Executives at high-powered firms hired by TikTok for lobbying and strategic consulting visited the White House at least 40 times in the past year, according to official White House visitor records.
The Chinese social media platform and its parent company, ByteDance, are mounting a massive public relations blitz as lawmakers are seeking to ban the app due to national security, espionage, and data privacy concerns. ByteDance and TikTok have spent $13 million on federal lobbying since 2019 and hired heavyweight firms such as influential Democratic public relations shop SKDK.
Those hired guns have had the ear of the White House, the records show. Former Louisiana Democratic senator John Breaux, a TikTok lobbyist at Crossroads Strategies, visited the White House at least three times last year, most recently for an event on Dec. 21. Stephanie Leger Short, another TikTok lobbyist who works with Breaux, attended a June 23 meeting with White House adviser Mitch Landrieu. Breaux also met with White House official John Podesta last November.
Other visitors included former Tennessee Democratic congressman Barton Gordon, a ByteDance lobbyist who attended White House events on Dec. 1 and last September, and Lauren Aronson, a ByteDance lobbyist who visited twice in September.
None of the lobbyists and firms responded to requests for comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
While it's unclear if TikTok was discussed during any of the visits—which included a mix of large events and small private meetings—the number of contacts shows the extensive clout of TikTok's growing lobbying network inside the White House.
Former Democratic congressman Joseph Crowley (N.Y.)—who, Politico reported, helped arrange meetings for TikTok on Capitol Hill last month—is also listed at least four times in the 2022 visitors' logs. Crowley met with presidential special assistant John McCarthy in August and White House adviser Mariana Adame in September, according to records.
Jamal Brown, a former spokesman for the Biden campaign who was hired by TikTok in November, also made numerous visits in June, August, and December. Paul Thornell, a ByteDance lobbyist with Mehlman Consulting, appeared in the visitors' logs at least three times last year.
Executives from SKDK, a well-connected Democratic public affairs firm that was reportedly hired by TikTok in recent months, were frequent White House guests as well. Hilary Rosen, a partner at the firm, visited at least five times since last June, according to records.
SKDK chief executive Douglass Thornell and firm partner Oren Shur met with White House official Caitlin Meloski, a special assistant to the National Economic Council, on Dec. 20, the Washington Free Beacon previously reported. Pia Carusone, managing director at SKDK, visited three times in November and December.
While the Biden administration recently backed a bill that was framed as a TikTok "ban," some China hawks slammed the legislation as a smokescreen that doesn't actually require the government to take any action against the social media app.
Critics say the Biden administration has been reluctant to take on TikTok because the social media app is so valuable to Democratic political campaigns—and could boost the Biden campaign's outreach to young progressives in the 2024 presidential election. Biden commerce secretary Gina Raimondo recently argued that Democrats could "lose every voter under 35, forever," if TikTok is banned.
"If administration officials appear highly susceptible to TikTok's lobbying efforts, it's probably because they're highly dependent on the app for political reasons," said Michael Sobolik, a China expert at the American Foreign Policy Council. "The Biden administration claims to be serious about TikTok, but the facts suggest otherwise."
"Democratic operatives are already planning to push Biden's reelection agenda on the Chinese-controlled app," he added.