Strange allies unite in an across-the-aisle effort to save Chinese TikTok from forced divestment

The battle lines in Washington over the TikTok divestment bill cross partisan divides and make allies out of ideological opposites.

The battle lines in Washington are being drawn over a Congressional effort to force the owner of the popular social media app TikTok to divest from China, and it turns out the attempts to save the app from divestment have attracted unlikely allies from all sides of the political spectrum.

Among the cast of characters fighting Congress’ efforts to force the app to divest from its China-based owners are a conservative political donor with a financial stake in the company, a prominent conservative advocacy organization, and members of Congress who see political benefits in the popular platform. The legislation has also faced opposition from former President Trump, a reversal from his previous position of advocating for a ban during his administration.

In March, the House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill targeting TikTok and other “foreign adversary controlled applications” in an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner. The bill, if it passes the Senate and is signed by President Biden, would require TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to divest the U.S. assets of the social media platform within six months of the bill becoming law. The measure has been sent to the Senate for its approval.

The debate over forcing a sale of TikTok—the popular social media application that took the United States by storm after it was released in 2016—has simmered in Washington, based on concerns about ByteDance’s close relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.

For example, an investigation submitted to the Australian Senate found the company established the Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence in 2018 with support from China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. AI is at the center of the Chinese military’s strategy to ensure military dominance.

In addition, in a court filing as part of his suit against the company for wrongful dismissal, a former ByteDance executive alleged the company helped the China track dissident protestors in Hong Kong and said the same individuals in China had access to date collected on U.S.-based users.

Because of these and other concerns, the bill to force a divestment gained significant bipartisan support in Congress. The committee responsible for handling the initial bill approved the proposition unanimously and the whole House ultimately passed it in a 352-65 bipartisan vote in March.

But not everyone was happy with the outcome. The approval by the House does not ensure the measure will become law. In fact, the House’s approval has galvanized the support of the opposition, which is comprised of an array of individuals and organizations who would not normally consider themselves political allies.

Even President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump’s positions on the proposed divestment bill have appeared strange to observers.

President Biden indicated that he will sign the bill if and when it arrives on his desk. Biden previously banned TikTok from the government devices of over 4 million federal employees in 2022, a sign of the perceived dangers of the app. In a puzzling move, Biden’s 2024 presidential campaign joined TikTok to bolster his outreach to voters using the popular app.

Trump’s position on the app is no less puzzling. In 2020, when he was still president, Trump threatened to ban TikTok and cited “emergency powers” to take action against ByteDance. Trump signed an executive order August that year prohibiting U.S. companies from any transactions with the Chinese parent company, citing “national security” concerns.

Then, this year, the former president came out against the TikTok divestment bill, warning that it would only empower Facebook, which he labeled an “enemy of the people.”

"There's a lot of good and there's a lot of bad with TikTok, but the thing I don't like is that without TikTok, you're going to make Facebook bigger, and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people, along with a lot of the media,” Trump said on CNBC shortly before the House voted to approve the legislation.

The Republican mega donor & Club for Growth

One opponent of the bill targeting TikTok is Jeff Yass, a Republican mega donor whose company has a financial stake in the platform's Chinese parent and funded one of the main conservative groups opposing the bill. Yass’ opposition to the bill may also explain former President Trump’s shifting rhetoric.

Yass is the cofounder of investment company Susquehanna International Group, which made an early investment in the Chinese technology company ByteDance in 2012, long before the success of its flagship social media app. The company’s stake is reportedly 15%. According to the Wall Street Journal, Yass’ stake in the company alone—about 7%—is worth about $21 billion, about half of his total net worth according to Bloomberg’s most recent calculation.

Yass has reportedly used his vast wealth to fund lobbying efforts and orchestrate a pressure campaign to protect the social media app, and by extension, his hefty investment in its parent company.

Yass donated $61 million to the Club for Growth since 2010, according to the Journal. The Club for Growth, which is an influential conservative group that back Republicans in races across the country, has been a major opponent of the efforts to force a divestment of TikTok.

On March 1, Trump met with Yass at a Club for Growth donor retreat in Palm Beach, Florida shortly before revealing his position on the Chinese-controlled app. Trump later told CNBC TikTok was not a topic of conversation. However, the Trump campaign is seeking to court donations from Yass and the Club for Growth as he struggles to keep up with President Biden’s fundraising numbers.

A spokesman for Trump, Steven Cheung, told Politico that Trump still views TikTok’s Chinese ownership as a “national security threat” but “[appreciates] it is an app used and liked by millions of Americans.”

Both Yass and the Club for Growth reportedly engaged in a wide-ranging effort to pressure members of Congress of oppose the passage of the TikTok bill before it was approved earlier this month.

Anonymous Capitol Hill aides told Politico the Club for Growth approached their offices and said that they would “score” lawmakers based on how they voted on the legislation. The organization routinely publishes scorecards for representatives and senators based on key votes in that year’s legislative session.

