A federal judge in Pennsylvania has blocked the Trump administration from outlawing U.S. transactions with TikTok, which was set to take effect Nov. 12, the latest setback in the administration’s push to ban the Chinese-owned hit video app.
Another aspect of the same order that sought to ban new downloads of the app had already been halted by a judge in Washington, D.C., but Friday’s order puts Trump’s entire Aug. 6 executive order aimed at TikTok on hold until the legal battles conclude.
U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone ruled that President Trump exceeded his authority by invoking his emergency economic powers to impose sanctions against TikTok, citing a threat to U.S. security.
“The Government’s own descriptions of the national security threat posed by the TikTok app are phrased in the hypothetical,” Beetlestone wrote.
“The Court cannot say the risk presented by the Government outweighs the public interest in enjoining” the executive order for having gone beyond the bounds of what the president has the power to do under his emergency economic powers, Beetlestone said.
The threat to TikTok’s existence in the U.S. has not vanished, however.
A separate order signed by Trump forcing TikTok to fully divest from its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance is scheduled to take effect on Nov. 12.
Talks between TikTok and a potential U.S. buyer are ongoing, and the company is hopeful a deal will emerge before the deadline next month.
The divestment was the recommendation of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The committee’s probe of TikTok had been underway months before Trump launched a public war against the app.
Legal experts say disputing the divestment order in court would be an uphill battle for TikTok, since the committee’s recommendations tend to survive legal challenges.
But an earlier executive order targeting TikTok had drawn legal skeptics from the moment it was signed by the president and it has suffered several defeats in federal court.
The judge’s order on Friday was the result of a lawsuit brought by three TikTok influencers, Cosette Rinab, Douglas Marland and Alec Chambers, who have millions of followers on the app and make substantial money through short-form videos. Rinab, according to the lawsuit, makes up to $10,000 per video.
“We are deeply moved by the outpouring of support from our creators, who have worked to protect their rights to expression, their careers, and to helping small businesses, particularly during the pandemic,” said a TikTok spokesperson in a statement. “We stand behind our community as they share their voices, and we are committed to continuing to provide a home for them to do so.”
Trump had indicated that software company Oracle, teaming up with Walmart, had proposed to take an ownership stake in TikTok that would satisfy the White House’s national security concerns, but the deal was never finalized and remains stalled.
Any agreement would require the blessing of both Washington and Beijing, which has grown increasingly hostile to the prospect of a U.S. company taking over the country’s first app to come out of China to gain a global foothold.
Trump administration officials fear TikTok’s parent company ByteDance can access U.S. user data, which could be shared by the Chinese Communist Party, which tends to have unfettered access to private companies in China. That said, White House officials have never offered evidence to conclusively demonstrate that Chinese authorities would seek to obtain TikTok user data.
Lawyers for TikTok have maintained that TikTok is caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s trade war with China and that the president is using the popular app to score political points in an election year.
Since pressure has mounting on TikTok, the app says it has taken additional measures to ensure that Americans’ data is walled off from ByteDance employees in Beijing.
TikTok even asserted in one legal filing that some user data is stored on servers located in a locked cage in a facility in Northern Virginia accessible only to personnel who are granted a one-time badge to enter.