Navarro pushed back, demanding an outright ban of TikTok, while accusing Mnuchin of being soft on China, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions freely. The treasury secretary appeared taken aback, they said.
The ensuing argument — which was described by one of the people as a “knockdown, drag-out” brawl — was preceded by months of backroom dealings among investors, lobbyists and executives. Many of these stakeholders long understood the critical nature of establishing close connections with key figures in the Trump administration.
But over the past few weeks, they also were reminded of the unpredictable and precarious nature of business dealings under a Trump-led government — and how the winner of a heated debate in front of the president could help decide the fate of a multibillion-dollar deal that may reshape the technology business landscape for years to come.
Over the past two weeks, TikTok’s future has been publicly tossed about, first as it appeared the president would agree to a sale, then that he would ban it outright, then that he would allow a sale again — but only if a fee were paid to the U.S. Treasury.
Behind the scenes, an enormous amount of scrambling has happened in response to each twist and turn. And an executive order signed by the president Thursday night while on Air Force One — which would essentially shutter the U.S. operation of TikTok in 45 days unless it was sold — has sown more confusion about the future of one of the fastest-growing social media start-ups in the world. Few on the East or West coasts knew the order was coming.
The chaotic approach dates back to Trump’s days as a business executive, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a nonprofit, conservative issue advocacy group.
“It’s only effective in the moment, and it wears off in the long term,” said the former director of the Congressional Budget Office and former economic policy adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign. “It’s hard for the business community to figure out the direction of our policies.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement that the administration “is committed to protecting the American people from all cyber related threats to critical infrastructure, public health and safety, and our economic and national security.”
Treasury Department spokeswoman Monica Crowley said in a statement that the department does not comment on the specifics of meetings with the president, although she confirmed that the secretary did participate in a meeting with the president to update him on national security recommendations.
“One of the great strengths of the Trump administration is the president’s reliance on strong, often opposing views, to reach decisions which are invariably in the best interests of the American people,” Navarro said in a statement. “Because this is true, it is critical for a strong America that ‘what happens in the Oval Office, should stay in the Oval Office’ so I have no comment on what is clearly a malicious leak riddled with hyperbole and misinformation.”
A tech finance giant shudders
TikTok is considered one of the biggest technological success stories to come out of China. People around the world use the app to make short videos about their lives, pets and dance moves. Parent company ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming calls it a “window” into the world.
TikTok has 100 million U.S. users, many of whom are under 25 years old. Its success has drawn interest from prominent investors, including Sequoia Capital, a leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm. In 2014, its China arm made a prescient $35 million investment in TikTok’s parent company, giving it a stake that today is reportedly valued at more than $800 million. TikTok’s owner also acquired Musical.ly in 2017 for $1 billion, making it even more attractive to young users.
But with that success came scrutiny. TikTok was first identified as a potential national security threat in summer 2019, when U.S. officials approached ByteDance about concerns regarding its acquisition.
That turned into a formal national security investigation this year. It was led by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency body that screens foreign investment transactions for national security risks and recommends to the president on security grounds whether certain proposed acquisitions should be rejected or completed acquisitions reversed.
In TikTok’s case, the app has been downloaded more than 175 million times in the United States and, like other apps, accesses copious amounts of sensitive personal data, including Internet and browsing activity, location data and search histories. That information is potentially available to the Chinese government under a national intelligence law that requires any Chinese company to “support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work.”
The news of the investigation sent shudders through the halls of Sequoia Capital. Global managing partner Doug Leone took the lead on advocating for TikTok with the Trump administration, telling people he could use his influence with Trump to help the company, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation. Leone and his wife have given $100,000 to Trump’s reelection bid, and Leone sits on the president’s task force for reopening the economy, according to public records.
Leone also cultivated his relationship with Mnuchin and the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, the person said. Sequoia is a co-investor in a health-care company with Kushner’s brother Josh.
