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How a Bipartisan Group Overcame the Odds to Pass the TikTok Divestment Bill
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How a Bipartisan Group Overcame the Odds to Pass the TikTok Divestment Bill

The yearslong process bested several hurdles, including a Donald Trump about-face on the issue.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi and former Rep. Mike Gallager talk with reporters after the House of Representatives voted on legislation to ban TikTok on March 13, 2024. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

By the time it became law, enacting legislation to force the Chinese Communist Party-controlled owner of TikTok to divest its ownership stake or lose access to 170 million American users looked easy. 

A 50-0 vote to pass the bill out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 7 was followed by a 352-65 vote on the House floor on March 13. A slightly modified version of the divestment legislation was attached to the package of bills providing aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan in April, and TikTok divestment again sailed through the House and then the Senate before being signed into law by President Joe Biden on April 24.

But what looked quick and easy was actually the culmination of a hard, yearslong process that required deft legislative maneuvering until the very end to overcome powerful forces from across the political spectrum allied to TikTok. The multibillion-dollar social media app had a well-funded and well-connected army of lobbyists. Democrats had reason to fear alienating the TikTok-addicted youth vote in a presidential election year, and influential voices on the right, including Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk—and eventually Donald Trump himself—turned against legislation to end the Chinese control of TikTok.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans tell The Dispatch the bill is now law of the land because of painstaking negotiations and legislative wrangling that saw top Democrats and Republicans, and the Biden administration, quietly working together.

“It took about a year to really negotiate. It required tremendous stakeholder input from around Congress,” Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who co-sponsored the legislation with former Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican, told The Dispatch

“The key is there was months of work on that bill that didn’t leak,” Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has been warning of the threat posed by TikTok for years, told The Dispatch

History proves that TikTok divestment was far from inevitable in 2024. President Trump tried to do it by executive order in 2020 but was blocked by the courts. In the following years, a growing bipartisan consensus emerged that something needed to be done about an app used by 170 million Americans that was effectively controlled by America’s top foreign adversary. A bombshell 2022 BuzzFeed News report revealed that user data had been repeatedly accessed in China. The CCP officially owns 1 percent of TikTok’s Chinese parent-company ByteDance—giving the government the power to appoint a seat on the board of directors—and ByteDance as a Chinese company is subject to the CCP’s counter-espionage laws. Many members of Congress feared TikTok could sow anti-American propaganda and collect data that could be used for blackmail, espionage, and foreign-influence operations. The main bipartisan bill to address TikTok in 2023, the RESTRICT Act, had 26 Senate co-sponsors, but it failed to advance amid criticism that it handed too much discretion to the secretary of commerce and other executive branch officials to determine whether tech products and services controlled by a “foreign adversary” of the United States posed an “undue and unacceptable risk” to national security. 

“The bill just died on the vine, and then the energy to do anything about TikTok died,” Michael Sobolik, a senior fellow in Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, told The Dispatch. “From TikTok’s perspective, they thought that they had weathered the eye of the storm,” said FCC commissioner Carr.

But Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi’s House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, which Gallagher chaired, continued to work quietly with House GOP leadership and the House Energy and Commerce Committee on drafting a bipartisan bill that could actually become law. Behind the scenes, House Republicans were negotiating with the White House and engaging with the Department of Justice on how to draft a bill that could withstand challenges in court

According to several advocates of the legislation, the response to the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack against Israel was a flashpoint that galvanized sentiment in Congress against TikTok. “That set a fire under a lot of members in the House, not just Republicans,” said Sobolik, who was part of an ad hoc group of supporters of the bill. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told The Dispatch in December that while he had previously been reluctant to embrace a TikTok ban, the widespread and disproportionate promotion of anti-Israel content on TikTok convinced him that it was “probably time to say that we shouldn’t have a Chinese-owned social media company force feeding divisive information to our kids.” A recent study by the Network Contagion Research Institute and Rutgers University Miller Center found that for every 100 Instagram posts supporting Israel, there were only 16 pro-Israel posts on TikTok—and the ratios were even wider when the issue was Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, or Hong Kong protests. “The fact that Osama bin Laden’s letter to America went viral [on TikTok] is crazy. That’s not organic,” said Krishnamoorthi. The Democratic congressman said his views on TikTok were bolstered by classified intelligence reports that he couldn’t discuss. 

