TikTok Turns to Dem Lobbyists to Fight Potential Trump Ban

Former Clyburn, Pelosi staffers will spearhead Chinese app's D.C. operations

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July 9, 2020

Former aides to powerful Democrats are flocking to TikTok's lobbying team as the Trump administration weighs a possible ban of the China-linked app that some policymakers consider a threat to national security.

TikTok—as well as its Chinese parent company, ByteDance—has rapidly expanded its influence operations in the last year, spending $270,000 on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The app bolstered its operations in July, hiring Michael Hacker, former senior adviser to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D., S.C.), to lead its public policy team. Michael Bloom, a former senior adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), and former Democratic Senate aide Kim Lipsky will also join TikTok, according to CNBC, which first reported the expansion.

The short-video sharing app has cemented its place as the go-to social media app for hip, young Zoomers. Some national security experts, however, worry that China's national security law might compel the app's Chinese parent company to share user data with the regime. TikTok denies that it will comply with such a request from Beijing, but the company has already demonstrated its willingness to accommodate Beijing's political interests. The Washington Post reported in September that the social media giant's American moderators censored discussions about the Hong Kong protests and other sensitive topics out of deference to its Chinese counterparts.

In response to mounting criticism, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that he is "looking at" banning TikTok from the United States. India already banned TikTok, along with 58 other Chinese apps, largely in retaliation for a deadly clash between Indian and Chinese security forces in contested border territories in the Himalayas.

The app's first major tussle with U.S. authorities came in February 2019, when the U.S. government fined TikTok $5.7 million for illegally collecting the data of users under the age of 13. Since then, members of Congress and government officials have expressed increasing alarm about the app. In October, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) penned a bipartisan letter asking U.S. intelligence officials to evaluate whether the app constitutes a "national security risk."

In response to the scrutiny, TikTok hired lobbyists to mollify concerned legislators and preempt restrictions on its operations. As the coronavirus pandemic forced a nationwide reckoning about America's relationship with China, some lawmakers have demanded restrictions on the company's operations. Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), for example, introduced a law prohibiting federal employees from using the app on government devices in March.

"TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that includes Chinese Communist Party members on its board, and it is required by law to share user data with Beijing," Hawley said in a statement. "As many of our federal agencies have already recognized, TikTok is a major security risk to the United States, and it has no place on government devices."

TikTok's parent company ByteDance has attempted to placate concerned policymakers by distancing itself from China. The company has considered moving its headquarters out of China, as well as creating a separate, new management for TikTok to distance itself from the Chinese government, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company has already announced that it plans to exit the Hong Kong market after the Chinese government passed a new set of "national security" laws that further undermine the city-state's judicial independence.

Before joining TikTok, Bloom served as the senior vice president of the Internet Association, a lobbying group that represents tech companies, including Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Lipsky, meanwhile, once lobbied for the Canadian American Business Council on issues related to the Trump administration's renegotiation of the NAFTA trade deal. Hacker worked as a lobbyist for electricity utility companies prior to his stint with Clyburn.

TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.