Sequoia spokesperson Natalie Miyake said in a statement it remains supportive of TikTok and the service it provides for millions of people, and looks forward to the company reaching “a win-win solution for all parties” involved that is acceptable to the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, TikTok hired roughly a dozen lobbyists this year, one of whom ran Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania and has been described by the president as a good friend, according to a person familiar with the company who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss company matters. The lobbyist was a U.S. Military Academy classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is also seen as a China hawk.
Publicly, TikTok started a campaign to convince the U.S. government that it was not a threat. The company has said that its app is mostly used for entertainment and that the app’s software code does not contain a back door that could be used for government surveillance. It began issuing transparency reports showing law enforcement requests for data and published the company’s source code. In May, Zhang hired Disney streaming chief Kevin Mayer as TikTok’s new CEO.
Zhang also began trying to decouple the company’s technology from China, and has pointed out that all the data on U.S. TikTok users is stored in the United States and backed up in Singapore. He has worked to separate TikTok’s software code and algorithms from the larger ByteDance conglomerate, which owns several apps in China.
Throughout this year, Zhang and his investors were confident that the concerns of the U.S. federal government could be resolved without ByteDance having to spin off TikTok. But things changed quickly after India outright banned the app at the end of June. At that point, the company and investors started hearing a different message from the White House, and it seemed increasingly possible that the anti-China members of the administration would prevail in breaking up the company.
Throughout July, investors and TikTok’s lobbyists, working privately with the administration, scrambled to come up with other plans, and numerous ideas were floated in what one person familiar with the discussions called an “iterative process.”
One plan involved bringing in a third-party U.S. company with knowledge of technology as a contractor to assure the security of TikTok. In another plan, investors proposed spinning off TikTok from ByteDance, with the investors buying a large share of the new independent company but allowing Zhang to maintain control through a minority stake. That plan involved bringing in another technology company as an investor to ensure security, the people said.
Zhang at one point considered relocating ByteDance’s headquarters to London, and moving there personally, to showcase ByteDance as a global company that was not controlled by Beijing, according to another person.
But this summer, as it became increasingly possible that administration hard-liners could prevail in breaking up the company, Zhang grew disappointed with how the process was playing out and approached Microsoft about a sale, according to the people. Zhang had previously worked at Microsoft’s offices in China in 2008 for six months, and maintained an admiration for the company. Earlier this year, he hired 24-year Microsoft veteran Erich Andersen to be ByteDance’s general counsel.
Other tech giants that have the financial wherewithal to buy the company have regulatory challenges that could make an acquisition more complex. The chief executives of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple all appeared last week before a House subcommittee investigating tech giants’ abuse of their power.
That gives Microsoft significant leverage. TikTok could help the 45-year-old software giant expand into social media, as well as bolster its ambitions to develop artificial intelligence systems, but the company has thrived financially in recent years on the strength of its business selling cloud computing services. That strengthens its hand as it negotiates to acquire TikTok.
Feeling increasingly boxed in, Zhang offered to sell to Microsoft.
A ‘vicious’ Oval Office fight
As the election approaches, Trump has increasingly lashed out at China, blaming it for the novel coronavirus and national security issues. Over the past few months, he has deployed a rarely used order to require the divestment of acquisitions by Chinese firms, as well as issuing executive orders to limit business dealings.
“I think Trump’s instincts are to be aggressive toward China,” said one former U.S. official. “Navarro’s like the devil on his shoulder, saying, ‘Do it, do it.’ Mnuchin is more like a governor, trying to slow everything down — ‘What about Wall Street? What about Phase 2 [of the trade deal]?’”
During the Oval Office meeting, the debate turned into a “vicious” fight, with Trump looking on, one of the people said. They noted that the two advisers have a contentious history: They got into an expletive-filled shouting match during a May 2018 trip to Beijing.
As of last week, the CFIUS agencies were unanimous that TikTok needed an American partner, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal negotiations. TikTok lawyers were working with the administration team on an orderly transition, according to the person. “The expectation at Microsoft and at TikTok was the president was going to sign off on what CFIUS said, and off we go,” the person said. “Instead, it’s just been this roller coaster.”
