President Trump’s promise this week to bar the popular, Chinese-owned TikTok from operating in the United States is the latest move in his increasingly hostile posture toward Beijing that echoes a broader, anti-China stance within the Republican Party ahead of the November elections.
In essentially every reference to the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, covid-19, Trump has derided it as the “China virus,” faulting the country for being unable to contain it as it spread beyond its borders and led to more than 17.6 million cases worldwide. When he floated a potential TikTok ban in a television interview last month, Trump indicated it was in retaliation for China’s role in the pandemic.
Until this year, when the coronavirus pandemic caused dramatic numbers of infections and deaths in the United States, Trump had taken a much warmer tone toward Beijing, repeatedly touting his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and declining to forcefully confront him on human rights violations.
But the TikTok order — which as of Saturday had not been made public — marked another escalation by Trump against China as the United States continues to reel from the pandemic and approval of his handling of the public health crisis remains underwater, threatening his reelection prospects.
Trump is also picking a high-profile fight with the fast-growing, short video sharing app that has been downloaded more than 2 billion times and is increasingly popular with young people, especially amid the pandemic as users circulate viral videos — many mocking the president himself.
“China has long been the United States’ greatest geopolitical foe and a focus of derision in Rust Belt states that were decimated by the hollowing out of our manufacturing base,” said Cliff Sims, a former Trump White House aide. “Trump capitalized on this in 2016.”
Sims continued: “Now unfavorable views toward China are at an all-time high because of covid-19. So when you combine the geopolitical realities with the domestic politics, it makes perfect sense for the president to continue ratcheting up the rhetoric and making moves to confront China head-on.”
Aboard Air Force One returning from Florida late Friday, Trump said he planned to use either emergency economic powers or an executive order to bar TikTok from operating domestically.
“As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States,” he told reporters.
[Trump says he plans to bar TikTok from operating in the U.S.]
Earlier in the day, the president had been considering an order that would force China’s ByteDance to sell off the U.S. portion of TikTok over national security concerns, but Trump later emphasized to reporters traveling with him that he did not support a deal to let a U.S. company buy TikTok’s U.S. operations.
Microsoft is still the leading contender to purchase TikTok if a deal goes through, according to people familiar with the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
ByteDance and Microsoft were close to a deal, and it could be finalized as soon as this weekend, according to one individual, but it was unclear whether Trump’s late Friday comments or other factors might change that.
ByteDance would still prefer not to sell if it’s an option to keep operating in the United States, the individual said.
TikTok’s representatives were still waging a public-relations campaign to appeal to government officials this weekend. Hilary McQuaide, a spokesperson for the company, issued a statement emphasizing that it stores data in the United States and has hired nearly 1,000 U.S. employees so far this year. TikTok has 1,500 U.S. employees and has been expanding that number rapidly.
And the general manager for TikTok in the United States posted a video to the app thanking American users.
“We’re not planning on going anywhere,” Vanessa Pappas said, pledging to bring 10,000 more U.S. jobs in the next few years. “We appreciate the support. We’re here for the long run.”
Fervent TikTok fans took to the app Saturday as they feared a shutdown, some to beg followers to find them on other social media sites, others to encourage users to get VPNs to make it seem they were accessing TikTok from another country. Others made videos trying to calm everyone’s nerves, insisting there was no way the app would permanently shut down.
Many of the so-called TikTok Teens have already waged a digital vendetta aimed at Trump, using their Internet know-how to try to make it seem like merchandise is sold out on his site and flooding his campaign app with bad reviews in the App Store. But their most high-profile stunt may have rankled the president even more: A big coalition of young users hatched a plan to reserve tickets to his June Tulsa rally that they never planned to use, aiming to disappoint the campaign.
Attendance to the Tulsa rally was lower than expected, for which teens and K-pop fans immediately claimed credit. But the Trump campaign said it verified expected attendees, and those tickets were not reserved.
TikTok has also been an outlet for videos created by the comedian Sarah Cooper, who has used the platform — as well as Twitter — to post short clips mocking the president that have gone widely viral. Her most recent was lip-synced to the audio of Trump speaking Friday to reporters: “We’re looking at TikTok. We may be banning TikTok. We may be doing some other things.”
TikTok had come under even more scrutiny this week among Senate Republicans, who also have deployed tough anti-China rhetoric in their policies on Capitol Hill and during their reelection campaigns.
On Tuesday, a group of Republican senators — including Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Ted Cruz (Tex.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) wrote to top administration officials questioning whether TikTok could be weaponized by the Chinese government to interfere with the 2020 elections.
“We write to raise concerns about TikTok, the Chinese social-media service, which could enable the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to engage in influence operations against the United States, including operations designed to interfere with our elections,” the senators wrote.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has repeatedly raised concerns about ties between big tech and China, tweeted Friday that ordering ByteDance Ltd to sell off TikTok was “exactly the right outcome” and, citing news reports, would be “big news if accurate.” That report came before the president made clear to reporters that he did oppose a deal to let a U.S. company buy TikTok’s U.S. operations.
However, criticism of TikTok has at times been bipartisan on Capitol Hill. Last October, Cotton and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked intelligence officials to assess the app’s national security risks and present the findings to lawmakers.
The administration also has taken several steps to punish Beijing in recent weeks, such as an order for Chinese officials to shut down its consulate in Houston, economic sanctions over human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims and plans to expel some Chinese journalists and restrict foreign students in the United States.
Speaking with reporters on a separate trip to Florida last month, Trump said the United States’ relationship with China had been “severely damaged” because of the coronavirus and he was no longer thinking about a potential second trade deal with China.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has continued to mock presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as “Beijing Biden” to try to portray the former vice president as weak on China. But polling conducted amid the pandemic has generally shown that the public favors Biden on China relations — even after a torrent of anti-China ads from the Trump campaign against the Democrat earlier this year.
“Donald Trump has been the weakest president in American history with respect to China,” said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates. “As the most devastating public health crisis in 100 years rapidly spread, he echoed Chinese government propaganda to downplay the threat and justify inaction — disregarding warnings from the intelligence community and Joe Biden not to take their word.”
Bates added: “As a consequence of Donald Trump’s failures, by every metric, China’s position is stronger and ours is diminished.”
[Biden vs. Trump: The ad battle over China and the coronavirus]
Trump has two main options to limit the app in the United States. One relies on a 2019 executive order, the International Economic Emergency Powers Act, which effectively bans any communications tool that is deemed a national security threat. Under the full force of that order, app stores in the United States wouldn’t be able to list TikTok and Americans couldn’t work for the company.
The other would be through a process led by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency body that recommends to the president whether certain proposed takeovers should be rejected, and whether completed takeovers should be reversed, on national security grounds. The committee began investigating an acquisition by ByteDance after lawmakers asked the government to step in over national security concerns.
While this is fairly rare, Trump used it as recently as March, when the president ordered a Chinese company to sell its stake in a U.S. hotel-software company. Last year, the Trump administration used it to demand the Chinese owners of gay dating app Grindr give up control of the company.
CFIUS is investigating Beijing-based ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly in 2017, which helped lead to TikTok’s mass popularity in the U.S.
It’s unclear what exactly would happen if Trump orders the sale or if a TikTok ban triggers that sale.
If Microsoft did purchase the social media site, it could prompt a massive reshaping of the tech giant landscape, putting it in direct competition with Facebook and Google’s YouTube in the social media world.
Rachel Lerman reported from Seattle. Elizabeth Dwoskin in San Francisco and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.