Mnuchin tried to force a sale of TikTok. Now he’s a possible bidder.

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In the final months of the Trump administration, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin scrambled to wrest TikTok away from its Chinese parent company, arguing that only a new U.S. owner could protect millions of Americans’ sensitive personal information from abuse.

“Everybody agrees it can’t exist as it does,” Mnuchin said at the time.

Four years later, though, Mnuchin has emerged as the most prominent prospective bidder for the popular video app — marking a unique twist in a long-running saga that has raised new ethics alarms in Washington.

For Mnuchin, 61, TikTok represents a tantalizing business opportunity and a potential political quagmire. The founder of a Washington-based private equity firm, Mnuchin announced this month that he hopes to “put together a group” that could purchase TikTok if Congress requires its owner, ByteDance, to divest its stake in the social network.

Mnuchin’s involvement has recalled his time as treasury secretary, when he personally advised President Donald Trump — and oversaw a national security investigation — as the administration nearly forced the sale of TikTok to companies including Microsoft, Oracle and Walmart. The role granted Mnuchin rare access to nonpublic information about the company, including highly classified material about its practices, potentially offering him a critical advantage in any future sale.

Mnuchin declined to participate in an interview for this article. He did not answer written questions about the investors he has contacted or the source of his funding. After leaving the Trump administration in January 2021, Mnuchin formed his private equity firm, Liberty Strategic Capital, with money from sovereign wealth funds in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.

“Under new ownership, TikTok has the potential to be a great U.S. business controlled by U.S. investors, and I’m exploring a potential transaction consistent with that objective,” he said in a statement. He added that the company should be “controlled by U.S. investors and no individual investor should own more than 10 percent.”

Those assurances have not quieted an early backlash on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the chamber’s Intelligence Committee, pledged to “fight very hard against” Mnuchin’s bid for TikTok. Wyden said he could not discuss the data that would have been available to Mnuchin while he was in government, but the senator stressed that it would be a “disgrace if [Mnuchin] was allowed to turn around and use that classified information to further enrich himself and his Saudi buddies.”

For the moment, TikTok is not for sale. House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly this month to force ByteDance to divest the app, but the Senate has yet to take up the legislation. TikTok, meanwhile, has denied that Chinese authorities can access American users’ data, snoop on their smartphones or sway voters’ political views. The company declined to comment for this article.

The Chinese government similarly has swiped at U.S. lawmakers, and the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry blasted Washington this month for exhibiting “double standards” that “trample on freedom of speech.” Beijing has signaled that it could block any transfer of TikTok’s most valuable asset — its algorithm for recommending videos to users based on their interests — which could devalue the company and imperil its future in the United States if it is sold.

The uncertainty has not deterred prospective investors from circling around TikTok, an app with roughly 170 million U.S. users who spend nearly an hour on average browsing videos each day, according to data from eMarketer. Its last fundraising round valued the company at about $220 billion, though some analysts have said its true value is much lower.

Announcing his interest last week on CNBC, Mnuchin described TikTok as a “great business,” later adding, “I won’t go into all the details, but the app needs to be rebuilt in the U.S. It needs to be a U.S. technology. I think there’s a lot that can be done in six months, but I would work closely with the U.S. and China.”

Since then, Mnuchin has started laying the political groundwork for a deal. This month, he phoned at least one top lawmaker to register his interest: Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), a longtime friend, fierce TikTok critic and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Warner’s office declined to comment.

Under the Trump administration, much of Mnuchin’s work on TikTok occurred in connection with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS. Chaired by the treasury secretary, the federal panel can review — and recommend that the government block — transactions in which an entity abroad tries to take over a U.S. business.

CFIUS opened its investigation into TikTok in 2019 under mounting bipartisan pressure from lawmakers who saw the app as a back door for Chinese influence. The probe homed in on a 2017 merger between the ByteDance-owned app and another similar U.S. service, Musical.ly, which helped TikTok gain its toehold in America.

From the beginning, Mnuchin appeared to take a prominent role in the inquiry, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive matter. As treasury secretary, Mnuchin had generally been active — more so than his predecessors, some said — in CFIUS investigations and efforts on Capitol Hill to expand the committee’s powers. His engagement reflected Trump’s desire to crack down on Chinese investment in the United States.

