Democrat Maria Cantwell Emerges as Key Player in TikTok Fight. Her Former Aides Are Working for the Company.

After classified briefing on Chinese-owned app's national security threats, Cantwell stresses patience as others raise alarm

Sen. Maria Cantwell (Getty Images)
March 22, 2024

A bipartisan group of senators expressed alarm as they emerged from a classified briefing on TikTok on Wednesday. The app, owned and controlled by a Chinese Communist Party-tied company, "is a gun pointed at Americans' heads," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said. "There was deep concern about the threat of TikTok from both sides of the aisle," Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) added.

Cruz called on the Senate to "expeditiously" advance legislation that passed the House earlier this month and would ban TikTok if its Chinese owner, ByteDance, refuses to sell the app within six months.

But one key player in the fight over TikTok disagrees: Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill. Unlike so many of her colleagues, Cantwell has sounded less alarmed about the threats posed by the social media app, instead stressing patience and dangling alternative paths forward.

Rather than calling for a vote on the bill, Cantwell said after Wednesday’s briefing that she "might" work with the Senate Intelligence Committee to hold another hearing on TikTok. That hearing would not occur until mid-April at the earliest, as the Senate begins a two-week Easter recess on Monday.

"The next steps might be something more public, like a hearing," Cantwell said Wednesday. "I think it's important to get it right."

Cantwell's leisurely approach to the bill may raise eyebrows on Capitol Hill given that several of her former senior aides are now working for TikTok as it lobbies lawmakers to kill the legislation.

Cantwell's former deputy chief of staff, Rosemary Gutierrez, is a lobbyist for TikTok through Mehlman Consulting, the firm she joined roughly one year after leaving Cantwell's office in 2020. The Washington Democrat's former chief of staff, Michael Meehan, left Cantwell's office to launch Squared Communications, a consulting firm that is working for TikTok. And Kim Lipsky, who worked as the Commerce Committee's staff director under Cantwell, is on TikTok's payroll as a government relations staffer.

The trio, among others, is now tasked with ensuring the Senate does not approve the TikTok bill, which passed the House last week by a resounding 352 to 65 margin. Days before that vote, the House Commerce Committee advanced the bill unanimously after its members received the same briefing delivered to senators on Wednesday.

In addition to a traditional lobbying effort—TikTok has spent more than $20 million on lobbying since 2020—the Chinese-owned app is working to beat back the bill through an ad blitz that prompts its users to enter their zip codes and call their congressmen. The move prompted an influx of phone calls to congressional offices, with some teenagers threatening to commit suicide and other acts of violence if the app was banned.

Now, senators are expressing concern that Cantwell's slow approach will give TikTok time to rally lawmakers against the bill.

"They will try to kill this slowly, refer it to committee … think about it some more, and this time next year we'll be right here having the same conversation," Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) said.

Cantwell, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, has suggested she would not support the House bill without changes, saying she would prefer "something a little more robust."

"We'll consider this and hopefully we'll figure out how to get the American people something that minimizes data collection and protects them."

It's unclear how far Cantwell's alternative would go. Last year, Cantwell began drafting her own bill to address concerns over TikTok, which she said would "give people tools that they can use" to target the app.

While Cantwell has not formally introduced her bill, she did submit an early version as an amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act.

That version called on the White House to "undertake a rulemaking process to protect United States data linked to sensitive populations that could be exploited by foreign adversaries … while preserving freedom of expression." It also called on the Department of Commerce to "identify, assess, and mitigate risks to the information and communications technology and services supply chain in the United States."

The amendment did not detail how the department would "mitigate" those risks, nor did it offer guidance on a potential White House rule addressing TikTok.

As a Chinese company, ByteDance is subject to a national security law enacted in 2017 that requires domestic companies to comply with the government's intelligence services when asked. The law prohibits those companies from disclosing their work for the government. During a March 2023 congressional hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew refused to say what would happen if the Chinese government used the law to force the company to turn over user data.

Last year, TikTok attempted to alleviate data security concerns through "Project Texas," a U.S.-based storage system meant to keep American data away from ByteDance. The project has thus far fallen flat, with its managers instructing workers to "share data with colleagues in other parts of the company and with ByteDance workers without going through official channels," according to a January Wall Street Journal report.

Cantwell's hesitance toward the House bill is not just at odds with some of her Senate colleagues. President Joe Biden has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk, and White House national security adviser urged the Senate to pass the House bill "swiftly."

"We want to see divestiture from this Chinese company because we are concerned, as every American ought to be concerned, about data security and what ByteDance and what the Chinese Communist Party could do with the information that they can glean off of Americans’ use of the application," Kirby said Sunday.