TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer Resigns Amid Trump Administration's Growing Pressure On App

Aug 27, 2020
Originally published on August 27, 2020 10:32 am

TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer is stepping down three months after taking the job at the hugely popular short-form video app.

Mayer's surprise resignation comes as the Trump administration escalates its campaign to force TikTok to cut ties with its Chinese ownership.

In a message sent on Wednesday to staff at TikTok, Mayer said as the political environment has "sharply changed," he has reflected on what kind of corporate restructuring may be coming for the company, concluding that it was best for him to depart.

"I want to be clear that this decision has nothing to do with the company, what I see for our future, or the belief I have in what we are building," Mayer wrote in his message, which TikTok shared with NPR.

"I understand that the role that I signed up for — including running TikTok globally — will look very different as a result of the US Administration's action to push for a sell off of the US business," Mayer said.

Executive Vanessa Pappas will serve as the interim head for TikTok's global operations.

In May, Mayer left as a top executive at Disney to take on the chief executive role at TikTok. His hiring was among a number of moves the company made to convince Washington that TikTok's U.S. operations were walled off from its parent company, ByteDance, which is based in Beijing.

At the time, Pappas told NPR that Mayer "brings the right level of global expertise to guide our expansion efforts."

Now, it will be Pappas who heads TikTok as it navigates political and legal turmoil that poses an existential threat to the app that has been downloaded more than 100 million times by Americans.

President Trump has signed two executive orders aimed at TikTok.

One, signed on Aug. 6, outlaws business transactions between U.S. citizens and ByteDance, a move that the Trump administration says arose out of concern for national security. The order would effectively ban TikTok in the U.S and takes effect 45 days after it's signed, barring court intervention.

TikTok has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the order. The suit challenges the constitutionality of Trump's order, claiming Trump's action exceeded his authority and deprived the company of due process.

Beijing has sharply criticized the U.S. for blocking transactions with ByteDance, a decision it has repeatedly characterized as discriminatory.

"China supports relevant companies in taking up legal weapons to safeguard their legitimate rights and interests, and will continue to take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies," Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said earlier this week.

But Beijing has shied away from offering ByteDance the kind of full-throated defense it mounted after the Trump administration sanctioned another Chinese company last year — telecom giant Huawei, which China sees as integral to its technological ambitions.

In a second executive order Trump signed on Aug. 14, TikTok was ordered to sell off all of its U.S. assets to an American-based company within 90 days.

TikTok has 1,500 U.S.-based employees with plans of hiring an additional 10,000 over the next three years.

In his letter, Mayer said a resolution of the company's status will be announced "very soon," saying the future of the company is "incredibly bright."

He said any structural changes underway for TikTok should not significantly affect TikTok employees or users.

While the Trump administration has targeted TikTok because of its ties to China, the company has long maintained that its American app is run independently and that U.S. users' data is stored outside of China, in Virginia, with backup storage in Singapore.

A class-action lawsuit filed against TikTok has alleged that the app steals data from U.S. minors, including their facial characteristics, and quietly sends the information to servers "under the control of third parties who cooperate with the Chinese government."

But there is no solid proof that TikTok has ever shared data on Americans with the Chinese Communist Party.

The app does collect data on users, including location, video viewing history and phone contacts. The amount of data harvested is not out of step with what is collected by apps owned by major American technology companies, such as Google, Apple and Facebook, yet TikTok's parent company being based in China has set off alarms in the White House and among some Democrats in Washington.

In a statement, TikTok said: "We appreciate that the political dynamics of the last few months have significantly changed what the scope of Kevin's role would be going forward, and fully respect his decision. We thank him for his time at the company and wish him well."

NPR's Emily Feng contributed reporting from Beijing.

Editor's note: TikTok helps fund NPR-produced videos from Planet Money that appear on the social media platform.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The CEO of TikTok has resigned. Kevin Mayer led the company for just three months. During that time, the Trump administration had put a lot of pressure on the video-sharing app to cut ties with its owner in China. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: President Trump has issued two executive orders aimed at banning TikTok or forcing the app to be purchased by an American company. And talks are ongoing. Companies including Microsoft and software maker Oracle are discussing a possible acquisition. But now, TikTok's chief executive, Kevin Mayer, says he is quitting.

In a letter to employees reviewed by NPR, Mayer said, quote, "the political environment has sharply changed." He says he's thought about what the next phase of TikTok is going to look like, and it's not going to include him. He didn't say why beyond citing upcoming structural changes to the company. Back in May, TikTok's U.S. general manager, Vanessa Pappas, told NPR what she thought Mayer would bring to TikTok after his time as the top streaming executive at Disney.

VANESSA PAPPAS: Personally, I'm very excited to see Kevin Mayer join. I think he brings the right level of global expertise to really guide our expansion efforts.

ALLYN: Now Pappas herself will take the reins from Mayor. And it's during a moment the company itself describes as an existential crisis. The Trump administration and TikTok are now locked in a legal battle over whether the White House can outright ban the app in the U.S. over unproven fears that Chinese authorities can access Americans' data. And Trump signed another order directing TikTok to sell off its U.S. assets to an American company citing unspecified national security concerns. In May, Pappas said the fears about its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party are unfounded.

PAPPAS: From our U.S. operations, we manage, and I personally oversee, all of our content moderation and operations. And from a data perspective, we don't store any of our user data in China. We store it in the U.S. and Singapore.

ALLYN: In his letter, Mayer says TikTok employees and users should not be significantly affected by any structural reorganization. And he suggested ownership issues will be resolved soon. Meanwhile, the millions of American teens making dance challenge and comedic skit videos do not seem to be paying much attention.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.