(Mustafa Murat Kaynak / Anadolu Agency)

TikTok deploys lobbyists tied to Trump, top Democrats as US considers ban

By Karl Evers-Hillstrom, Center for Responsive Politics

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TikTok is one of the most popular and fastest-growing apps in the U.S. But unless its pricey lobbying campaign pays dividends, the video-sharing app’s time in the limelight could be coming to an end.

Both PresidentDonald Trumpand Secretary of StateMike Pompeohave said the U.S. is considering banning TikTok, which is run by the Chinese companyByteDance, amid concerns that users’ data could be shared with the Chinese Communist Party. White House trade advisor Peter Navarrotold viewersduring an interview with Fox News Sunday to expect “strong action” against TikTok and other apps owned by Chinese companies.

TikTok, which recently hired former Disney executive Kevin Mayer to run its U.S. operations, says it doesn’t share data with the Chinese government. To stave off a U.S. ban, the company is banking on its roster of Washington insiders, including a lobbyist who has close ties with both Trump and Pompeo and former aides to Democratic leaders.

TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, didn’t start lobbying until the second half of 2019, spending $270,000. In the first three months of 2020 alone, the company spent $300,000 to dispatch27 lobbyistsfrom four different K Street firms.

The most crucial lobbyist for TikTok’s future might beDavid Urban, a key player in Trump’s 2016 win in Pennsylvania and an adviser to Trump’s reelection campaign. Hired by TikTok in January, Urban’s firmAmerican Continental Grouphas seen its revenue explode to new highs in the Trump era as companies attempt to leverage Urban’s connection to the president.

Urban was a West Point classmate of Pompeo and reportedly recommended the former Kansas congressman for Trump’s cabinet. The New York Times reported that the State Departmentfroze congressional holds on arms salesto Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after Urban requested a meeting between Pompeo and the chief executive at defense contractorRaytheon. The meeting took place several weeks after the State Department had already enacted the freeze, which allowed Raytheon to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to the two nations.

TikTok’s roster also includes influencers with close ties to top Democrats in Congress. TikTok recently restructured its internal lobbying team by adding several well-connected lobbyists, CNBC reported. Among the company’s new hires is Michael Hacker, former senior adviser to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Michael Bloom, a former senior adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). That’s after TikTok hired Michael Beckerman, former CEO of the Internet Association lobbying group, earlier this year. 

Former House Science Committee ChairmanBart Gordon(D-Tenn.), a partner atK&L Gates, also lobbies for TikTok.

While Republicans such as Sen.Josh Hawley(R-Mo.) are themost vocal criticsof TikTok in Congress, some top Democrats are also wary of the widely popular app. Senate Minority LeaderChuck Schumer(D-N.Y.) called on Transportation Security Administration workers tostop using the appearlier this year.

The federal government has put pressure on TikTok before. The Federal Trade Commission fined the app maker $5.7 million early last year for illegally collecting information about users under the age of 13. The fine was a record penalty under child privacy laws but made up only a fraction of the company’s revenue. 

While Pompeo has made statements on TikTok’s possible national security risk, Trump is consideringbanning the app to punish Chinafor the coronavirus pandemic, which experts believe originated in China’s Hubei province. The U.S. has become the epicenter of the outbreak, with COVID-19 infecting over 3 million Americans andkilling more than 135,000.

Former American TikTok employees told the Washington Post last year that its Chinese parent companyhad the final sayon what content was censored. TikTok has attempted to distance itself from China, noting that ByteDance offers a separate app that adheres to the country’s strict censorship standards for its Chinese users. TikTok recentlyleft the Hong Kong marketafter Beijing imposed a controversial national security law that will force internet companies to comply with government data requests and censorship.

Correction 7/14/19: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a Raytheon executive met with Pompeo before the State Department froze a congressional hold on arms sales to two nations. The meeting took place several weeks after the freeze.

This article originally appeared on OpenSecrets.org, The Center for Responsive Politics and is republished with permission under Creative Commons License 3.0.