Apple CEO Tim Cook, Pressed About U.S. COVID Response, Says Virus “Caught The World By Surprise”


In an online appearance Monday at The Atlantic Festival, Apple CEO Tim Cook declined the opportunity to express any criticism of the U.S. government for its response to COVID-19.

Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, in a 20-minute talk with Cook that was recorded late last week and streamed during the festival’s opening night, pressed him on the matter two separate times.

“I can tell you how we’ve responded” to the pandemic, Cook said, rattling off initiatives by Apple, from face shield donations to renewed efforts to ensure its news feeds stay free of phony pandemic reports.

Goldberg went back at Cook again, emphasizing Apple’s sense of the global picture and suggesting the U.S. could have made choices that would have avoided the current total of 200,000-plus deaths. “I think this virus caught the world by surprise,” Cook responded. “It’s significant, and I think there will be time for lots of lessons learned about things that we could all do better. I hope that we take a hard look at that as we get on the other side of the virus.”

The pair began the discussion by talking about the California wildfires, prompting Goldberg to ask Cook about President Donald Trump’s denial of climate change. He wondered if the topic might have come up during the numerous one-on-one exchanges between the CEO and Trump, and whether the president struck Cook as in any way amenable to changing his views.

“I kind of view the conversations that I’ve had [with Trump] as private conversations, so I don’t want to talk about it in detail,” Cook said. “My whole philosophy is engagement. I believe that it’s much better to be involved, whether you’re in agreement or, I think it’s even more important to engage when you disagree on something.”

Cook said Apple’s workers, except for about 10% to 15% of staff at its Cupertino, CA headquarters, have been working remotely since March due to COVID-19. As for when the balance will return, Cook guessed “sometime next year,” though he wouldn’t hazard a more precise timeline.

While productivity is possible at a distance, Cook said, “it’s not like being together physically.” The company’s gleaming, circular Apple Park building was designed to foster creativity and serendipitous interaction between employees. “I can’t wait for everybody to be able to be able to come back to the office,” Cook said, though he added, “I don’t think we’ll be able to return to the way we were because we’ve found that there are some things that work really well virtually.”

Asked about the company being the first to reach a $2 trillion market capitalization in June, double its value of just two years earlier, Cook said the company’s stock price “is not a fixation at all. We don’t follow the market cap of the company. It’s not why we do what we do. … We want to make the world’s best products that enrich people’s lives. What turns us on is watching how our products are used in the wild.”

Goldberg inquired about Cook’s sense of his own future at the company. Cook, who will turn 60 in November, said he considered it “the privilege of a lifetime to be here in this role at this time.” In 2011, he was named CEO after a lengthy run as a key lieutenant of longtime chief Steve Jobs.

While the financial gains of the company and its dominant role in consumer services like iCloud and the App Store are inarguable achievements, Cook is regarded as more of an operations and logistics specialist than a Jobs-ian creative force. After the decade of the 2000s, which saw the introduction of the iPhone and iPad, the main Cook product launches have been Apple Watch and AirPods, devices that have sold at a good clip but not transformed society.

Cook told Goldberg he wakes each day to read customer emails and feels entirely committed to staying on his current course. “It’s tough to envision my life without” his Apple colleagues, he said.

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