TikTok Bid Highlights Oracle’s Public Embrace of Trump

WASHINGTON — In March, when the Trump administration ordered up a study enabling the widespread release of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19, one of the first questions the director of a government research agency that would oversee the trial asked was: “Who has talked with Oracle?”

The Silicon Valley powerhouse had already started to prepare to help with collecting data about the drug, and its founder, Larry Ellison, talked to President Trump about its possible use.

Some tech companies may have shied away from helping to test a drug that many medical experts said had potentially dangerous side effects and might not even work for Covid-19 cases. But Oracle, a business software giant founded in 1977, is a prominent ally of Mr. Trump, whose administration was invested in the drug’s use.

Oracle’s involvement in the planned drug study was its latest effort to aid the president and his administration. The company has also backed the administration’s trade plans and its positions on major tech policy issues, and its executives played roles in Mr. Trump’s transition team in 2016 and have backed his re-election campaign.

Now, as it tries to buy the U.S. operations of TikTok, the viral social media app, its embrace of the administration could be helpful. Mr. Trump ordered the app’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell the product, citing national security concerns, and his administration must bless any deal.

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Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Mr. Trump has declined to say whether the company is a better suitor for the app than Microsoft, another major bidder. But he said last month that Oracle “would be certainly somebody that could handle it.” The negotiations hit a snag in recent days, after the Chinese government issued new rules that seem to make a sale more complicated.

Matt Perault, a former policy executive at Facebook who teaches at Duke University, said that unlike many of the biggest tech companies, Oracle had a business model — selling software and services to businesses and governments — that allowed it to develop a relationship with Mr. Trump without putting its brand at risk.

“Oracle can be close to the president without alienating the customer base,” Mr. Perault said, “and that’s a luxury that a company like Twitter doesn’t have.”

A spokeswoman for Oracle, Deborah Hellinger, declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment.

Oracle has pursued TikTok with some of the app’s American investors, like the private equity firm General Atlantic and the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital. The other bidding group includes Microsoft and Walmart.

There is already a pitched corporate lobbying battle over the possible sale. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, traveled to Washington last month to talk with White House officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill about how the company would assuage concerns if it bought the app. Oracle announced that it was joining the State Department’s Clean Network program, which is aimed at combating China’s influence over global technology.

Oracle spent $8.21 million on federal lobbying and employed 59 lobbyists last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In comparison, Google spent $12.78 million and Microsoft $10.3 million. Oracle’s Washington office is run by Ken Glueck, who in the 1990s was an aide to Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut.

It has used that influence operation to pursue a small number of rivals with grudge-match intensity. For years, it has been locked in a lawsuit with Google over an obscure copyright question. It has not just attacked the company over the case, but has dogged it with antitrust questions and produced technical research on what it says are Google’s abuses of consumer data. Oracle also competed with Amazon for a $10 billion military contract and accused the retailer of trying to rig the process.

Its close ties with the White House, though, are what really make it stand out in Silicon Valley.

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Credit…Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

While many companies were caught off guard by Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016, Oracle had begun to build relationships in his political universe shortly before Election Day, said one person familiar with its approach. The person would speak only on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were private. Safra Catz, Oracle’s chief executive, was the only major tech executive to join the executive committee of the Trump administration’s transition team, the group that prepares policies and plans before a new administration takes office. (Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist and Facebook board member, also served on the committee.) Mr. Glueck also joined the broader transition team.

Oracle’s representatives worked with the incoming administration on issues related to taxes, trade and government contracts, which are a major source of business for the company, said the person familiar with its approach.

The company has also hired people with ties to Mr. Trump. One of its outside lobbyists, David Urban, was a West Point classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Another is Matt Schlapp, whose wife, Mercedes Schlapp, is a senior adviser to Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign and a former White House communications official.

Its relationship with the White House has attracted some concern from inside and outside the company. A whistle-blower at the Labor Department said last month that Eugene Scalia, the secretary of labor, had interfered in a discrimination lawsuit against the company. The department said Mr. Scalia had done nothing untoward, and Oracle said the case was groundless.

When Mr. Ellison, Oracle’s founder and chairman, hosted a fund-raiser for Mr. Trump this year at a home in Southern California, some employees protested the move.

The company has pressed on despite the criticism. Ms. Catz has donated more than $130,000 to support Mr. Trump’s re-election, federal records show. Another Oracle executive, Jeffrey Henley, has donated more than $55,000. Last year, the company gave $500,000 to $999,999 to a group established by Republican operatives to push for Mr. Trump’s North American trade deal.

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

In March, when Rick Bright, the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, asked colleagues about orders to start a study of hydroxychloroquine that his agency would oversee, he said details on the project were “very sketchy, and the directive is to move quickly,” according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

He soon received a reply from Stacy Amin, the top lawyer at the Food and Drug Administration. The president, Ms. Amin said, “is announcing this tonight, and I believe the WH would like it set up by tomorrow with data to flow into the Oracle platform.”

Mr. Bright was ultimately removed from his role in April, which he says was the result of his doubts over hydroxychloroquine. He has filed a formal whistle-blower complaint. The study and the announcement never came to fruition. (Senior administration officials have pushed back on his account, saying his allegations don’t hold up.)

But a little less than a month after his initial exchanges over the plans to bring the drugs to patients, the department announced that Oracle had donated a platform to “gather crowdsourced, real-time information from doctors and other clinicians about how patients are responding to possible therapeutics” used to treat Covid-19.

Alex Azar, the health secretary, praised Oracle in a statement at the time.

“The work Oracle is doing with H.H.S. and the Trump administration to deliver data-driven solutions is another tangible result of the all-of-America approach President Trump has led to combat Covid-19,” he said.