Updated Sep 24, 2020 - Economy

Trump risk rises for companies

Illustration of a briefcase suspended in midair by red ties.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Donald Trump fancies himself a businessman — and has given himself a central role in determining the conduct and even the existence of major companies both domestic and foreign.

Why it matters: America has historically been a great place to operate a company under the rule of law, and not be beholden to political whim. Those days seem to be over — at least for companies in the communications industry.

Driving the news: The TikTok saga isn't over, but what we already know is that the future of this $60 billion company was directly threatened by President Trump and that Trump's unpredictable decision-making has already been key to its continued survival.

  • Trump has barely paid lip service to the idea that he's making his decision on national security grounds. Instead he talks about his friend Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, which is looking to take a 12.5% stake in TikTok, or about a fund that may or may not teach children "the real history of our country."
  • Ellison's private conversations with Trump have been much more important than technical findings about the sanctity of American user data.

The big picture: TikTok is at heart a speech platform, which raises First Amendment issues for anybody seeking to ban it. Those issues are already front and center with respect to Trump's attempted ban of WeChat.

  • Trump attempted to get CNN president Jeff Zucker fired as a precondition for approving AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner, according to new reporting from the NYT's Ben Smith.
  • He has also banned private federal contractors from including discussions of systemic racism in their workplace training.

The bottom line: Companies have learned that if they act in ways that Trump approves of, they will have a much easier time than if they anger him.

  • TikTok users famously reserved thousands of tickets to a Trump rally and then didn't show up, embarrassing the president; CNN, similarly, has taken an anti-Trump stance. That put both companies in the presidential cross-hairs.
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