The Club for Growth denies that a key vote was issued for the TikTok bill and said Yass never has asked the organization to take a position or action on his behalf.

But, the organization’s opposition to the bill is well documented. In March 2023, its President, David McIntosh, published an op-ed announcing his opposition to efforts to “ban” the Chinese-owned app.

“The act is a huge blow to the freedoms that Americans have enjoyed since the first smartphones came on the market,” he wrote. McIntosh explained his view that the efforts to force a TikTok divestment were spurred by Facebook’s strategy to push a “false narrative” about the Chinese company in order to harm its competitor. Trump’s own rhetoric about Facebook appears to mirror this earlier argument from McIntosh.

Last month, Jeff Yass, who has also donated prolifically to several Republican candidates and causes, reportedly called representatives in an attempt to stop the legislation. These calls were confirmed to the New York Post by several Hill sources, however, Yass’ spokesman vehemently denied the allegations.

“Jeff learned about this proposed bill yesterday and has not spoken with anyone about it. Any suggestion otherwise is categorically false,” he told the Post.

Yass’ spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Yass backs opponents of the bill

Some of the TikTok bill's biggest opponents, like Senator Rand Paul and Representative Thomas Massie, both Republicans from Kentucky have received financial backing from Yass. Last year, Senator Paul came out against any legislation to force a divestment on the grounds that it would mirror Chinese government censorship of speech.

“I hope saner minds will reflect on which is more dangerous: videos of teenagers dancing or the precedent of the U.S. government banning speech," Paul posted to X. "For me, it’s an easy answer, I will defend the Bill of Rights against all comers, even, if need be, from members of my own party.”

Yass has donated more than $20 million to Paul or committees supporting the senator since 2015, according to the Wall Street Journal which cited federal records.

Massie opposed another bill aimed at TikTok and is widely considered an ideological libertarian, like Senator Paul. Since 2020, Yass or his wife have given Massie $32,200 personally or through political committees. Club for Growth has also been the largest individual contributor to Massie, according to the Journal. Massie voted no on the current version of the bill.

The bipartisan hired guns

TikTok has also retained an army of lobbyists, the hired guns in Washington, in an effort to improve its image and rebut any attempts to its parent company to divest. These efforts started in 2018, even before significant public efforts to address TikTok’s Chinese ownership began.

One of the lobbying firms, Crossroads Strategies was first retained in 2020, according to OpenSecrets, just as pressure against the company began to heat up in Congress.

Among the Crossroads lobbyists representing the company were former Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott and former Democratic Representative from Louisiana John Breaux. Crossroads Strategies advertises itself as a bipartisan advocacy and advisory firm. Tiktok has paid the firm nearly $9 million since 2020, according to OpenSecrets.

In 2023, TikTok hired a Biden world-connected public affairs firm, SKDK, as pressure increased, attempting to broaden its reach outside of Congress. Anita Dunn, a senior advisor to President Biden and former spokesperson for President Obama founded the firm. She has gone back and forth from the administration to SKDK at least once, according to the New York Times.

ByteDance has spent more than $9 million on federal lobbying in 2022 and 2023 alone.

TikTok even recruited its own uses to serve as a massive free lobbying arm in the lead up to the bill’s passage last month, a tactic that infuriated Congressional offices. After the app urged its users to call their member of Congress to advocate against passing the divestment bill, offices were flooded with calls from all over the United States. One of the bill’s authors described it as a “massive propaganda campaign” which “falsely labeled our legislation a ‘total ban’ of TikTok.”

Congressional opposition from progressives and conservatives

Congressional opposition to the bill also saw bipartisan cooperation, with progressive Democrats and free speech absolutists and Trump-loyalist Republicans voted against the measure.

Several members of the House Progressive Caucus expressed concerns about the bill before passage. Most criticized the speed at which the bill was brought forward, even after a year of investigations, proposals, and a special briefing by the Justice Department shortly before the bill was brought forward for a vote.

“We're steamrolling this bill through without listening to stakeholders, without listening to people who depend on TikTok for their livelihood, including a lot of small businesses,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost, a Florida Democrat and the youngest member of the House.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., admitted there may be national security concerns about the app, but has “serious concerns” about the First Amendment and that it may be an effort to “[foment] anti-Asian and Chinese sentiment.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—a leading Trump ally in the House—also opposed the bill citing free speech concerns developed in light of her own previous ban from Twitter.

“Twitter banned me — banned my personal account on which I was campaigning for Congress, raising money and using my free speech to inform the voters in my district they can vote for me,” Greene said on the floor of the House. “This was not by a company owned by China. This was by American-owned Twitter.”

“I believe that this bill can cause future problems,” Greene added. “It’s opening Pandora’s box.” She also swiped at Facebook in the same speech, echoing Trump’s concerns.