Trump derailed some of the biggest tech deals of the last four years — the industry could look very different today

Key Points
  • The Trump administration wasn't shy about blocking, or threatening to block, technology and technology deals.
  • One of the biggest themes of Trump's presidency was an anti-China business stance that influenced technology policies in different ways.
  • AT&T, Broadcom, Huawei and TikTok all felt the Trump administration's wrath.
James Stewart, as George Bailey, points at Lionel Barrymore, as Mr. Potter, in a scene from It's a Wonderful Life.
Bettmann | Getty Images

Christmas movies often explore alternate timelines. Ebenezer Scrooge runs from his future in "A Christmas Carol." George Bailey views what life would have been like without him in "It's a Wonderful Life." Kevin McCallister gets a taste of life without his family in "Home Alone."

In the spirit of the holidays, let's take a look back at how outgoing U.S. president Donald Trump handled some of the biggest technology events of the last four years — and wonder what could have been if not for the government's intervention.

2017: DOJ blocks AT&T's $85 billion Time Warner deal

What happened: Ten months into the Trump presidency, the Department of Justice blocked AT&T's $85 billion takeover of Time Warner. The move was unorthodox, as the wireless company didn't operate in businesses that overlapped with Time Warner's assets. The DOJ attempted to craft a vertical integration argument, claiming the deal would "mean higher monthly television bills and fewer of the new, emerging innovative options that consumers are beginning to enjoy."

In June 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that AT&T could buy Time Warner, denying the DOJ's lawsuit to block the deal. Many speculated Trump may have pushed the DOJ to block the deal because of his antipathy for CNN, which Time Warner owns -- even though blocking the deal wouldn't really "get back" at CNN in any meaningful way. (In fact, many Time Warner executives probably would have preferred it if the AT&T deal had been blocked).

Randall Stephenson, then-chairman and chief executive officer of AT&T and Jeff Bewkes, then-chairman and chief executive officer of Time Warner, a few days after the AT&T acquisition of Warner was announced in October 2016.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The U.S. government appealed Leon's decision but lost that court challenge in Feb. 2019.

While AT&T waited to get control of Time Warner, the television world began to shift. Americans began cancelling cable by the millions and replacing their traditional pay-TV bundle with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.

In Nov. 2019, Disney launched Disney+. In just more than a year, Disney has 86.8 million Disney+ subscribers. AT&T was unable to reorganize Time Warner around streaming until the deal was approved in mid-2018, so was slower to launch its HBO Max flagship service, which debuted in May 2020. AT&T CEO John Stankey said earlier this month that HBO Max has 12.6 million subscribers.

Unimpressed by the Time Warner deal, investors haven't been pleased with AT&T's performance. Shares are trading near a 10-year low.

Alternate timeline: AT&T acquires Time Warner in late 2017. AT&T offers HBO Max to consumers months before Disney in 2019. Because of its first-mover advantage, consumers flock to HBO Max. AT&T's stock jumps as investors give AT&T more of a Netflix-like multiple.

2018: Trump kills Broadcom's hostile bid for Qualcomm

Reality: Just days before the Justice Department sued to block AT&T's Time Warner acquisition, Broadcom made a surprising $103 billion hostile acquisition bid for Qualcomm. Qualcomm was in the middle of getting approval for its own major acquisition -- a $47 billion deal to buy Dutch semiconductor manufacturer NXP -- adding complication to the offer.

Over the course of the next few months, Qualcomm and Broadcom jostled with each other. Broadcom raising its bid to $121 billion, and then lowered it to $117 billion after Qualcomm raised its bid for NXP to appease activist shareholder Elliott Management. Still, Broadcom appeared to be gaining leverage with Qualcomm shareholders as a proxy vote drew near.

Trump views Huawei as a bargaining chip for a US-China trade deal: AEI's James Pethokoukis

In early March, the Trump administration got involved. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) sent a letter to Broadcom and Qualcomm lawyers listing national security risks that could arise from exploiting or compromising Qualcomm's assets through arrangements with "third party foreign entities." It also broached concerns about Broadcom's reputation for cutting research spending, an concern that Microsoft and Google shared, as CNBC earlier reported.

