Donald Trump has abandoned his opposition to Microsoft buying TikTok while vowing to ban the Chinese-owned video app in the US unless an American company acquired it by September 15.
Mr Trump also said that the Treasury should receive a portion of any sale price, because the US would be helping the deal by allowing TikTok to continue to operate in the country.
After saying on Friday that he opposed a US company buying TikTok — owned by China’s ByteDance — the president reversed course after speaking to Satya Nadella, the chief executive of Microsoft, which is in talks to purchase TikTok.
“I don’t mind whether it is Microsoft or somebody else . . . a very American company,” Mr Trump told reporters at the White House, describing his phone call with the Microsoft boss as a “great conversation”.
Mr Trump said he gave Mr Nadella until mid-September to try to conclude the deal. “I set a date of around September 15 at which point it’s going to be out of business in the US.”
The White House did not respond to a question about how the Treasury would be paid as part of TikTok sale, given that it would be a private sector deal.
“I did say that if you buy it, whatever the price is . . . a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen right now,” Mr Trump said. “Right now they don’t have any rights, unless we give it to them . . . It’s a little bit like the landlord-tenant. Without a lease the tenant has nothing.”
Mr Trump also said he had suggested that Microsoft buy the entire operation, rather than parts of the business.
“It’s probably easier to buy the whole thing rather than 30 per cent,” Mr Trump said without providing any detail.
The campaign against TikTok is the latest example of the White House clamping down on potential security threats from China, as the relationship between the two countries descends to further lows.
Mr Trump’s comments came hours after Peter Navarro, a top White House official and China hawk, accused Microsoft of “enabling censorship” in China and alleged that there was “suspicious stuff going on” between it and the Chinese Communist party.
Speculation had mounted in recent days that Mr Trump would sign an order banning TikTok, but his comments suggested a temporary reprieve. The concrete deadline he has now put on the talks will add pressure on both parties to hammer out the technical details of a complex deal.
In addition to questions about price — which had yet to be determined, according to people involved — it remains unclear how ByteDance would carve out its US operations from its European and Asian arms. It is also not clear how Bytedance’s existing investors would respond to a deal.
Mr Trump’s comment caps a fraught several days for TikTok, which has promised users it is “not going anywhere” despite Mr Trump’s threats late on Friday to ban it completely. TikTok and ByteDance have publicly accused Facebook of a smear campaign designed to get it kicked out of the US.
In recent months, the Trump administration has upped its public pressure campaign against TikTok.
Mr Navarro has long spoken out against TikTok’s presence in the US, accusing the app last month of sending American user data to the Chinese Communist party to enable “blackmail and extortion” or “information warfare”. He is widely seen as one of the most hawkish officials in the administration on China policy, but frequently faces opposition from other aides, including Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary.
While Mr Navarro raised concerns about Microsoft, other China hawks, including Republican senator Marco Rubio, support a Microsoft-TikTok tie-up. Mr Rubio said on Sunday that if the company and its data were bought and “secured by a trusted US company”, that would be a positive and “acceptable outcome”.
US officials have been concerned that China gathers sensitive data on American citizens through tech companies. Earlier this year Chinese company Kunlun was forced to divest the gay dating app Grindr to investor group San Vicente Acquisition, after an intervention by Cfius, the US government panel that vets acquisitions for possible security concerns.
Microsoft, which has had a presence in China for nearly 30 years, including its largest R&D centre outside of the US, is regarded as a trusted partner by Beijing. It also counts Zhang Yiming, Bytedance’s founder, as an alumni.
Microsoft declined to comment.