First, Donald Trump said that “as far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States.” Then, after aides and allies urged him to soften his position, he stepped back to allow Microsoft an opportunity to buy the platform from Chinese-owned ByteDance. Now, he’s says he’s fully behind such a deal—as long as his government gets a cut, of course. You know, just a little something for the trouble. “A very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States,” the president said Monday, “because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen.”
“Right now, they don’t have any rights, unless we give it to them,” he continued, likening such a payment to the “key money” a landlord might pay a tenant. “The United States should be reimbursed or paid a substantial amount of money, because without the United States they don’t have anything.”
The notion of the president asking for a slice of a private deal, even one the U.S. signs off on, is not just unusual—it’s also, of course, unethical and quite possibly illegal. “That’s not how it works, Mr. President,” James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told MarketWatch. “Of course we aren’t going to get a cut on the deal. It’s just not how it works. The government doesn’t get cuts from a deal.”
And yet, this is hardly out of character for Trump, who has shown tendencies both to micromanage American businesses from the Oval Office and to take a mob boss approach to the presidency. He has repeatedly used his bully pulpit to weigh in on corporate affairs and taken an aggressive approach to trade, animated by the same heavy-handed whims that informed his own approach to business. His TikTok approach is “just another example of the president’s undisciplined and impulsive decision-making style, so bewildering to friend and foe alike,” Daniel Price, a former economics adviser to George W. Bush, told the New York Times. It is also an example of his transactional approach to his dealings with foreign leaders—and even domestic state and local leaders—that feels more mafia-like than business-like, akin to the oil he wanted to keep as a souvenir for America’s Middle East adventures or the medical supplies during the coronavirus crisis he’s seemed to disperse to states based on how willing their governors were to kiss his ring. For Trump, all of it tends to boil down to a belief that, whether it’s humanitarian aid to allies or medical help for citizens in his own country, he or his government should be getting something in return.
This approach has gotten him into trouble before. Perhaps you remember him seeking a personal political kickback from Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for military aid to Ukraine and getting impeached over the matter? But it will continue to define his approach to the presidency because it has defined his approach to everything in his life, and he is incapable of ever changing. Some tried to pass off his proposal to siphon a little money off the top of the potential Microsoft-TikTok deal as some of his much ballyhooed deal-making acumen. “Trump often tries to prove how strong he is by taking novel and extreme positions,” Republican strategist Alex Conant told the Wall Street Journal. “A lot of people in Washington may roll their eyes at Trump’s off-the-wall proposals, but we shouldn’t underestimate their simplistic appeal to many voters.” But where more Trump-friendly voices saw political gamesmanship, others saw a president acting like a medieval king presiding over a salt monopoly. “If you wanted to mine some salt,” Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for Industrial Economics, told the Journal, “you put money into the royal treasury.”
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