Donald Trump gave TikTok owner ByteDance 90 days to divest itself from the U.S. arm of its business in an order signed Friday evening.
The move represents an escalation of the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to undermine Chinese financial interests in the U.S., as part of a years-long trade dispute with the Asian country. The new order joins another one issued earlier in August that gave U.S. companies 45 days to cease doing business with ByteDance (as well as WeChat owner Tencent).
“There is credible evidence that leads me to believe that ByteDance … might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States,” the Trump-endorsed order reads. The evidence alluded to in the above statement isn’t discussed in the text of the order, though there are concerns that a 2017 Chinese law which requires China-based companies to share data with authorities as requested could put U.S. users at risk.
The newly signed order empowers U.S. authorities to inspect any files, information systems, and other records belonging to ByteDance and TikTok throughout the sale process. It also allows U.S. officials to interview ByteDance/TikTok employees “concerning any matter relating to this order.”
The order could be an attempt, at least in part, to strengthen the U.S. government’s case ahead of a potential lawsuit to be filed by ByteDance. The TikTok owner will reportedly argue that the earlier 45-day order – and perhaps now the new one as well, though it remains to be seen – ignores facts and fails to give the company a reasonable opportunity to respond to national security concerns.
But the order also puts a hard deadline on a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations. Reports have floated around for weeks that Microsoft is a top contender to buy the short-form video social media platform, though Twitter is also said to be in the mix as well.
Trump had previously threatened to ban TikTok if a sale couldn’t be completed by mid-September, though the specifics of how such a ban might work aren’t clear.
The new order notably surfaced just 80 days ahead of the Nov. 3 elections in the U.S., meaning the 90-day deadline will expire after Americans have cast their vote for the next president. The race may not be decided by then, and even if Trump loses he’s still in office until the inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021.
TikTok is widely popoular, so the aggressive stance and threats of a ban seem counter-intuitive in the midst of an election season where Trump is currently favored to lose. But the app is primarily popular with younger audiences, many of whom aren’t old enough to vote. So perhaps Trump is betting his assault on ByteDance won’t haunt him in November?
Whatever the thinking may be, it’s safe to say the mid-September soft deadline for a TikTok sale is no longer a factor. And with plenty of time between Trump’s new order and the new mid-November deadline, expect more pushback from ByteDance even as sale talks continue to unfold.