Former TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer speaks publicly for the first time on his exit from ByteDance

Coco Feng
·4-min read

In the first public recounting of his departure from ByteDance last year, Kevin Mayer, a former executive of The Walt Disney Company who served as TikTok’s CEO for three months, agreed that he felt “screwed over” by the Trump administration, according to a transcript of his interview with US television channel CNBC published on Wednesday.

Mayer abruptly resigned from his job helming the globally popular short video-sharing app last August, after then-US president Donald Trump signed two executive orders within eight days that sought to force Beijing-based ByteDance to divest TikTok’s operations in the US.

As soon as the news emerged, Mayer said he knew his new job – a dual role that also put him in charge of ByteDance’s operations as the chief operating officer – would vanish.

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“It did look as if that was a serious ruling by the [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] guys, that it had to be divested and it was going to be divested,” he told CNBC, referring to the US panel that reviews acquisitions by foreign businesses for potential national security risks.

“It’s true that the job that I signed up for was going to be gone. And in the next few days was going to be gone. It was, like, extremely imminent,” he said.

As the days went by, Microsoft, Walmart and finally Oracle emerged as potential buyers of TikTok’s US operations. By September, the last two companies teamed up and reached a deal with ByteDance.

Mayer told CNBC that he had no interest in working under TikTok’s US buyers. He had planned to wait until the Oracle deal was announced to disclose his resignation, but things did not go as planned.

“The guys at ByteDance and the board and I had discussions about it. I didn’t want to go run a division of Microsoft or Oracle. And if there was going to be a divestiture, like you said, there would be no US operations. It was just too awkward and bizarre,” Mayer said. “And then the whole thing leaked to The Financial Times before the announcement.”

Oracle and Walmart’s deal with ByteDance was soon clouded by Beijing’s revised export rules that barred the Chinese company from selling or transferring TikTok’s invaluable recommendation algorithm. In the subsequent months, the deal remained on hold, while Trump lost the presidential election. The Biden administration has since suspended legal actions against TikTok and started reviewing US policy towards Chinese tech firms.

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When asked if he felt “screwed over” by the Trump administration, Mayer replied, “Yes. That’s the short answer.”

“The Trump administration, of course, was known to do things on the fly and without a lot of thinking behind it,” he told CNBC. “I don’t know what’s going on with the Trump administration’s thinking at any given moment, but it seemed pretty serious and seemed like they were intent upon doing it.”

Mayer went on to accept several new roles after his three-month stint with TikTok. In November, he joined Ukraine-born, British-American billionaire Len Blavatnik’s investment firm Access Industries as an adviser. Then earlier this month, he became chairman of sports streaming service DAZN, one of Blavatnik’s investments.

He also signed on as a strategic adviser to a special purpose acquisition company called Forest Road, joining former Disney co-executive Tom Staggs who was chairman of the company’s advisory board.

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Mayer said he remains optimistic about TikTok’s future.

“I do think the magic sauce there is in their artificial intelligence technology, coupled with machine learning, coupled with the ingestion of tens of millions of videos every day and growing,” he said. “So their ability to stay on top of that and to keep putting relevant videos in front of the relevant people that want to see them in real time … it’s hard to imagine that becoming irrelevant, almost ever, because that’s a really powerful product proposition.”

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