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Awaiting a Presidential Decision, Trump Advisers and Lawmakers Spar Over TikTok’s Fate

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WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers and business leaders urged President Trump on Sunday to back down from his suggestion that he might ban TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media app, over national security concerns, arguing that the app could be sold to an American company instead.

A special government panel that examines national security threats has recommended that TikTok sell its assets to an American company to curtail China’s influence in the United States, and Microsoft has stepped forward as a potential buyer. But several China hawks in the Trump administration are arguing against the sale, seeing the moment as an opportunity to take more sweeping action to ban TikTok and other Chinese-run internet services like Tencent’s WeChat.

The tensions are spilling into the open as Washington awaits Mr. Trump’s decision, which aides say could come as soon as Sunday evening. It is unclear whether appeals from high-ranking Republicans — including Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who described TikTok’s sale to an American company as a “win-win” — will change the president’s mind.

On Friday, Mr. Trump made clear that he favored more drastic action against TikTok. Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, he said that he was not leaning toward a deal that would let a U.S. company buy TikTok’s American operations, and that he could instead use emergency economic powers or an executive order to ban the social media app outright.

“As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States,” the president said.

Such a move would be the latest in a series of punitive actions the Trump administration has taken against China, which the president blames for allowing the coronavirus pandemic to spread and damage the American economy, diminishing his re-election chances. As the election nears, Mr. Trump has increasingly challenged China over security, technology and commercial relations in an attempt to persuade voters that he will be tougher in taking on Beijing than former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

But a ban on TikTok, which could target its presence in the Apple and Google app stores, would come with other difficulties, including irking millions of young Americans who share viral videos and dance clips on the service. It is also likely to prompt legal challenges, anger prominent Republican lawmakers and dismay the business community.

Several prominent lawmakers and business leaders over the weekend defended Microsoft’s proposed purchase, in a bid to sway the president.

“I was among the first to warn of danger posed by TikTok last year,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “As I have shared with POTUS & @WhiteHouse if the company & data can be purchased & secured by a trusted U.S. company that would be a positive & acceptable outcome.”

Mr. Graham also underlined his concerns with the app’s security, tweeting on Saturday, “President Trump is right to want to make sure that the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t own TikTok and most importantly — all of your private data.”

He added: “What’s the right answer? Have an American company like Microsoft take over TikTok. Win-win. Keeps competition alive and data out of the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Myron Brilliant, the executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tweeted Sunday that a sale would “be a good solution that helps to address some security concerns, strengthens the US #digitaleconomy, and preserves an app enjoyed by millions of Americans.”

Administration officials and lawmakers from both parties have argued that TikTok may pose a national security threat because of its Chinese ownership. China’s far-reaching security laws could leave ByteDance, the Chinese internet giant that owns TikTok, open to influence from the country’s government, including demands for data or requests for censorship, they say.

Since 2019, a multiagency panel called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or Cfius, has been examining ByteDance’s 2017 purchase of Musical.ly, an app that eventually became TikTok. After months of deliberation, the panel recommended to the president that ByteDance be required to sell off its U.S. assets to a more trusted buyer.

But when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who leads Cfius, presented this recommendation to Mr. Trump on Friday, the president was unconvinced, according to people briefed on the conversation.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, the president said that he could use an executive order or the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which gives the president broad powers to regulate commerce to ensure national security, to ban the app outright.

It is unclear how Mr. Trump weighs the political considerations of a potential ban. Though he is dominant on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, he is not known to use TikTok and, until recently, had rarely if ever mentioned the app in public.

The app acquired something of an anti-Trump reputation in June when many of its users boasted that they had registered for thousands of tickets to Mr. Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., to help inflate attendance expectations and embarrass the Trump campaign when participation proved to be much lower.

But Trump aides played down the prank, and several aides say the president has not mentioned it to them.

Nor is the app a dunking tank for Mr. Trump and Republicans. Pro-Trump content is widespread, and some of its most popular users who express political opinions are conservatives. The hashtag #conservative has 1.9 billion views.

TikTok’s enormous popularity with young Americans, with whom the president already struggles for support, means he could suffer a backlash in November for depriving them of the app — although many of TikTok’s most devoted fans are not old enough to vote.

The move to ban TikTok could have other implications. It could expose American businesses to retaliatory actions in China, and is more broadly likely to leave the technology sector and multinational companies deeply uncertain about when they might be subject to the president’s whims.

It might also set up an intense battle in the courts that could rebound on the administration, limiting its ability to use emergency economic powers.

Some members of the Trump administration have cautioned against invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. If a court were to rule against the White House, that could circumscribe the administration’s ability to use a powerful legal tool, potentially unwinding the legal precedent for decades of American sanctions, they say.

Some of Mr. Trump’s closest political advisers, including Mr. Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, the chief of the National Economic Council, have urged the president to allow a sale of TikTok.

On Friday, one senior administration official said the main objection raised internally was Chinese ownership of TikTok. He said he could not explain why there would be objections to any American owner, including Microsoft, as long as the data was stored outside China, and did not run across Chinese switches. Microsoft has a close relationship with the U.S. government, winning a $10 billion cloud computing contract to help modernize the Pentagon last year.

But other administration officials, including some of Mr. Trump’s most hawkish advisers, have objected to TikTok’s sale, seeing the moment as an opportunity to push through more expansive measures that could curtail the influence of Chinese apps more broadly.

Speaking on Fox News on Saturday night, Peter Navarro, the White House trade adviser and a noted China critic, criticized the attempted acquisition by Microsoft, saying that Microsoft was “the software that the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese government run on” and that Microsoft helped China build its Great Firewall.

“What this president and the White House is going to be doing is look at any kind of software that sends the information for Americans back to servers in China,” Mr. Navarro said. “They’re going to come under scrutiny.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a leader of the administration’s recent pressure campaign against China, has also pushed a harder line. This summer, Mr. Pompeo was the first administration official to raise the prospect of a U.S. ban on TikTok.

Speaking to Fox News on Sunday morning, Mr. Pompeo said the app has been “feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party, their national security apparatus.” Mr. Pompeo also cited the text messaging app WeChat as an offender and said Mr. Trump “has said, ‘Enough,’ and we’re going to fix it.”

“And so he will take action in the coming days with respect to a broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Pompeo added.

As a counterpoint, Mr. Pompeo has suggested that many exasperated parents might be grateful for the app’s banishment. In a July interview with The Hill, Mr. Pompeo said that he had gotten “lots of notes from mothers saying, ‘Please, please take it away, make it go away.’”

David E. Sanger, Alan Rappeport and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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