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In the continuing trend of tell-all exposés on celebrity CEOs, a new inside look on Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk claims that he once angled to replace Tim Cook as CEO of Apple as part of a potential acquisition deal between the two companies.
While both Musk and Cook have flatly denied the allegations, as Tim Higgins, automotive and technology reporter for The Wall Street Journal, tells it, the Tesla CEO demanded to take over the reins of Apple from Cook back in 2016, during a phone call between the two chief executives.
The story was highlighted in an early review of Higgins’ upcoming book, Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century by the Los Angeles Times. According to the narrative, Cook approached Musk about acquiring Tesla to further Apple’s Project Titan, and Musk said that he’d agree to a merge only on the condition that he become CEO of Apple as part of the deal.
In fact, according to Higgins, Cook originally misunderstood Musk’s request as suggesting that he remain at the helm of what would become Apple’s “Tesla division.” This wouldn’t have been unprecedented, since of course when Apple famously acquired Beats back in 2014, both founders Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, continued heading things up, at least for a few years.
However, in Higgins’ recounting of the story, Musk clarified by telling Cook that he wanted to be the CEO of Apple. In response, Cook reportedly swore at Musk and hung up on the phone on him.
It’s the kind of amusing and entertaining story that sells books, of course, but there’s only one major problem with it: According to both CEOs, the conversation never happened.
In fact, both Tim Cook and Elon Musk claim that they’ve never spoken to each other at all. While there’s every reason to believe the two would travel in the same circles — 9to5Mac publisher Seth Weintraub recently pointed out a photo of the two of them sitting a few feet apart at one of former President Trump’s technology advisory council — that doesn’t mean the two have ever had a meaningful conversation.
To be clear, neither Musk nor Cook said they’ve never met — merely that they’ve never spoken to each other, at least not in a meaningful way. It’s fair to say that they’ve probably exchanged brief pleasantries, but that’s about it.
While Cook hasn’t responded to these latest allegations directly, an Apple spokesperson pointed to remarks made by Cook in an April 2021 New York Times interview with Kara Swisher, where he stated that he’d never spoken to Musk.
You know, I’ve never spoken to Elon, although I have great admiration and respect for the company he’s built.Apple CEO Tim Cook
In fact, Cook said this after Swisher asked him about reports that Musk had offered to sell Tesla to Apple for a fraction of its value, but that Cook “wouldn’t even take a meeting with him.”
Always happy to be in the public eye, however, Musk’s denial about the story was much more direct, stating that not only have the two executives never spoken, but they’ve also never even written to each other.
Musk confirms that he did request to meet with Cook to discuss Apple buying Tesla at one point in the past, however, he didn’t propose any conditions on that meeting, and reiterated that Cook “refused to meet.”
Further, not only was Musk uninvolved in Higgins’ book, but according to the Los Angeles Times, the author notes at the end that he reached out to Musk, who basically called the majority of the book “nonsense.” Apple was also given an opportunity to comment before publication, but declined to do so.
[Musk] was given numerous opportunities to comment on the stories, facts, and characterizations presented in these pages. Without pointing to any specific inaccuracies, he offered simply this: ‘Most, but not all, of what you read in this book is nonsense.’Tim Higgins, author of Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century
Higgins, however, insists that the “anecdote comes from Musk’s own account of the conversation,” although of course Higgins only heard about it from others who claimed to have heard Musk tell the tale.
Tim Higgins has a well-established reputation as a journalist, as the Los Angeles Times’ Russ Mitchell personally attests to, so it’s unlikely he’s making this story up on his own. However, it’s also unlikely that both Tim Cook and Elon Musk are lying when they say they’ve never had a meaningful conversation with each other, and the tone of the story just doesn’t seem to fit Tim Cook’s personality — at least not his public persona, anyway.
Of course, Elon Musk is known for his bravado, and as Higgins notes, it apparently occurred during a time when Tesla was struggling with the Model X, and many were hoping for a “white knight” that would save the day. Hence, the most likely explanation is that the whole tale stems from a fish story once told around the office water cooler.