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US-China tensions

Trump looks for TikTok 'deal' as Election Day looms

As trade agreement wanes, president searches for next trophy

U.S. President Donald Trump walks to the podium in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 4. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

NEW YORK -- Between his first-phase trade agreement with China and the November election, businessman U.S. President Donald Trump has seated himself at another negotiating table to show off his "art of the deal."

On Tuesday, Trump painted his administration as the broker of the yet-to-be-realized purchase of Chinese short video app TikTok by an American company -- likely Microsoft -- doubling down on the claim that "a very big proportion of that price would have to go to the Treasury of the United States."

This past weekend, the U.S. president squeezed in a business call with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella about TikTok, which Microsoft was in talks to buy but Trump had said he would ban.

Trump, whose polling numbers have been dwindling and in some cases trailing by double digits behind rival ex-Vice President Joe Biden, gave Microsoft his blessing as well as until around Sept. 15 to conclude the talks.

"If they make a deal for TikTok, whether it's the 30% in the United States or the whole company, I say, 'It's OK, but if you do that, we're really making it possible, because we're letting you operate here,'" Trump said Tuesday when asked about the subject during his White House briefing, framing the U.S. government as the landlord and businesses as tenants.

A payout to the government "would come from the sale, which nobody else would be thinking about but me," he said Monday, the day after Microsoft confirmed that it was continuing talks with TikTok's Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance.

TikTok's global business, which has posed serious competition to American social media giant Facebook, has been valued at $50 billion recently by its investors, Reuters reported. The U.S. is its biggest market.

Lawyers have said the American government does not have legal grounds to take a cut from a private deal. The deal, if realized, could be seen as a win for Trump as the presidential election nears.

Trump had previously touted his partial trade agreement with China -- "the biggest deal anybody has ever seen" -- inked in January. But the deal has since lost its shine to the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China and for which Trump has been continuously criticized.

The U.S. president has said he feels differently about the deal now after China exported the coronavirus to the U.S., even suggesting that he might tear up the agreement.

"I think our attitude on China has changed greatly since the China virus hit us," he said Tuesday.

Since its global downloads exceeded 1 billion in early 2019, TikTok has found finds itself under increasing scrutiny from Washington, raising national security and censorship concerns among politicians left and right. As Chinese tech's first global hit, TikTok came under fire after it took down content related to mass detentions in Xinjiang late last year, deletions the platform later called accidental.

There have also been concerns that TikTok could hand over user data to China at its request, though the company has said it will not.

As a hugely popular platform among teenagers and young adults, TikTok also made headlines in June when users took credit for depressing turnout at a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by booking seats and not showing up.

Last year, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States launched an investigation into parent ByteDance's 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, a lip-sync video platform headquartered in Shanghai but with significant American operations. The business was rebranded as TikTok. The interagency government body has the authority to order ByteDance to divest TikTok's U.S. operations on national security grounds.

On Friday night, Trump threatened to ban TikTok as soon as Saturday, telling reporters that he has presidential authority over the matter while en route back to Washington from another rally in Florida on his Air Force One jet.

He backtracked from an outright ban on TikTok after pressure from Republican advisers who feared further inflaming anti-Trump sentiment among young people, according to Reuters.

Before noting Monday that "the brand is hot," Trump said that "I don't mind if -- whether it's Microsoft or somebody else -- a big company, a secure company, very, very American company, buy it."

"My personal opinion was, you're probably better off buying the whole thing rather than buying 30% of it," which is "complicated," he offered.

On Sunday, Microsoft said that it "looks forward to continuing dialogue with the United States government, including with the president" and that it "appreciates ... President Trump's personal involvement."

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