NEW YORK – President Donald Trump on Thursday ordered a sweeping but unspecified ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat, although it remains unclear if he has the legal authority to actually ban the apps from the U.S.
The twin executive orders — one for each app — take effect in 45 days. They say they are necessary because the China-owned apps “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” and call on the Commerce Secretary to define the banned dealings by that time. While the wording of the orders is vague and appears to have been rushed out, some experts said it appears intended to bar the popular apps from the Apple and Google app stores, which could effectively remove them from distribution in the U.S.
“This is an unprecedented use of presidential authority,” Eurasia Group analyst Paul Triolo said in an email. At a minimum, he said, the orders appear to “constitute a ban on the ability of U.S. app stores run by Apple and Google to include either mobile app after 45 days.”
Triolo said the orders may face legal challenges and warned that Beijing is likely to “react harshly, at least rhetorically.” Trump’s orders cited legal authority from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act.
The action is the Trump administration’s latest attempt to hobble China, a rising economic superpower. Over the past several years, it has waged a trade war with China, blocked mergers involving Chinese companies and stifled the business of Chinese firms like Huawei, a maker of phones and telecom equipment. China-backed hackers, meanwhile, have been blamed for data breaches of U.S. federal databases and the credit agency Equifax, and the Chinese government strictly limits what U.S. tech companies can do in China.
Election-year politics in the U.S. are fanning the flames, as Trump appears to be using friction with China to drum up voter support.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers share concerns about TikTok running from its vulnerability to censorship and misinformation campaigns to the safety of user data and children’s privacy. But the administration has provided no specific evidence that TikTok has made U.S. users’ data available to the Chinese government. Instead, officials point to the hypothetical threat that lies in the Chinese government’s ability to demand cooperation from Chinese companies.
Earlier in the week, Trump threatened a deadline of Sept. 15 to “close down” TikTok unless Microsoft or another company acquires it, a threat the new executive order appears to formalize. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an expansion of the U.S. crackdown on Chinese technology to include barring Chinese apps from U.S. app stores, citing alleged security threats and calling out TikTok and WeChat by name.