Internally, Republicans continued to hash out their differences, with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise serving as pointman for resolving concerns on all sides. The Louisiana Republican did so by: including several committees in the legislative process; tapping the House select committee on the CCP, where Democrats and Republicans have worked closely together, despite so much dysfunction in Congress, to draft the initial legislative text; seeking support from the Department of Justice; using the DOJ as an ambassador of sorts to make Democrats feel comfortable with the legislation.  

“Once we had the DOJ, they were making calls and helping get Democrats on board,” a GOP House aide involved in the process said. “We always thought we’d get more than enough Republicans to support it, so we focused on ensuring we had strong bipartisan buy-in.”

That broad bipartisan support had arrived by the time the Gallagher-Krishnamoorthi TikTok divestment bill was introduced on March 5. “It was a very tightly coordinated effort between China Select, [the House Energy and Commerce Committee], and House leadership,” a second House GOP aide involved in the process told The Dispatch. “We were affectionately calling it ‘the thunder run’ because of the very short time—I think it was eight days in total—between the introduction and when the bill passed on the House floor. That was a purposeful strategy that was designed to ensure that as we generated political momentum, we were able to continue capitalizing on that momentum.”

By keeping the negotiations quiet, lawmakers had also caught TikTok flat-footed. By all accounts, the lobbying response from TikTok—directing users to contact their federal representatives to oppose a TikTok “ban”—backfired spectacularly. An army of angry callers—including a small number who threatened self-harm or violence against members of Congress—were patched through to congressional staff. “That just infuriated people because it illustrated the very need for the legislation,” said Krishnamoorthi. “They’re using minor children’s location data to get them to call and lobby without their parents’ consent on a bill and spread misinformation in the process.” According to one GOP House aide, some children as young as 6 or 7 contacted Congress. 

How many votes did TikTok’s gambit cost them? “A lot,” Krishnamoorthi said, declining to provide a specific number while noting how unusual it is to have a unanimous committee vote on any piece of legislation.

Even as the TikTok preteens were harming their cause, a potentially more significant voice emerged that seemingly could have helped the social-media giant. “If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and Zuckerschmuck will double their business,” Donald Trump wrote on Truth Social on March 7. “I don’t want Facebook, who cheated in the last Election, doing better. They are a true Enemy of the People!” 

But House and Senate Republicans who supported the TikTok measure and are on good terms with Trump tell The Dispatch the former president never lobbied their GOP colleagues to oppose the legislation. None of the direct, chit-chatty phone calls Trump is known for, no belligerent badgering on social media. Nothing. And that was significant, senior Republicans say, because it meant the presumptive GOP presidential nominee’s opposition was not an obstacle when cajoling rank-and-file Republicans to stick with the bill. 

“I don’t think Trump did anything at all,” a knowledgeable GOP House aid said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “I never heard of him calling anyone.”

“If Trump really wanted to kill this TikTok bill, he would have treated it the same way he treated [border security] negotiations,” said Sobolik.

As president, Trump supported forcing TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, to divest its ownership or face a ban on operating in the U.S. So his flip-flop in March sparked speculation as to why.

A leading theory is that wealthy Republican donor Jeff Yass promised during a recent meeting with Trump to contribute to his cash-starved presidential campaign if he changed his position on TikTok. But a Yass spokesman told The Dispatch that’s not true. Yass, through his technology investment firm, Susquehanna International Group, is an investor in TikTok, and a March 24 story in the New York Times reported that the Trump campaign expected him to donate to the former president’s 2024 bid.

But the same story also reported Yass denying any plans to back Trump financially in this election. (Yass has never donated to Trump, his spokesman emphasized.) 

Yass’ spokesman provided The Dispatch with a long list of Republicans he has contributed to, including 10 senators and 23 representatives who voted for the TikTok ban—numbers that outpace Republicans he donated to who opposed the legislation.

Another theory is that Trump is simply trying to turn young voters against Biden. “He didn’t put his shoulder into it at all,” a Republican senator told The Dispatch. “What I infer from that is that he saw large majorities of Congress about to do something with Biden that might prove unpopular and he saw a triangulation opportunity.”

Democrats, perhaps not surprisingly, were worried about political blowback from young voters in their base for whom TikTok is popular. Polling suggests being held responsible for a TikTok ban might be politically problematic for Biden.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told The Dispatch that Trump is primarily concerned Facebook will grow too powerful if TikTok goes away, but, asked if the politics of the youth vote could partly explain Trump’s opposition, Graham replied with a laugh: “Could be!”

