing plant in Texas.

The event, in fact, wasn’t an opening, and the plant’s existence had nothing to do with Trump’s influence. What transpired was a tour of a facility owned by a company called Flex. Flex has been assembling Mac Pros within those walls since 2013. This is nothing new.

Shortly after, however, the wheels started coming off the bus for Apple and CEO Tim Cook. Cook had accompanied Trump on the tour and was standing by him during a news conference when the president made a series of false or unsubstantiated claims about his involvement with Apple, the plant, and its operations. He then launched into a verbal diatribe on the US Congress as well as the media.

While this was happening, two other events took place simultaneously.

  1. Trump’s people filmed and photographed the event and used it as part of their re-election effort. And,
  2. Tim Cook stood by and didn’t say a single word.

Now, it’s no secret that Apple’s PR department hasn’t had an easy couple of weeks. Its relationship with China, as well as its perceived abandonment of those struggling in Hong Kong (and weak attempts at an explanation), have left it in the impossible situation of wanting to sell millions of its products to millions of people whose governments are perfectly fine with that – so long as those people can’t use the products to learn about, discuss, criticize, protest, or change their governments.

This post, however, isn’t about corporations and the roles and responsibilities (if any) they should be forced to take on in the fight against oppressive governments. It’s about Tim Cook, his thrusting of Apple into political Thunderdome, and where this all goes from here.

Under Jobs, Apple rarely strayed into politics. Granted, the global situation was significantly different during those times and, frankly, Jobs just might not have seen the need. Had that need emerged, it’s really not too hard to imagine a flustered Jobs approaching a senator, or even a president, forgoing the handshake, looking the official in the eyes, and loudly asking just what exactly the fuck they thought they were doing.

Cook, however, is much more the statesman, and his use of Apple’s influence and power in the political arena hasn’t gone unnoticed. But yesterday’s events show that it’s time to start wondering just how far he’s willing to go to placate those who wield significant power over the world in which Apple operates and sells its wares.

For evidence of that claim, one needs only look as far as yesterday’s events. After the tour, a reporter asked Trump if he was considering making Apple exempt from a sweeping set of tariffs the administration is levying on goods imported from China. “We’re looking at that,” was his response.

Talk about a lose/lose situation. If this was a Choose Your Own Adventure book, no one would buy it.

To go to war with the White House and publicly challenge or correct the President of the United States and embarrass him while he’s considering tariffs that could cost your company ridiculous amounts of cash, turn to page 23.

To say nothing while the President of the United States misrepresents his involvement with your company and then uses it as a backdrop for a campaign video and a stage for attacking American institutions like Congress and the media, thus drawing the ire of the activist public, turn to page 45.

No thanks…I’m putting this piece of shit back on the shelf.

In the moment – a moment I’d wager that Cook didn’t know was coming – he had a fraction of a second to decide what to do, how to respond, weigh the risks, phrase a possible response, and then execute that response. Done properly, his best case scenario might have been a Twitter rebuke and an hour or two in the news cycle. Done too aggressively, however, and the impact to Apple could have been hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars, as the tariff decision just so happened to not go Apple’s way.

Apple’s fans and customers are frustrated with the company and its recent placation and, some would say, embrace of China’s invasion of its citizens’ privacy, oppressors in Hong Kong, and…well…the Trump administration as a whole. Cook appears to be perfectly happy to kiss the ring and play the role of personal Apple Store Genius to the president.

But, he’s also being rewarded for his diplomacy. A tariff exemption would be a huge win for Apple, and Cook’s continued influence could potentially help shape technology policy for the foreseeable future. Apple’s influence on things like privacy, encryption, and even social issues both in and out of tech could be a net positive when compared to the alternatives.

Moving forward, however, some decisions need to be made and some boundaries need to be set. At the very least, some consideration needs to be taken in Cupertino for the optics of having the CEO of one of the world’s most beloved technology companies cozying up to one of the world’s most controversial leaders.

The fact is that Tim Cook got bullied yesterday. The question then is how much more shit he’s going to take before he reminds that bully that he runs a trillion-dollar company, and how he’ll counter if – no…when –the bully hits back again.