October 26, 2021

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Let’s Talk About What Biden Just Did With Trump’s TikTok Ban

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Are TikTok’s worries over the White House at an end?

Short answer is: No, not fully. President Biden signed a new executive order Wednesday that does revoke one of the two orders signed by President Trump targetting TikTok. But TikTok and its Chinese-owned parent company ByteDance still face an on-going Treasury Department-led review of its business and a new intiative from within the Biden administration to once again go over its data handling and national security concerns.

As one former Trump official puts it: “This stops what President Trump put in place, but it does not take TikTok off the hook.”

What happened on Wednesday?

Biden unveiled a new executive order overturning one by Trump from last August. The Trump order tasked the Commerce and Justice departments with carrying out a ban on new downloads of the app, citing TikTok as a possible threat to national security. (The Trump administration said TikTok could be sharing user data with the Chinese government; TikTok denied this.)

TikTok fought the order in court and won an injunction. The download ban never happened but prompted considerable turmoil within the company and within its overlapping community of users and celebrities.

But while Biden’s order cancels out Trump’s, it also calls on a slew of federal agencies to begin new analyses of TikTok and its business practices. The Biden order directs Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to prepare two reports within the next few months about the handling of American user data and the security concerns presented by foreign-owned apps.


Is There Any Similarity Between What Biden Is Doing—And What Trump Did?

Trump wanted to crack down on China, a very public campaign promise dating back to 2015. The new Biden order signals the new White House plans to take a strong stance on the competing superpower, too: Given many pressing domestic concerns, Biden could’ve dropped the matter entirely.

But Trump’s work against China and TikTok was messy. When he issued his executive order, it took some people within his own Commerce Department by surprise, circumventing the usual process where the department would help draft the order, according to several former Commerce insiders. To them, it appeared Trump had made up his mind that TikTok was a threat, issued the order—and then expected Commerce to find the evidence to back up the decision. Those within Commerce working on the case expected to receive the documents and analyses used by the White House to assemble the order, but it never arrived, says one ex-Commerce leader.

Biden’s efforts, by contrast, are seeming to start off more organized, asking Raimondo and other high-profile departments (State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security) to prepare reports before he reaches a conclusion on TikTok and what to do about it.

And Where Does The Treasury Department Come In?

Trump had two executive orders, and Biden is allowing one to stay in place. The remaining order calls on the Treasury Department and the Committe on Foreign Investment in the United States to review ByteDance’s original 2017 purchase of TikTok’s predecessor, Musical.ly.

Allowing this order to keep going places enforcement action solely in the hands of the Treasury Department, streamlining the process. The dual Trump orders had complicated matters, setting up a turf war amongst the departments—Commerce led by Wilbur Ross and Treasury by Steve Mnuchin, leaders and agencies who didn’t fully agree on how to handle China, say those Commerce Department insiders.

Could TikTok Still Be Banned Someday?

… yes, possibly. But while it was an alluring goal for Trump, it almost certianly isn’t quite the same for Biden, who doesn’t have an anti-China base of voters to appeal to.

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