Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 12 March 2024



Trump’s TikTok reversal suggests his China policy is for sale

Women pass ByteDance headquarters in Beijing in August 2020, when President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning TikTok in the United States. The ban was later overturned. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
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As he runs to retake the presidency while owing hundreds of millions of dollars in legal penalties, Trump is selling such products as sneakers — as well as, critics increasingly fear, his positions on important national security issues. His sudden reversal on restricting TikTok after mending ties with a top GOP donor and TikTok investor suggests there is no foreign policy issue on which Trump can’t be moved by a high bidder.

On March 5, the leaders of the House select committee on the Chinese Communist Party introduced legislation meant to force TikTok to emancipate itself from its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance. TikTok called the legislation an “outright ban” that would “trample the First Amendment rights” of millions of Americans, but the bill is not designed to shutter or censor the app. ByteDance would be compelled to sell all but 20 percent of its TikTok stake to a U.S. company or see it removed from app stores. President Biden pledged he would sign the bill.

TikTok has spent millions lobbying against such legislation and used the app itself to prompt users, including children, to call members of Congress to oppose it. On March 7, the bill passed a congressional committee 50-0 anyway, setting up a House floor vote. But just hours later, Trump threw a wrench into the works, saying on his Truth Social platform, “If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and Zuckerschmuck will double their business.”

Setting aside that he mischaracterized the bill’s aims (not to mention the potshot at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg), what’s bizarre is that the bill attempts to finish the work Trump’s own administration started. In August 2020, Trump issued an executive order banning TikTok. TikTok fought the ban in U.S. courts and won. But Trump’s administration pressured TikTok into partnering with a U.S. tech firm, Oracle.

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The partnership was meant to ensure U.S.-based TikTok user data was not accessible to ByteDance in China, where it would be vulnerable to authorities. Four years later, the company is failing to uphold that wall, according to reports. This bill is meant to enforce more transparency and accountability. So why is Trump against it?

Although no evidence has emerged of a direct quid pro quo, it’s not so mysterious why Trump might have flipped. Earlier this month, Trump spoke at a conference of the influential conservative organization Club for Growth, after a request by its main benefactor and Republican megadonor Jeff Yass, and announced an end to his feud with the group.

Yass’s firm, notably, has a stake in ByteDance worth more than $20 billion. Yass’s offer of a détente is of direct benefit to Trump and his campaign, as the Club for Growth is now expected to spend millions in the 2024 cycle in support of Trump. That could relieve the financial burden on the former president, who owes more than $400 million in legal penalties. His campaign is reportedly operating on a shoestring budget.

The China committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.), told me he believes Trump is increasingly making important policy decisions based on his own economic benefit, including in the TikTok case.

“Donald Trump is for one person — that’s Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t think he’s principle-driven, but I could see how he’s dollar-driven in this situation.”

Other Trump-world figures also now appear to be locking arms to defend TikTok. Former Trump White House official Kellyanne Conway is being paid by the Club for Growth to lobby against the bill, Politico reported. Former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who once called TikTok “digital fentanyl,” has also recently come to its defense. He joined the app in September shortly after Yass contributed millions to a political action committee supporting him.

Conway has been telling Republicans that restricting TikTok would result in the GOP losing young voters. Republican Mike Gallagher (Wis.), the chairman of the China committee, told me he believes that doesn’t make sense; the bill is bipartisan, so both parties would share any blowback. He also rejected Ramaswamy’s criticism that the effort is meant to censor free speech.

“Our bill has nothing to do with speech or content regulation. It’s about foreign adversary control of a social media app,” he said. “The national security concerns should outweigh the desire to get Gen Z clicks.”

Those who think there is no threat from China owning one of the most popular social media platforms in America haven’t been paying close attention. Employees of ByteDance have been caught inappropriately accessing the data of Americans multiple times, including to spy on journalists reporting on these very concerns. TikTok has censored topics that are sensitive to the Chinese government, and research suggests it is suppressing content that runs afoul of Beijing’s political aims.

Would this bill alone solve these problems? No. But it’s the first bipartisan solution Congress has come up with, and it should be voted on and passed.

If Trump is able to kill this effort in service of his financial and political interests, it’s a dark sign for all remaining foreign policy efforts until the election. He already tanked a conservative but bipartisan border bill, and his MAGA-minded minions in Congress are stalling passage of urgent aid to Ukraine. It is increasingly looking as though Republican foreign policy is being held hostage to whatever helps this presidential hopeful — or whoever can fill his coffers.


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