White House at a Total Fucking Loss to Explain Trump’s TikTok Shakedown

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Illustration for article titled White House at a Total Fucking Loss to Explain Trumps TikTok Shakedown

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP (Getty Images)

No one in the White House has any idea what the fuck Donald Trump was talking about when he suggested that the U.S. Treasury should get a slice of any deal for Microsoft to buy TikTok.

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The Trump administration has threatened to ban TikTok in the U.S., possibly by putting it on a Commerce Department blacklist, over largely theoretical concerns that Beijing-based owner ByteDance could use it to spy on tens of millions of users in the U.S. on behalf of the Chinese government. One option to avoid the crackdown would be for ByteDance to sell off the app to a U.S. company—such as Microsoft, which is negotiating to do just that at a price that will likely land in the tens of billions.

On Monday, Trump told reporters that he was on board with such a deal, just so long as Microsoft (or whoever) greased the wheels. The president made it crystal clear that because the White House is “making it possible for this deal to happen,” then “a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States.” He compared such a payment to “key money,” which in New York real estate terms means a bribe.

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Per Reuters, both White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany were unable to explain the apparent extortion demand on Tuesday. Kudlow claimed there was a “lot of options” such as possible “fees.”

“There’s no specific blueprint here,” Kudlow told Fox Business News. “It may be that the president was thinking, because the Treasury has had to do so much work on this, there are a lot of options here. I’m not sure it’s a specific concept that will be followed through… Regarding fees or anything like that, all that remains to be seen.”

Kudlow also appeared to give the White House a way out, adding that the Treasury payment was not necessarily a “key stipulation.”

McEnany didn’t have any kind of answer when questioned during a press briefing on Tuesday, per a White House transcript. Instead, she stated she didn’t want to “get ahead of the president on any official action”:

Okay, so I’m not going to get ahead of the president on any official action, but he has made that point. And he and both Secretary Pompeo have said that the U.S. action — that the U.S. will take action in the coming days on Chinese apps, including TikTok — TikTok, excuse me, due to the national security risk. And we all agree that there needs to be a change, especially with TikTok collecting significant amounts of private data on users. It’s unacceptable, but I won’t get ahead of the president on what those actions look like.

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It’s perhaps not a surprise that the White House is at a loss to explain what the president meant, as such a payment would be unprecedented and appears to have no underlying basis beyond Trump making shit up on the fly.

“This is quite unusual, this is out of the norm,” Gene Kimmelman, former Department of Justice Antitrust Division chief counsel and senior adviser to Public Knowledge, told CNN. “It’s actually quite hard to understand what the president is actually talking about here … It’s not unheard of for transactions to have broader geopolitical implications between countries, but it’s quite remarkable to think about some kind of money being on the table in connection with a transaction.”

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Of course, it’s not hard for anyone outside the administration to figure out what the president actually meant. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-run Global Times, tweeted that the demand was “open robbery.”

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