How Donald Trump switched to defending TikTok

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In April 2022, Donald Trump watched a new conservative documentary that blamed spending by Mark Zuckerberg for the former president’s loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

The movie, produced by Citizens United president David Bossie, deepened Trump’s animosity toward the Meta chief executive, whom the likely 2024 Republican nominee has become increasingly convinced was responsible for the result in 2020, according to three people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Bossie’s film was titled “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump.”

Trump’s growing antipathy toward Zuckerberg — as well as advocacy and lobbying from several former administration and campaign officials tied to a GOP billionaire with a big financial stake in TikTok parent company ByteDance — helps illuminate the former president’s position on the video-sharing app. Trump tried to ban TikTok when he was in office before a court blocked the effort toward the end of his presidency. But lately, he’s signaled opposition to fast-moving House legislation that targets the app. Last week, the former president argued that a TikTok ban would primarily help Zuckerberg and Meta, which also publishes short videos on several apps. He appeared to reiterate his opposition to a ban in an interview on CNBC on Monday.

“I don’t want Facebook, who cheated in the last Election, doing better,” Trump said on Truth Social, his social media site, last week. The former president provided no evidence for his claim. “They are a true Enemy of the People.”

On CNBC, Trump said that he believes TikTok is a national security threat. But, he added, “You ban TikTok, Facebook and others, but mostly Facebook, will be a big beneficiary. And I think Facebook has been very dishonest. I think Facebook has been very bad for our country, especially when it comes to elections.”

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said Tuesday that Trump views Chinese ownership of TikTok as a national security threat but appreciates that millions of people like the app.

“President Trump believes Congress must take action to protect the security and privacy of American users on all social media platforms,” Cheung said.

Trump’s comments on TikTok have had immediate reverberations on Capitol Hill, where Republicans who had for years called for prohibiting the app over concerns that ByteDance might be controlled by Chinese authorities were torn between their loyalty to the former president and their prior positions.

The House is expected to vote Wednesday morning on legislation that would force ByteDance to divest TikTok within 165 days of enactment — and would prohibit the app from being used in the United States if the company didn’t comply. The Senate hasn’t yet signaled whether it will follow suit.

As president, Trump issued an executive order in 2020 that declared that TikTok threatened “the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” although he backed off a ban before that fall’s election, in part because he saw the move as unpopular and likely to alienate young voters.

His reversal now is also partially the product of a lobbying campaign connected to a GOP megadonor with connections that reach into Trump’s inner circle.

The investment company of billionaire Jeff Yass owns 15 percent of ByteDance, which would amount to roughly $40 billion of the company’s $268 billion valuation. Asked by CNBC about a recent meeting he had with Yass, Trump said that the GOP donor “never mentioned TikTok” in their conversation and that Yass’s wife instead pushed for school choice reform. Yass had been a critic of Trump’s in the past.

Behind the scenes, however, Trump and his aides have spoken about TikTok to people with direct financial ties to Yass. Yass is the biggest donor to the conservative organization Club for Growth, which is currently paying former Trump senior counselor Kellyanne Conway to defend TikTok on Capitol Hill and which recently reconciled with Trump after a feud last year. Conway has also spoken to Trump about the importance of defending the social media app, according to two other people familiar with the matter, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private deliberations.

These people said Conway told Trump that the app was popular and that many of his supporters were on it — an argument echoed by other pro-TikTok allies — and that they were not being censored in their support of him.

“I made clear that it’s Trump’s supporters who are organically posting on TikTok their support for him and his reelection,” Conway said in an interview.

“For President Trump, he has made clear this is about abruptly taking away something from millions of users, many of whom are his people on TikTok, and it’s about Mark Zuckerberg,” she said.

Trump does not want Zuckerberg to ever own TikTok, she said.

Conway said she was paid to conduct a poll on a TikTok ban and presented the results to Trump and Republicans. Conway said the poll’s 11 questions gave Americans a chance to say what they viewed as most important to taking on China. The choices, she said, including banning TikTok: “It polled dead last on the list of 11.”

Another figure who played a role in his decision was David Urban, a longtime adviser and a registered lobbyist for ByteDance. Trump advisers say Urban — who ran Pennsylvania for Trump in 2016 and has kept relationships in his orbit — has pitched TikTok’s effectiveness as a campaign tool for some time to people around Trump, and he was spotted at Mar-a-Lago last week, where he met with Trump.

Urban declined to comment.

Former Trump aide Tony Sayegh, head of public affairs at Yass’s Susquehanna International Group, has also been in communication with people close to Trump about TikTok, the people said. Sayegh was a senior adviser under Trump and viewed as a loyal defender of the former president. Sayegh has close ties to Jason Miller, the Trump campaign spokesman and a key political adviser, the people said. Sayegh and Miller overlapped in college and at Jamestown Associates, a GOP public affairs and advertising firm. Sayegh also remains close with numerous members of Trump’s inner circle, including members of Trump’s family and political aide Brian Jack, the people said. Trump personally liked Sayegh, calling him “Tony the Tax Man,” one former Trump adviser said, because of his work on Trump’s tax cuts.

Sayegh declined to comment.

“It’s no secret that Tony left on really great terms with the White House, and continued to be helpful when called upon for the duration of the Trump administration,” said one of the people who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He left in good graces, and he’s continued to stay in good graces.”

Sayegh’s connections are part of a broader spending campaign by tech firms in Washington. ByteDance spent nearly $9 million in federal lobbying last year, nearly double its total lobbying expenditures from the year before, according to Anna Massoglia, investigations manager at OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group. The tech firms that rival TikTok have also spent heavily on lobbying. Meta’s Reels on Facebook and Instagram are direct rivals to TikTok’s short-form videos.

“ByteDance is steering more money than ever to lobbyists working to further its agenda in Washington, and spending countless more on grass-roots lobbying efforts encouraging its users to advocate on its behalf,” Massoglia said. “American Big Tech companies have also been strategic in pushing for more scrutiny of TikTok while protecting their own interests against the potential for additional regulation.”

Trump’s preexisting dislike of Zuckerberg appears to have meshed well with the defenses of TikTok he’s hearing from trusted sources. On CNBC, Trump also referred to “what Facebook did was lockboxes,” citing $500 million “Zuckerbucks lockboxes that he put in — I mean, I consider illegal.” The comment was an apparent reference to a nonprofit funded in part by Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, that provided assistance to local officials’ election efforts. The Federal Election Commission, in a 6-0 vote in 2022, dismissed a complaint over the grants, to the ire of some conservatives.

Despite their frustrations with Meta, Trump’s comments on TikTok were frustrating to some of the China hawks in his orbit who want the former president to take a tougher line. Still, one person in Trump’s orbit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly reflect their thinking, called TikTok a Chinese “disinformation warfare tool” but said that the former president also needs to get elected to deal properly with China.

Drew Harwell contributed to this report.

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