As Trump went to board the helicopter before flying to Tampa just over a week ago on July 31, he sounded unsure of his plans. “We may be banning TikTok,” Trump told reporters before leaving for Florida. “We may be doing some other things. There are a couple of options. But a lot of things are happening, so we’ll see what happens. But we are looking at a lot of alternatives with respect to TikTok.”
Later that evening, as he flew back aboard Air Force One to Washington, he told reporters he had made a decision to ban it, and that he was not in favor of a deal. By Sunday, Microsoft announced it had persuaded the president and would continue talks with a deadline of Sept. 15.
On Monday, Trump reiterated while speaking to reporters at the White House that he wants TikTok to be forced to cease operations in the United States by around Sept. 15 if it is not sold to Microsoft or another U.S.-based company. If that sale goes through, the president said, part of the proceeds should be paid to U.S. taxpayers as compensation for operating in America.
“A very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the treasury of the United States,” Trump said of the potential TikTok sale. “The United States should be reimbursed or paid because without the United States they don’t have anything.”
Tax experts say there is no legal way to take “a substantial portion” for the treasury. But the vague threat allowed him to appear to be imposing a punitive measure on China and TikTok — which some of his aides have pushed for fervently — without taking action so dramatic that it would cause a dangerous escalation.
Lawyers familiar with CFIUS reviews said the treasury does typically collect money during the process, because companies are required to pay modest fees to cover the cost of the review. The fees are based on the size of the proposed transaction and cannot exceed $300,000.
After Trump changed his mind to support a sale to Microsoft, Navarro on Monday accused the tech giant in a CNN interview of being too close to China, citing its prior cooperation with the government and the use of Bing and Skype in the country. He suggested Microsoft could divest its Chinese holdings.
“The question is, is Microsoft going to be compromised?” he asked.
With the clock ticking, analysts expect the purchase price to run into the tens of billions of dollars, a price tag only a handful of companies can afford. Microsoft had $136.5 billion in cash and easy-to-access funds at the end of June.
But those involved in a potential deal were thrown off balance again late Thursday, left in the dark about the president’s plans.
While flying on Air Force One, Trump issued two executive orders effectively banning U.S. transactions for TikTok parent ByteDance, citing national security concerns. An acquisition by Microsoft of TikTok during that period would still be allowed.
“We are shocked by the recent Executive Order, which was issued without any due process,” the company said. “For nearly a year, we have sought to engage with the U.S. government in good faith to provide a constructive solution to the concerns that have been expressed. What we encountered instead was that the administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.”
PS5 vs Xbox Series X: How do they compare?
If we had a console war klaxon, now would be the time to sound it!
Sony has just revealed more details about the PS5, so how does it compare to the XBox Series X which will also be released in November?
Take a look below to see how these monster machines match up, as they battle it out for Christmas 2020 supremacy.
Price and release date
Sony has now revealed that the PS5 will match the Xbox Series X in price, costing £449.99.
However the new console will come out nine days later than its competitor in the UK, releasing on 19 November.
Microsoft’s new Xbox will be out on 10 November, but will that head start give it the edge over the PS5?
You wait for two next-gen consoles and then four come along at once… Both Microsoft and Sony have announced cheaper alternatives to their main consoles.
The new Xbox Series S is the cheapest of the new next-gen consoles at £249.
A slimmed down version of the PS5, which doesn’t include a disc drive, will cost £359 at launch.
While that might encourage people to go for the cheaper Xbox Series S, some gamers have pointed out that that machine is limited to 1440p gaming. That means it won’t look as good on screen as it can’t run in 4K resolution.
The slim digital edition of the PS5 has the same specs as the more expensive console, just without a disc drive.
More and more gamers are opting for digital downloads rather than physical discs to insert into consoles, so this could prove to be a positive move made by Sony in the console war.
So, back to the main machines, which one is more powerful?
“The two higher-spec consoles are close to each other in terms of specification – the Xbox has more storage,” said Nicky Danino, a gaming expert at the University of Central Lancashire.
“But there are still reasons why people will pick a specific console. What platform your friends play on, for example, is highly influential.”
So as we compare the power in each machine, something that will be a relief to most gamers is that the days of waiting for long, lengthy loading screens are finally over!
