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Judge blocks TikTok ban in second ruling against Trump’s efforts to curb popular Chinese services

The ruling comes hours before TikTok was to be removed from mobile app stores

A federal judge has blocked Trump's order barring TikTok from app stores. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

TikTok received a reprieve of its ban from U.S. app stores on Sunday after a federal judge in Washington granted a preliminary injunction blocking an order from President Trump.

It was the second setback for the Trump administration in its effort to curb U.S. residents’ access to popular Chinese mobile apps. Last weekend, a federal magistrate in San Francisco cited First Amendment issues in blocking a proposed ban of the WeChat app.

U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols, who was appointed to the bench by Trump in 2019, was not expected to make public his full ruling until Monday. He filed his decision publicly, but his full reasoning was filed separately as a sealed document.

Nichols granted the injunction for the piece of the ban that was set to go into effect Sunday night, but denied a motion to halt a second aspect of the ban that doesn’t go into effect until Nov. 12.

During a rare Sunday hearing, he questioned whether TikTok had been given enough opportunity to defend itself before Trump issued an executive order last month barring the app from online stores.

It seemed, the judge said, that “this was a largely a unilateral decision with very little opportunity for plaintiffs to be heard.”

Trump had cited national security concerns Aug. 6 when he issued an executive order barring both the short form video app TikTok and the multipurpose WeChat app from app stores effective Sept. 20. The Commerce Department delayed the TikTok ban by a week after Trump seemed to give his blessing to a tentative deal that would pass TikTok’s ownership to a proposed U.S.-based entity that would include partnerships with Oracle and Walmart.

The Commerce Department said in a statement late Sunday that it would comply with the judge’s decision but that the executive order is “fully consistent with the law and promotes legitimate national security interests.” It said it would “vigorously defend” it from legal challenges.

TikTok filed for the preliminary injunction Wednesday, saying Trump’s order was a “pretext for furthering the President’s broader campaign of anti-China rhetoric in the run-up to the U.S. election.”

TikTok, Oracle deal still shrouded in uncertainty as companies tussle over ownership

TikTok has been embroiled in a push-and-pull saga with Trump for the past two months as it races to make a deal that will allow it to keep operating in the country. It has proposed an arrangement that would create a new entity, called TikTok Global, that would include investments from Oracle and Walmart. It would also give Oracle control of TikTok’s technical operations in the United States in an attempt to quell concerns that it could be providing information to the Chinese government through its parent company, ByteDance.

That deal remains uncertain, however; Oracle, ByteDance and Trump disagree on the ownership structure of the new company. ByteDance has said it would still own a majority of the company, whereas Oracle said the Chinese company would own none.

Trump says he has given his ‘blessing’ to TikTok deal but that final terms are still being negotiated

TikTok chose Oracle as its "technology partner" in the U.S. on Sept. 13. While Trump has given his blessings to the deal, he may still ban it starting Nov. 12. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bloomberg/The Washington Post)

TikTok spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said in a statement that the company was “pleased” with the ruling and would continue “defending our rights.”

“At the same time, we will also maintain our ongoing dialogue with the government to turn our proposal, which the President gave his preliminary approval to last weekend, into an agreement," she said.

Trump has said he will not approve the deal if ByteDance is involved. A separate Trump executive order last month gave ByteDance until Nov. 12 to divest itself of TikTok in the United States.

TikTok also is pursuing a lawsuit in federal court in D.C. to block Trump’s executive order.

In opposing the request for a preliminary injunction, the Justice Department laid out its national security concerns more clearly than it had done previously. It asserted that ByteDance cooperates with the Chinese government, which can compel the company to turn over information.

“Despite being separate companies, TikTok’s infrastructure is not wholly separate from ByteDance,” the government said in its filing.

TikTok has repeatedly said that it stores U.S. customer information outside of China. In its request for an injunction, the company said it has created “software barriers that help ensure that TikTok stores its U.S. user data separately from the user data of other ByteDance products.”

Oracle’s courting of Trump may help it land TikTok’s business and coveted user data

TikTok says it has about 100 million users in the United States on a quarterly basis. A ban from U.S. app stores would “cripple our growth,” TikTok’s U.S. head Vanessa Pappas said in a court filing.

Had the ban taken place as scheduled, people who had already downloaded the app to their devices would still be able to access it but would not receive security updates.

The Chinese messaging service WeChat, which was granted an injunction last weekend, may have as many as 19 million users in the United States, according to the ruling last weekend by U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler. Beeler said the plaintiffs in that case, the WeChat Users Alliance, had raised important First Amendment issues in challenging the ban, which they said would hurt older Chinese residents who do not speak English well and depend on the app to read news and maintain contact with relatives in China.