Another concern from some populists who turned against the legislation is that it could somehow justify going after Elon Musk’s X, formerly Twitter. Ohio GOP Sen. J.D. Vance told The Dispatch that his “basic view is TikTok’s bad. We should not allow a CCP spy app in our country,” but he was still concerned that the legislation might be written too broadly. “I think it is written broadly enough that, you know, is there an argument that Elon Musk is somehow indirectly under the control of the Chinese because he does a lot of business in China, therefore, you should be able to shut down X?” Vance said. “I think it’s a bogus argument, but you don’t want to create—given how aggressive the Biden administration has been with DOJ—you don’t want to give them massive new enforcement powers that could be used against conservative media.” 

Musk wasn’t the only right-wing influencer who opposed the TikTok divestment bill. In 2019, Tucker Carlson was hosting segments warning that TikTok was a Chinese spy app, but when the RESTRICT Act was introduced in 2023 he warned the bill was about “introducing flat out totalitarianism into our system.” When the more narrowly tailored Gallagher-Krishnamoorthi bill passed the House in 2024, Carlson called the legislation “the most far-reaching act of censorship in the history of the United States. This is an attack on the right of American citizens to receive their information from any source they choose.” (After being fired from Fox News in 2023, his show now airs on X.)

Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA said in March: “I would love to see [TikTok] just completely banned. I think that it’s a societal toxin.” By April, Kirk was attacking Biden for signing the divestment bill into law. 

“There will be a portion of the party that simply watches what President Trump tells you to do without giving it much thought beyond that,” Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney told The Dispatch

Ultimately, only 15 House Republicans joined 50 House Democrats to vote against the legislation on March 13. Republican Matt Gaetz, for example, went from saying Biden needed to “blow up TikTok” in 2023 to calling the 2024 legislation “overbroad.” South Carolina Republican Nancy Mace had gone from saying in 2022 that banning TikTok on government phones was just a “first step” to saying in 2024 she was against divestment legislation “from the very beginning before anyone else weighed in.” 

But even some of Trump’s staunchest allies were not swayed by his about-face. “I thought that [Trump] had the right position the first time,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who has supported a TikTok ban for years, told The Dispatch. “I think forcing them to divest is a great idea. And if they won’t do that, I think a ban is necessary. So my views on that haven’t changed. I encouraged [Trump] along those lines.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential Trump running mate who has been working to address the threat of TikTok since 2019, told The Dispatch more members of Congress were persuaded to support divestment when they “came to the conclusion that this was a disinformation and influence loaded gun in the hands of the Chinese who would use it in a time of conflict to disrupt America.” Though he ultimately voted against the package because it lacked border security measures.

Despite the big vote for the TikTok bill in the House, supporters of the legislation were still worried it could die in the Senate for a variety of reasons. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell is the chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that would take up the bill had it passed conventionally, and Cantwell’s former chief of staff Michael Meehan was lobbying for TikTok. Furthermore, the ranking Republican on the committee is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has enjoyed the strong backing of the Jeff Yass-funded Club for Growth for years. And to top it all off, there were concerns that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer might be reluctant to devote floor time to pass a bill that could alienate young voters in an election year.

But House GOP leadership eliminated those hurdles by attaching TikTok divestment to the package of bills aiding Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. The Senate chose to pass all four pieces on a bipartisan 79-18 vote, and it was off to President Biden’s desk.

What if any political fallout might there be? Democrats are skeptical it will have any impact in November because the bill was changed between initial passage in March and April to extend the divestment timeframe from six to up to 12 months. That would push the divest-or-ban deadline well past Election Day, even if likely court challenges fail to delay enforcement of the law. “Nothing will happen before the election,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal told The Dispatch. “We’re talking only about the requirement for selling Tik Tok, not a ban. I think there’ll be no political impact because TikTok will continue.”

A more important question than how TikTok divestment plays at home is what its geopolitical ramifications will be. “I think that the CCP made a bet that they could control TikTok and that the U.S. would not have the capacity or resolve to do anything about it,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr told The Dispatch. But, he added, the law proves “we can actually protect our national security even in a tough area where it involves technology” used by 170 million Americans.

Charles Hilu contributed to this report.

John McCormack is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was Washington correspondent at National Review and a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. When John is not reporting on politics and policy, he is probably enjoying life with his wife in northern Virginia or having fun visiting family in Wisconsin.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.