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Why is Trump now defending TikTok in the US after trying to ban it?

Why is Trump now defending TikTok in the US after trying to ban it?

Washington, US (SCMP) – Former United States president Donald Trump has markedly changed his tune on TikTok, the popular short-video app that he once sought to ban over concerns about its Chinese ownership.

Throughout his term in the White House and in the run-up to the 2024 US presidential election, the presumptive Republican nominee with a reputation for mercurial moves has repeatedly touted his toughness on Beijing, citing trade tariffs he pushed the US to impose on China that remain in place.

But as legislation that could ban the social media platform from the US moves at lightning speed through Congress, he has now spoken out against such an action.

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Trump’s public U-turn coincides with his recent meeting with a billionaire Republican megadonor deeply invested in ByteDance, the Chinese tech giant that owns TikTok, fuelling speculation among pundits that business interests are driving the former president’s positions on the matter.

Trump has argued of late that if the US were to shut the door on TikTok, competitors like Facebook would reap undue advantage.

“Without TikTok, you can make Facebook bigger, and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people,” he said in an interview on Monday (Mar 11).

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Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, a resort where former US president and presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump lives and entertains visitors. Photo: AP

Asked about his earlier concerns about the app, Trump replied that “there’s a lot of good and there’s a lot of bad” with TikTok. “There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it.”

But in 2020, as president, Trump signed an executive order to get the app removed from all US app stores while also telling ByteDance to divest within 90 days.

A federal court ruled against the push, calling it “arbitrary and capricious”. The ruling was hailed by TikTok supporters who argued that the ban would have violated the US Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing free speech.

Now American lawmakers from both parties are again ramping up efforts to do away with TikTok, which has about 170 million US users, over renewed fears around data privacy, foreign influence and cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

On Monday, Avril Haines, America’s director of national Intelligence, told the House Intelligence Committee that Beijing could tap into TikTok to influence the 2024 US elections.

“We cannot rule out that the CCP would use it,” Haines said, referring to China’s Communist Party.

And earlier this month, leaders of the House select committee on the CCP introduced a Bill calling for either a divestiture of TikTok by ByteDance or an outright ban.

The House is expected to vote on Wednesday on the legislation, which unanimously cleared an energy and commerce committee vote last week. US President Joe Biden later said he would sign the bill if Congress approves it.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is expected to visit Capitol Hill this week to meet with members of Congress in a last-ditch effort to halt the Bill in the Senate.

While many congressional Republicans have voiced support for the measure, some in the party have aligned with Trump’s reversal.

Former Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy, for instance, said “all forced data transfers to the CCP, regardless of ownership” needed to end, posting on X, formerly Twitter. Ramaswamy has endorsed Trump’s 2024 bid for the White House.

“Bashing TikTok is easy. Understanding the actual issue is harder,” Ramaswamy also wrote, saying American tech companies like Google and Facebook were likewise transferring private user data to domestic and foreign governments.

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US President Joe Biden has pledged to sign a House bill banning TikTok from the US, if it passes. Photo: Bloomberg

Meanwhile, ByteDance has spent millions in lobbying since Trump’s failed executive order.

The Chinese tech giant last year spent more than US$8 million in its quest, according to Open Secrets, a Washington-based non-profit group that tracks and publishes data on campaign finance and lobbying.

That outlay dwarfed what ByteDance spent in 2019, when it first reported payments to federal lobbyists and doled out just US$270,000.

In 2021, the year after Trump said he intended to ban TikTok, the tech company spent a whopping US$4.7 million on lobbying, according to Open Secrets, and last year its expenditure nearly doubled to US$8.7 million.

American media have linked Trump’s change of heart to billionaire conservative donor Jeff Yass, whose company reportedly has a 15 per cent stake in ByteDance.

“Put simply, Trump supported a ban, then, after receiving Yass’s patronage, immediately opposed a ban.”

Caitlin Chin-Rothmann of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said Trump’s “flip-flopping could hurt his ‘anti-China’ image among Republican politicians and possibly cause confusion for members of Congress who might be on the fence about banning a popular app” in an election year.

Trump’s claim that a ban on TikTok would “double the size” of Facebook’s business was highly unlikely to prove true, she added.

“It is theoretically possible that Trump has personal or business interests that could influence his policy proposals,” said Chin-Rothmann, noting numerous conflict-of-interest claims arising while he was president.

“But we can only speculate [as] to his reasoning at this point.”

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