GOP debate highlights Trump ambiguity on TikTok plans

TikTok and Facebook application  on screen Apple iPhone XR
TikTok and Facebook application on screen Apple iPhone XR (Anatoliy Sizov/Getty Images)

GOP debate highlights Trump ambiguity on TikTok plans

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The competition among Republican presidential candidates on the debate stage to signal eagerness to ban TikTok drew a contrast with the lack of clarity about front-runner Donald Trump‘s intentions for the ubiquitous social media platform.

The presidential candidates who appeared onstage Wednesday spoke in favor of banning TikTok or forcing a sale by its Chinese parent company, noting the risk it poses to national security.


Trump, though, has yet to clarify his plans for TikTok if he regains the presidency.

As president, Trump in 2020 tried to pry TikTok out of Chinese ownership but was thwarted. In his campaign materials, he has referred to TikTok only obliquely, even as its status has become the topic of heated debate and serious legislative efforts in Congress.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request from the Washington Examiner for comment about his proposed policies relating to TikTok.

Here is the relevant background on Trump and TikTok.

Trump and TikTok

Trump issued an executive order in 2020 to force the sale of TikTok to U.S. owners, but the sale was stopped by court order. Microsoft had considered purchasing the company’s technologies but was declined by parent company ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing. The company described Trump’s order as a “smash and grab” forced sale.

The campaign agenda outlined on Trump’s website does not address TikTok directly. It does say, though, that he would “kick Chinese intelligence operations out of the country and force China to give up any U.S. holdings that put national security at risk.”

Trump slammed Biden for being “weak on China” after he revoked Trump’s order and opted to investigate the app instead. He did not explicitly state that he would file another executive order forcing TikTok’s sale if he won the presidency.

TikTok on the debate floor

Most of Trump’s competitors were eager to endorse a ban. “TikTok is not only spyware. It is polluting the minds of American young people all throughout this country, and they’re doing it intentionally,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on the stage.

Christie faulted Trump for not banning TikTok, saying it was “one of the big failings” of the Trump administration.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) indicated support for an order along the lines of what Trump attempted. “If you cannot ban TikTok, you should eliminate the Chinese presence on the app, period,” he said.

Tech executive Vivek Ramaswamy said that the government should crack down on any “U.S. company transferring U.S. data to the Chinese.” Ramaswamy, though, has embraced TikTok in the near term, joining in recently to promote his 2024 presidential candidacy.

Ramaswamy and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley clashed over his use of TikTok to hype up his campaign. Haley had attacked Ramaswamy for using the app in the last debate, so he turned it around and noted that Haley’s daughter was an active user of the app. That seemed to anger Haley. “Leave my daughter out of your voice,” she retorted. “You’re just scum.”


Current legislative dealings with TikTok

The Biden administration is currently at the negotiating table with TikTok, although it does not appear responsive to the company’s proposed solutions.

While members of Congress have introduced several bills restricting TikTok to varying degrees, none of them have gained enough traction to reach the Senate or House floor for a vote.

Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced the RESTRICT Act, which would give the Commerce Department additional powers to regulate tech business deals related to nations of concern, such as China or Iran. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) have proposed outright bans on TikTok. Tim Scott introduced legislation forcing apps such as TikTok to show users their country of origin.

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