Divided Trump campaign weighs joining TikTok, the app he tried to ban

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is weighing whether to join TikTok, the wildly popular video app he once tried to ban, and the decision has sparked discussion among his advisers in recent weeks, according to four people familiar with the matter.

In 2020, the then-president said the app was a threat to national security because its parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, and he called for TikTok’s forced sale or a nationwide ban as part of an executive order that was ultimately overturned by the courts.

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But Trump advisers say he changed his stance before the election that year after seeing internal polls suggesting a ban could hurt his standing with voters. More recently, he has criticized a similar sale-or-ban effort signed into law by President Biden as mostly benefiting Facebook, which he has partially blamed for his election loss.

Trump would be one of the few high-profile Republicans to use the app, which many in his party have attacked over concerns that the Chinese government could use it to gather data on Americans or spread propaganda.

The discussions within the Trump campaign have centered on whether the benefits he might accrue politically would be worth the criticism, primarily from Republicans and those in the intelligence community who have crusaded against the app, people with knowledge of the conversations said. They are also trying to figure out how Trump’s brand can be translated to TikTok, a youth-beloved app with a culture all its own.

The advisers have argued that the platform would help the campaign reach voters, undercut Biden and tap into an online undercurrent of Trump support. The video app is one of the country’s most popular media platforms, with 170 million U.S. accounts.

Several advisers said that Trump would be unlikely to use it himself – preferring to post on the website he owns, Truth Social – but that advisers could post in his name and potentially include videos that he records.

Among those making the strongest arguments to Trump and his advisers is Kellyanne Conway, a former senior White House official who remains close to Trump and his team and is being paid to advocate for TikTok through the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth.

Conway has told Trump that he has more supporters than Biden on the app and that many young people are forming their opinion based on what they see on their TikTok feeds.

And unlike other social networks such as Facebook and X, she has argued to Trump, he was never banned from TikTok.

David Urban, another Trump ally who has lobbied for TikTok, has made similar cases to Jason Miller and John Brabender, two Trump advisers.

Conway told The Washington Post in March that Trump believed the TikTok sale-or-ban effort was “about abruptly taking away something from millions of users, many of whom are his people.”

Joining TikTok, however, could upset Trump allies who are hawkish on China and support aggressive action against the app. Many Republicans have taken to calling the app a “weapon in the hands of Communist China” and “digital fentanyl,” including former vice president Mike Pence, who has criticized Trump for defending the app.

“Too many politicians talk a big game but crack under the pressure of wealthy donors or personal grudges – including my former running mate,” Pence wrote in a Fox News column in March. “When lobbyists for a company controlled by the Chinese Communist Party can turn a former president against his own political legacy, we should all be concerned.” (ByteDance has said it is owned primarily by institutional investors and is not controlled by the Chinese government.)

Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who runs an influential right-wing podcast, has suggested that Trump’s softening on TikTok was driven by his desire for “Yass Coin” – money from Club for Growth megadonor Jeff Yass, whose trading firm, Susquehanna International Group, owns roughly 15 percent of ByteDance. Trump said in March that he had not discussed TikTok with Yass, and a person familiar with Yass’s affairs said he has no plans to donate to Trump’s campaign.

The outcome of the discussions is still uncertain, with some advisers noting that Trump has been too busy with his ongoing New York hush money trial and campaign appearances to decide on the issue.

Some aides have suggested that Dan Scavino, a longtime Trump adviser who led his White House’s social media operation, could add TikTok to his portfolio alongside posts on Trump’s accounts on Truth Social, Facebook and Instagram. Trump Media & Technology Group, which owns Truth Social, has given Scavino more than $2 million in promissory notes, $240,000 in consulting fees and $600,000 in bonuses, company filings show.

Advisers in favor of the idea have argued that Trump’s punchy quips and scene-stealing moments are well-calibrated for virality on TikTok and would help further distinguish him from Biden, whom they are eager to present as out of touch. One proposal that has been discussed: launching the account with a video showing Trump dancing on a rally stage, already a meme.

The hope among supportive advisers, one of the people said, is to fuel a sense that “being pro-Trump had become a counterculture movement, and … that it is the cool, edgy thing to be Trump-adjacent.”

Some in Trump’s orbit also said they see a moment to boost support among younger voters angry at Biden over his stance on the Israel-Gaza war and his signing of the TikTok law. The Biden campaign’s posts on TikTok in recent days have been flooded with comments criticizing the president for “taking TikTok away.”

Only a few dozen members of Congress use TikTok, and all are Democrats or independents; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have major presences on the app, with more than a million followers. Biden’s campaign has said it will continue using TikTok while his administration gears up to defend its sale-or-ban law in court.

But pro-Trump content is common on TikTok, and accounts with such names as “AmericaFirst617,” which post celebratory videos from Trump’s rallies and interviews, have gained hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of likes. One account, “The Trumpest,” which organizes clips of Trump into playlists with such names as “Donald vs reporters” and “Donald Funniest moments,” has 755,000 followers – more than twice as many as the Biden campaign’s 314,000.

TikTok hosts plenty of criticism of Trump, too, and the Biden White House has worked to build relationships with its most prominent content creators by inviting them for briefings on such issues as the Ukraine war. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer turned critic, has live-streamed on TikTok nightly during the hush money trial, in which he plays a central role.

But some in Trump’s circle are also finding a robust TikTok audience. John McEntee, who was head of personnel in Trump’s White House, regularly posts to the 2-million-follower account of the Right Stuff, a “dating app for the right wing” he co-founded in 2022. And Trump’s daughter Ivanka joined TikTok with a verified account in March, posting a video showing her, her husband, Jared Kushner, and their 13-year-old daughter, Arabella, on a “dreamy voyage of love, laughter and unforgettable moments” in India.

Former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who in 2022 called TikTok a “Trojan Horse for the [Chinese Communist Party] to corrupt American kids,” joined the platform last year, leading to some internal party criticism of his about-face. After Nikki Haley noted his reversal last year on the GOP candidate debate stage, Ramaswamy fired back that Haley’s daughter used it, leading Haley to call him “scum.”

Ramaswamy has 467,000 followers, more than Biden’s campaign, and has defended joining TikTok as critical to capturing a new generation of Americans online. “It’s idiotic for Republicans to complain that TikTok content skews pro-Democrat, while also boycotting TikTok & criticizing Republicans who use it,” he wrote on X in January. “Time for the Grand Old Party to show up & grow up. That’s how we’ll actually win.”

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