The process afforded Mnuchin an intricately detailed view of TikTok and ByteDance. It also gave him access to classified information — including reports prepared by the director of national intelligence — about the app’s potential security threats, the people said.

In recent days, Mnuchin has acknowledged his rare vantage point. There are “certain things that I can’t talk about that I had access to,” he told CNBC this month. “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.”

Emily Kilcrease, a former CFIUS coordinator at the Commerce Department, said she could not comment on the TikTok probe. But Kilcrease, who now serves as director of the energy, economics and security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the secretary serves in the “most critical position” in the federal review and would “absolutely be involved” in such a “really highly sensitive case.”

CFIUS ultimately recommended in 2020 that the U.S. government unwind the TikTok merger, a decision that — in the words of Mnuchin — federal officials had reached “unanimously.” But the finding came as Trump made clear that he planned to force ByteDance to divest the app through an executive order. That process also largely involved Mnuchin, who engaged in talks with potential buyers including Microsoft, Oracle and Walmart.

At one point, Mnuchin forcefully advocated for a sale of TikTok, rather than an outright ban, during a private clash with Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro in front of Trump in the Oval Office. Mnuchin also oversaw the agency’s review of potential alternatives, acknowledging in September 2020 — as Microsoft and Oracle discussed a possible purchase of the company — the ongoing work by “our technical teams and their technical teams.”

But internal wrangling within the White House — and later legal confusion over Trump’s order forcing a sale — frustrated those efforts. Soon after Trump and Mnuchin left office, President Biden scrapped the plan, paving the way for TikTok to forge ahead in a deal with Oracle to warehouse U.S. users’ data domestically. Biden has since said he would sign legislation forcing a sale.

Spokespeople for Oracle and Microsoft declined to comment on their past involvement or whether they have spoken to Mnuchin recently about TikTok. Walmart did not respond to a request.

Under federal law, Mnuchin is subject to some restrictions in his pursuit of the company. He cannot divulge classified information, for example, and he is generally prohibited from trying to influence or communicate with the government over an issue he directly oversaw as treasury secretary. While some of the rules are limited in scope, Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, nonetheless described Mnuchin’s early involvement as “particularly concerning.”

“If it’s not the same,” she said, “it’s substantially the same matter.”

Steven Lipin, a spokesman for Mnuchin, did not answer specific questions about Mnuchin’s role in 2020 but acknowledged he had “participated in the national security review,” including the “consideration of mitigation options in that case.” He added that Mnuchin’s efforts “would be fully consistent with all ethics laws and laws governing classified information,” noting that the CFIUS probe had centered on ByteDance’s purchase of Musical.ly.

An acquisition of TikTok would mark the latest high-profile move for Mnuchin and his private equity firm. In the days before announcing his interest in the video app, the former treasury secretary finalized another major gambit: He helped engineer a $1 billion rescue of New York Community Bank, which had faced the prospect of insolvency as a result of its real estate losses and recent acquisition of the failed Signature Bank.

Dan Ives, a managing director at Wedbush Securities, described the recent deal as a “very front and center transaction that sends a signal that Mnuchin and this group, they’re on the offensive, not defensive,” in seeking to take over TikTok. “I believe it was a smart poker move, Mnuchin announcing that he would get a group together going after TikTok.”

In recent years, Liberty Strategic Capital has invested in numerous technology companies, including Cybereason, which uses artificial intelligence to spot cybersecurity threats, and Satellogic, which provides satellite images to governments and other clients. Those two investments came in tandem with SoftBank, a Japanese conglomerate founded by Masayoshi Son, who has also invested in TikTok.

Last year, a fund established by Mnuchin also acquired a stake in Lionsgate, marking Mnuchin’s latest foray in Hollywood, where he produced films including “The Lego Movie” and “Wonder Woman” before joining the Trump administration.

But Mnuchin’s return to the private sector has often invited controversy: His private equity firm sourced its initial roughly $2.5 billion in capital largely from sovereign wealth funds, including those operated by Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. At the time, Democrats questioned whether Mnuchin had leveraged his connections in government to finance his moves in the private sector.

Kathleen Clark, an ethics expert at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, said Mnuchin once again risks a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one, as he eyes a potential offer for TikTok. To push for the sale as a public servant, then seek to purchase a stake in the private sector, Clark said of his time in government: “It raises the specter of what his motivation was.”

Federica Cocco contributed to this report.



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