The federal government will determine in the next few months whether Apple will get a tariff exemption on its core products.
It’s a critical juncture for Apple and CEO Tim Cook: A 15% tax on Chinese imports would force Apple to raise prices or accept lower margins on its core products sold in the United States, including iPhones and Mac laptops.
The decision will be made by the trade representative, but Cook has already appealed directly to the president with his thinking that the tariffs could hurt the company and give its top competitor an advantage.
“I have a lot of respect for Tim Cook, and Tim was talking to me about tariffs,” Trump said in August. “And one of the things, and he made a good case, is that Samsung is their number-one competitor, and Samsung is not paying tariffs because they’re based in South Korea.”
Trump seems to listen to Cook and take his concerns seriously. That’s a surprising development for a business leader who supported Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, in 2016 and who has openly clashed with the administration on certain issues like immigration.
One possible reason: Cook has taken care to cultivate ties with Trump and his family — a charm offensive that started shortly after Trump’s election and continues to this day.
Cook has met with Trump over dinner at his golf course in New Jersey twice in the last two years. He’s attended state dinners hosted by Trump and has a good relationship with Ivanka and Melania Trump, White House officials say. Apple announcements have often found their way into Trump’s remarks or tweets when they fit into the president’s narrative. Trump goes out of his way to call Cook a “friend of mine.”
Apple doesn’t engage in politics as a company. The company doesn’t have a PAC, and Cook has said it “shouldn’t exist.”
Nonetheless, during the Trump administration, Cook has kept in touch with the president, and his strategy of showing up to meetings and making calls when appropriate has given Apple the president’s ear when the president’s policies collide with Apple’s corporate interests.
That influence is about to be tested if Apple applies for tariff product exclusions. “Tim Cook meets with the president for strategic reasons, if the probability of [tariffs] were zero, they probably wouldn’t meet,” Loup Ventures managing partner Gene Munster said in August.
Whether the Trump administration spares Apple remains to be seen. But Trump definitely hears Cook’s requests. “Others go out and hire very expensive consultants,” Trump said in August. “Tim Cook calls Donald Trump directly.”
Apple declined to comment for this story.