Steven Mnuchin says he’s putting together a group to try and buy TikTok

Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that he’s exploring assembling a group of investors to purchase TikTok, an attempt to assuage US national security concerns over the Chinese ownership of the popular social-media app.

“I understand the technology,” Mnuchin said during an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “It’s a great business, and I’m going to put together a great group to buy TikTok.”

While he declined to provide specific names, Mnuchin said that his group would be organized in a way “so that no one investor controls this.”

Mnuchin, breaking with former President Donald Trump, said he supported a House bill that would force a ban on the popular social-media app. Like his former boss, Mnuchin said that he would not want to see a divestment strengthen the position of TikTok’s competitors.

“I don’t think this should be controlled by any of the big US tech companies. I think there could be big antitrust issues on that,” Mnuchin said. “It should be something that is independent so that we have a real competitor. And users love it, so it shouldn’t be shut down.”

Lawmakers passed the legislation in an overwhelming 352-65 vote. The bill now faces an uncertain future in the US Senate, despite President Joe Biden pledging to sign it into law if Congress passed it. The legislation would require ByteDance, TikTok’s Beijing parent company, to divest its US TikTok operations to another company within 180 days. While the bill explicitly mentions TikTok, the legislation could apply to future companies.

It’s far from certain a sale will happen. First, the legislation must become law. TikTok is almost certain to turn the debate into a legal fight, much like it did when the Trump administration kicked off the discussion on banning the app. Even if legal challenges are exhausted, China has shown it is very protective of ByteDance. Beijing implemented export controls in 2020 that were considered to be a move to complicate the sale of any of ByteDance’s technology to a US company. China would likely throw up similar barriers again.

Mnuchin’s comments underline the competing interests in the former president’s orbit. Trump’s White House, led in part by Mnuchin, started the US effort to ban the social-media app. Trump is now opposed to a ban, a flip after the former president met with Jeff Yass, a US billionaire who controls a major stake in ByteDance. The former president said he and Yass did not talk about the app. Politico reported the former Trump White House official Kellyanne Conway was being paid by the conservative Club for Growth to advocate for the app as Congress renewed its efforts to ban it.

Like other current and former officials, Mnuchin hinted at seemingly classified information that increased his fear about letting TikTok remain under the umbrella of a Chinese company.

“It is an issue for this to be on everybody’s phone,” Mnuchin said. “There are certain things I can talk about that are obvious, and there are certain things I can’t talk about that I had access to. But let’s just say, when you have this app on everybody’s phone, it has the ability to collect an awful lot of data.”

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Brent D. Griffiths