Trump Gives Rambling Answer on Why He Backtracked on a TikTok Ban

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Former President Donald J. Trump offered a rambling and confusing explanation on Monday of why he had reversed himself on whether the United States should ban TikTok over concerns that its Chinese ownership poses a threat to national security.

In a CNBC interview, Mr. Trump said that he still considered the social media app a national security threat but that banning it would make young people “go crazy.” He added that any action harming TikTok would benefit Facebook, which he called an “enemy of the people.”

“Frankly, there are a lot of people on TikTok that love it,” Mr. Trump said. “There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it.”

“There’s a lot of good and there’s a lot of bad with TikTok,” he added, “but the thing I don’t like is that without TikTok, you can make Facebook bigger, and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people, along with a lot of the media.”

Mr. Trump tried to ban TikTok while in office, pushing its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell the platform to a new owner or face being blocked from American app stores. A House committee advanced legislation last week that would similarly force TikTok to cut ties with ByteDance.

In a powerful display of bipartisanship — rare these days in Washington — the top Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party used nearly identical language to describe the risks of TikTok.

The Republican chairman, Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, said that “America’s foremost adversary has no business controlling a dominant media platform in the United States.” And his Democratic counterpart, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, said TikTok “poses critical threats to our national security” as long as it is owned by ByteDance.

But as the bill was under consideration, Mr. Trump said last week on Truth Social, his social media platform, that “if you get rid of TikTok,” it would double Facebook’s business. He said he did not want Facebook “doing better.”

The full House is expected to vote on the legislation on Wednesday. President Biden said last week that he would sign the measure into law if it reached his desk.

To support his “enemy of the people” claim, Mr. Trump singled out grants that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, made in 2020 to state and local election offices to help their administration of voting during the pandemic. Mr. Trump suggested that Mr. Zuckerberg, whose website was part of the Trump 2016 campaign’s strategy for victory, should face prison time for those donations.

Mr. Trump also claimed that Facebook was every bit as beholden to China as TikTok. Facebook is blocked in the country and attempts by its parent company, Meta, for a return have been unsuccessful. The company has taken steps to sell its virtual reality headsets there.

The CNBC interviewer asked Mr. Trump about suspicions that he had been “paid off” to change his view on TikTok after a meeting with a major TikTok investor, the billionaire Jeff Yass.

Mr. Trump and his team are working frenetically to find new major donors as he heads into a general election against Mr. Biden, who, along with allied groups, has much more money behind him.

Mr. Trump met this month with the world’s second-richest man, Elon Musk, and at a recent event hosted by the conservative group the Club for Growth, Mr. Trump reportedly praised Mr. Yass as “fantastic.” The Club for Growth recently had a rapprochement with Mr. Trump after many months of a freeze.

Mr. Yass, who has previously been a harsh critic of Mr. Trump’s, appears to have had his own change of heart. An official at a pro-Trump super PAC declined to say whether Mr. Yass had donated money to the outside group, but a person close to the campaign said the Trump team expected a significant donation from Mr. Yass to one of the outside groups backing the former president.

Mr. Yass has funded a major advocacy drive in Washington to stop the banning of TikTok. He and his allies have recruited several former Trump administration officials to help with the effort — including Tony Sayegh, who was a Treasury official, and Kellyanne Conway, who was a senior counselor to the president.

In the CNBC interview, Mr. Trump denied discussing TikTok with Mr. Yass at their meeting.

“No, I didn’t,” Mr. Trump said, saying it had been a brief meeting with Mr. Yass and his wife. “He never mentioned TikTok.”

Mr. Trump’s criticism of the new legislation is striking because of his move to restrict the company while in office. An executive order he signed in August 2020 said that TikTok’s data collection from its users “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.” It added that TikTok could be used to spread disinformation that benefited Beijing.

“These risks are real,” the executive order said.

Mr. Trump’s administration moved to block Apple and Google’s app stores from carrying TikTok over concerns about the app’s Chinese ownership. But federal courts ruled repeatedly to block Mr. Trump’s TikTok ban from taking effect.

ByteDance seemed to reach a deal to sell a stake in TikTok to Oracle, a cloud computing company whose executives had ties to Mr. Trump. The acquisition never came to fruition as the legal challenges to Mr. Trump’s ban made their way through the courts.

Mr. Trump acknowledged in his CNBC interview that well-paid lobbyists were shaping how the government handles TikTok.

Congress, Mr. Trump said, is “extremely subject to people called lobbyists, who happen to be very talented, very good and very rich.”

“I could have banned TikTok,” he added, “I had it banned just about, I could have gotten it done. But I said, ‘You know what, but I’ll leave it up to you.’”



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