TikTok Focuses on Senate as House Heads Toward Divestment Vote

(Bloomberg) -- TikTok’s Chief Executive Officer Shou Chew went to Capitol Hill Tuesday to lobby against a bill that would force the app’s Chinese parent to sell it or face a ban in the US.

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Joined by influencers from the popular short-video platform, Chew sought to persuade senators to reject the legislation. A vote in the House of Representatives scheduled for Wednesday appeared increasingly likely to get the two-thirds approval necessary even though former President Donald Trump has reversed his stand and suggested he opposes a ban.

Senator John Fetterman, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said he was among those contacted by TikTok. “I’m telling them, and I’ve been clear, I’m voting for that, so you’re wasting your time,” he said, referring to the House bill.

“I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on Drunk Elephant at Sephora because of my tween,” Fetterman said, referring to a skincare brand that’s gone viral on the app, prompting teens and tweens to flood Sephora locations. “That’s annoying but I think there’s a security issue as well too. And if they have nothing to hide, then TikTok should be the first ones to say, ‘Let’s remove any kinds of possible connection there.’ And I support that.”

But other senators expressed skepticism about the proposal to ban TikTok if its Chinese owner, ByteDance Ltd., doesn’t sell it.

“The question is what are the unintended consequences of the approach for future companies?” asked Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina. He said European countries could seize on the precedent to target US firms.

Read more: TikTok Plans Full Legal Fight If US Divestment Bill Becomes Law

Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, told reporters Tuesday that the issue isn’t about banning TikTok.

“Do we want TikTok as a platform to be owned by an American company or owned by China?” he said. “Do we want the data from TikTok — children’s data, adults’ data — to be staying here in America or going to China?” He said Biden is “clear where he stands” on the company’s ownership but “in terms of how that gets implemented precisely, that’s something that we have continued to stay in touch with the Congress on.”

Officials from the FBI, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence briefed House members on TikTok behind closed doors on Tuesday afternoon.

TikTok’s Chinese ownership might be saved by a coalition of progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans. Progressive Democrats coming out of the briefing said they weren’t persuaded that the threat warranted limits on freedom of speech. “They say it is not a ban but it is,” said Democrat Maxwell Frost of Florida, the first Gen Z member of Congress.

Although Trump sought to ban TikTok when he was president, he said on CNBC this week that Meta Inc.s Facebook, not TikTok, was the real threat. Trump was banned from Facebook for two years “following his praise for people engaged in violence at the Capitol on January 6,” Facebook owner Meta said at the time.

He also suggested he was wary of alienating the young Americans who use the app.

“There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it,” Trump said. “The thing I don’t like is that without TikTok, you can make Facebook bigger, and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people, along with a lot of the media.”

ByteDance Lobbying

ByteDance spent a record $8.7 million on federal lobbying last year, congressional lobbying disclosures show. The company has put together a big team of in-house lobbyists and keeps on retainer a roster of lobbying firms with numerous former members of Congress.

Kellyanne Conway, a former top Trump aide, confirmed she is advising the Club for Growth, which is against the divestiture requirement, on public opinion survey results and has spoken to members of Congress about the findings, although she said she isn’t doing so this week.

Dance videos and makeup tutorials have been stock content on the app, which has also seen a boom in discussions of news and politics. According to the Pew Research Center, about 43% of TikTok users say they regularly get their news there, twice the rate from three years ago, as do about one-third of all US adults younger than 30.

Earlier in the day, FBI Director Christopher Wray reaffirmed his distrust of TikTok’s Chinese ownership in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

Americans need to ask themselves whether they want to give the Chinese government the ability to control access to their data,” which could be used to compromise their devices, Wray said.

A Senate Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said members in that chamber had concerns about the House bill, including whether it could grant the president too much leeway in how it would be implemented, the fact that it singles out a particular company and whether it would address future threats from similarly positioned companies. Even so, a strong majority of support in the House could mean the bill moves quickly in the Senate.

Among potential holdouts: Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who said he had concerns about how the bill would square with freedom of speech and the First Amendment.

“I’ll block anything that’s contrary to the Constitution,” Paul said.

Senator Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican who had endorsed Trump for president in 2024, said he would support the House bill despite the former president’s opposition.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that TikTok is absolutely a national security threat to our country,” Marshall said in an interview. “President Trump and I won’t always agree on everything but we share the same goals.”

--With assistance from Peter Martin, Maeve Sheehey, Justin Sink and Jennifer Jacobs.

(Updates with lobbying efforts starting in 14th paragraph)

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