About a week later, Trump dropped an unprecedented hammer. He was blocking the deal on national security concerns, even before an agreement between the two companies could be reached. The move significantly expanded CFIUS's powers and effectively chilled U.S. cross-border semiconductor deals for the remainder of the Trump presidency.

Potentially as retaliation for Trump's Broadcom decision, China regulators didn't approve Qualcomm's NXP acquisition. Qualcomm scrapped the deal.

Alternate timeline: Broadcom buys Qualcomm, becoming a global semiconductor superpower. It doesn't buy CA Technologies for about $19 billion or Symantec's enterprise business for $10.7 billion. NXP stays independent as Broadcom chooses not to acquire NXP. There are billions of other cross-border chip deals in the next three years, making bankers and lawyers very happy.

2019: Trump bans Huawei in U.S. markets

In May 2019, Trump filed an executive order banning technology from "foreign adversaries" that posed "unacceptable risks" to national security. The move targeted Chinese telecom equipment makers Huawei and ZTE. Trump argued their networking equipment could be used by China to spy on the U.S. Huawei has said allegations of spying are incorrect.

U.S. President Donald Trump waves before boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., December 12, 2020.
Tom Brenner | Reuters

The ban also hurt both companies' global 5G infrastructure development -- arguably the point of the order.

Weeks later, Trump formally politicized his action, saying Huawei's U.S. fate could be resolves as part of a broader trade deal with China.

But a deal didn't quickly materialize. In January 2020, the U.S. and China signed a partial trade deal with China. Huawei and ZTE weren't a part of it. In July 2020, under heavy pressure from the Trump administration, the U.K. banned Huawei components from its 5G network after initially resisting.

Trump extended the Huawei/ZTE executive order in May 2020 for another year. President-elect Joe Biden's administration will have to decide next moves in May 2021.

Alternate timeline: U.S. companies build speedier 5G networks for less money using Huawei components, but the mystery around how safe China's technology is within U.S. borders persists. Huawei's Honor phones become low-cost alternatives to Apple iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones in the U.S., but overall it remains a minor player in the smartphone wars.

2020: Trump threatens to ban TikTok

Trump's TikTok ban continued two themes of his presidency: retaliating against companies for personal reasons and punishing Chinese business interests in the U.S.

After India banned the popular video sharing application TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance, the Trump administration decided it would so the same thing.

"As far as TikTok is concerned we're banning them from the United States," Trump told reporters on July 31. A week later, Trump drafted an executive order ordering a ban unless ByteDance sold TikTok's U.S. operations.

The Trump administration said national security reasons prompted the executive order. ByteDance could share data from U.S. users with the Chinese government, Trump claimed.

Still, TikTok executives wondered if Trump was actually banning the company because teenagers used TikTok to prank the Trump presidential campaign by buying tickets to a Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally and then not showing up.

Chairman of Direct-to-Consumer & International division of The Walt Disney Company Kevin Mayer took part today in the Disney+ Showcase at Disney’s D23 EXPO 2019 in Anaheim, Calif., August 23, 2019.
Jesse Grant

ByteDance said it never shared, nor would share, information with the Chinese government. Still, the company began holding sale talks with Microsoft and Oracle to stay operational in the U.S. Days before announcing a deal, TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer announced he would resign rather than running TikTok as a division of a larger U.S. technology company.

Just as ByteDance prepared to announced a deal, the Chinese government added new restrictions on a sale, sending the parties back to the drawing board.

Working with the Trump administration, ByteDance agreed to sell a 12.5% stake in TikTok Global to Oracle and a 7.5% stake to Walmart. Additionally, Oracle would serve as TikTok's "trusted technology partner," housing U.S. data on its servers.

But China still needed to approve a deal -- and it never did. By refusing to agree to the sale, China backed Trump into a corner. He could either ban the application, as he threatened, or he could let the issue die.

It appears the Trump administration has chosen the latter option. To date, no TikTok deal has taken place. ByteDance continues to own the company. It's unclear if or when a transaction will occur.

Alternate timeline: Kevin Mayer is still TikTok CEO. Everyone involved in this debacle has improved mental health and sleep.

WATCH: TikTok saga will ultimately reach a 'peaceful resolution': Jefferies analyst

TikTok saga will ultimately reach a 'peaceful resolution': Jefferies analyst