Inside the shell of both consoles is something called a Solid State Drive or SSD for short. That bit of hardware means that the PS5 and Xbox Series X will be able to read data quicker and more efficiently, meaning bigger open worlds and near-instant load times.
For example the SSD on the PS5 means it will be around 100 times quicker than the PS4!
Both consoles also feature ray tracing. This means that light can be recreated realistically for the first time in video games by simulating each ray individually, allowing for the most lifelike lighting, shadows and reflections yet.
Ray tracing has been added into lots of games recently (like Minecraft and Fortnite) and makes games look even more epic.
Both consoles support up to 8K resolution and 120 frames per second (fps). The current standard for games consoles is 30fps, meaning both consoles will have smooth gameplay unlike any seen before.
Technically the Xbox is slightly more powerful; the new console will run on 12 teraflops. Teraflops are how speed is measured in gaming.
For comparison The Xbox One X currently runs at six teraflops and the new PS5 will run on 10 teraflops – so basically the new Xbox Series X is going to be faster.
Space for game saves and downloads
The Xbox Series X also packs more onboard storage than any PS5 model, with 1TB of space to save game data, which is pretty roomy.
The PS5 has 825GB, so for gamers on the digital only version, that storage space could fill up pretty quickly.
How do the controllers compare?
The new Xbox controller will look a little like the old ones but with some differences; it will be slimmer, wireless and have a new ‘share’ button.
The bumpers will be more rounded for comfort, and have raised dots on the back for extra grip.
You’ll be able to use it with an Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs.
Sony revealed their new PS5 controller design on their blog in April.
Called DualSense the controller has lots of new features like ‘adaptive triggers’, a create button, and an in-built microphone.
The controller will do more than just vibrate as things happen on screen and is more immersive than previous models.
Players will have different sensations as their in-game character struggles to walk through sand or heavy winds for example.
However it has caused a bit of debate online over its appearance, with some people loving the new design, and others saying it’s a bit ‘ugly’.
The old PS4 DualShock controller can be used with the new console, but it might not work as well with newer games.
What comes with the consoles?
Inside the PS5’s box, you’ll get the console, power cable, and a DualSense controller.
Both versions of PS5 are also bundled with Astro’s Playroom, a 3D platformer game designed to show off some of the interactive features of the DualSense controller.
Inside the Xbox’s box, you’ll get the black Series X console, power cable, an HDMI cable, and one black wireless controller.
In terms of games, the Playstation 5 has some big exclusives coming out at launch including Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
Meanwhile, the Xbox Series X’s launch line-up relies mostly on third-party games, which will also be available on PS5.
As for online subscription the PS5 is releasing an upgrade to the Playstation Plus service, called ‘PlayStation Plus Collection’. It basically includes several big-name PS4 games to download, for example Ratchet and Clank, at no extra cost.
Similarly, the Xbox Series X will have the subscription service Xbox All Access which will provide access to hundreds of games from different generations of Xbox.
The company also announced it would include EA’s Play library with the “ultimate” version of its Xbox Games Pass along with Xcloud, a streaming service a bit like Google Stadia, which they say will enable gamers to stream the newest games online.
“It is possible that PS5 will have launched three console-exclusive titles before Xbox Series X manages to launch its first,” said Louise Shorthouse, a games analyst at Omdia.
“Consumers also tend to stick with the same console brands across generations, so Sony is in an incredibly strong position,” she added.
BBC Click’s Marc Cieslak said: “But is the PS5 fighting the last generation’s console war?
“Xbox has a compelling offer with its Game Pass Ultimate subscription service. So even if Xbox doesn’t sell as many physical consoles as PlayStation, it may still prove to be at least as profitable.”
Can old games be played on the new consoles?
Both consoles will have something called ‘backwards compatibility’ which means that a new console is able to play game discs from older consoles.
The Xbox Series X will be able to play games from their previous two consoles, the Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
Playstation fans will only be able to play games from the PS4 console onwards on the standard version of PS5.
What do they look like?
The Playstation 5 is really, really massive. In fact it could be the biggest games console ever made.
It’s over 15 inches tall and more than four inches wide. If you are worried about having enough desk space, it can be placed either sitting up or lying flat.
However the PS5 has received some criticism for the way it looks online, with some people saying it looks a bit like a wi-fi router.
The Xbox is wider, but considerably shorter at about 5.9 inches wide and 11.8 inches tall.
The Xbox Series S is tiny in comparison standing at 10.8 inches tall, but only 2.5 inches wide.
Sony was the clear leader in the previous generation of the so-called console wars.
The PS4 outsold the Xbox One, selling 111 million consoles to Xbox’s 51 million, but what about predictions for the new machines?
“On paper the Xbox Series X is the more powerful, but PlayStation has a solid line-up of platform-exclusive titles,” said Marc Cieslak from BBC Click.
VCs have to train themselves to ‘ask the stupid questions’, says Hoxton Ventures’ Hussein Kanji
If venture capitalists could predict the future, why wouldn’t they just start companies themselves? That’s the question Hussein Kanji, founding partner at Hoxton Ventures, asked rhetorically at Disrupt 2020.
“If anyone says that they have predictive power in this industry and says they know where the future is gonna be, I just question the wisdom of this,” he said during a session exploring how VCs seek out new markets before they even exist. “Because if you could figure it out, you could come up with the idea, you’re capable enough to be able to put all the pieces together, why would you not found the business?”
Instead, the key to betting on the future is to learn to ask the stupid questions. “I think it’s actually perfectly fine in the venture industry to not be the smart person and to kind of train yourself to be stupid and ask the stupid questions,” said Kanji. “I think a lot of people are probably too shy to do that. And a lot of people [are] probably too risk averse to then write the check when they don’t really understand exactly what it is that they’re investing into. But a lot of this stuff is a lightbulb moment”.
One of those lightbulb moments was Hoxton Ventures’ investment in Deliveroo, the takeout food delivery service that competes with UberEats and helped turn almost every restaurant into a food delivery service. However, Kanji reminded us that the European unicorn wasn’t the first company to try takeout delivery, but new technology, in the form of cheap smartphones coupled with GPS and routing algorithms, meant the timing was now right.
“People did try delivery,” he said, “they tried it back in the 90s. Everyone forgets about that. There’s a company in New York City called Cosmo that would go off and like get you a pint of ice cream on demand. You know, it never worked because they used pagers. Like, do you remember pagers? Like, that’s how they ran the fleet. They couldn’t move the fleet around. They couldn’t get the driver to the apartment and the driver to the store in any kind of efficient way… The breakthrough for delivery, and for that whole industry, was you had smartphones, you could give smartphones to the drivers, you could track what the driver was doing, which is good because then you could route logistics, you know, with a smartphone… light bulb moment”.
Kanji said that, although they are very different businesses and markets, Hoxton’s two other unicorns, Babylon and Darktrace, involved similar lightbulb moments. Yet you don’t get that light bulb moment until someone walks in the door and explains it to you. “Then your natural question is… why now… what’s actually changed? Like, what makes this so interesting? Why didn’t someone come up with this a year ago? There’s almost always usually a reason for that kind of stuff. And then then the harder part of the job is … are you really picking number one?”
Entering or helping to create new markets is often not without controversy — which both Babylon and Deliveroo has attracted for different reasons. As real disruption inevitably creates societal consequences, it often raises ethical questions that, the Hoxton co-founder argues, aren’t always possible to anticipate early on. However, as the picture becomes clearer, he says VCs should absolutely care, along with, of course, founders and CEOs.
“One of the constant criticisms in the tech industry is, I think the maturity of our industry… we behave more like teenagers. And it’s great to be libertarian, it’s great to be free markets and say markets are gonna sort it out. But you’re gonna have touch points with a lot of other places in society. You’ve got to figure out, and I think, get ahead in terms of…what the impact is going to be, and be more responsible”.
TikTok and Oracle deal could be approved by Trump despite resistance from Republicans
The deal would require extensive outside oversight of TikTok in the United States, including a plan for the company to go public within the next year or so to increase transparency into its operations, one of the individuals said.
Mnuchin called senior Defense Department officials Wednesday and briefed them on the deal but told them it was going to get done regardless, according to some of the people familiar with the talks.
His message was, “Give me your concerns and I will try to address them, but we are doing this,” said one former U.S. official briefed on the call who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Oracle chief executive Safra Catz has developed a close relationship with the White House, including serving on Trump’s transition team as he took office. Nonetheless, Trump met with Oracle on Wednesday and expressed concerns with the deal, a senior administration official said.
Trump told reporters Wednesday that he would not be happy if ByteDance maintained its majority stake in the business.
“Conceptually, I can tell you I don’t like that,” Trump said. “If that’s the case, I’m not going to be happy with that.”
Mnuchin will have to overcome Trump’s reluctance. “I don’t think anybody has the ability to push something through if the president is opposed to it,” said a senior administration official.
TikTok confirmed this week that it has chosen Oracle as its “trusted technology partner” after two months of confusion and harried dealmaking, as Trump moved to ban the short-form video app in the country, citing national security concerns. Suitors including Microsoft, Walmart and Oracle were interested bidders, but as government requirements conflicted in Washington and Beijing, TikTok eventually presented a deal that marked a significant step back from a full sale.
Instead, the proposed deal would make TikTok’s U.S. user data entrusted “exclusively” to Oracle and give Oracle oversight over all TikTok’s technical operations in the country, according to the person familiar with the talks. The entire deal is designed to quell officials’ fears that TikTok poses a national security threat because of its Chinese parent company. TikTok has said repeatedly it does not share U.S. customer information with the Chinese government.
U.S. officials say, however, Chinese laws require Chinese companies to share data with the government if directed and give the companies no discretion to refuse.
The Treasury Department sent the proposal back to the companies Wednesday with revisions on how the security structure would work, and ByteDance accepted the changes, one of the people said.
Under the proposed deal, the U.S. government would be able to approve the board members of the new TikTok entity, which would probably include Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon. Walmart would invest in the company, one of the people said.
TikTok would also prepare for a U.S. public offering in the next year. And it would allow a third-party organization to conduct audits and oversight of its operations.
Oracle, Walmart and TikTok did not comment beyond previous public statements earlier this week.
The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell had no comment.
TikTok’s saga with the U.S. government heated up this summer when Trump threatened to ban the app and eventually issued an order that takes effect Sunday, though the government hasn’t said exactly what that ban would look like. The Commerce Department will issue an order Friday spelling out what transactions will be subject to the ban.
“We are focused on the corporate level transactions, the business-to-business relationships,” the senior administration official said. “We’re not interested in going after the college kid in his dorm room taking videos. If people have TikTok on their phones, they’re not going to find themselves before a judge.”
Trump issued a second order that would require ByteDance to essentially divest from TikTok in the U.S. under a process by the Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency organization that oversees mergers with foreign companies for national security risks.
Longtime CFIUS staff are upset about how the deal is being handled and have expressed concerns that what is supposed to be a walled-off national security process is being increasingly politicized, according to a former CFIUS official.
By law, the Treasury Department “is the chair of CFIUS and therefore the ‘first among equals,’” said another former official, “but it does not grant them authority to blatantly steamroll other CFIUS member agencies and ignore legitimate national security concerns. Unfortunately, the system has drifted off course.”
The companies and government have been working to finish the deal before the ban is set to take place in just a few days. Mnuchin previously said on CNBC that the deal would also require TikTok to establish a U.S. headquarters for the newly created company and hire an additional 20,000 people here. Currently, TikTok runs its U.S. operations from Culver City, Calif.
Oracle was a somewhat surprising choice to win the TikTok deal after weeks of speculation that Microsoft was the front-runner in the bidding process.
Oracle, which provides database and other services to large companies, does not have a consumer business. But its executives have close ties to Trump, and TikTok is probably an attractive target to boost Oracle’s cloud technology business, which has failed to break into the top of the pack.
TikTok could also bolster Oracle’s data brokerage business, which collects detailed information on consumers to sell to advertisers. TikTok has a growing U.S. base of about 100 million users quarterly.
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