Microsoft trying to buy TikTok while negotiating with Trump was the 'strangest thing'

Last year's episode of then-President Trump trying to push Microsoft to buy part of TikTok still feels weird to CEO Satya Nadella.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
2 min read
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at Code Conference 2021

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks at the annual tech executive gathering a year after he attempted to buy TikTok.

Asa Mathat/Vox Media

When news spread last year that Microsoft was interested in buying the hit social networking app TikTok, a lot of techies scratched their heads. What does Microsoft, a company that makes most of its money selling productivity software and services, have to do with a social network like TikTok?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella didn't explain his thinking at the time, but a year later he said it actually makes a bit of sense when you consider three of Microsoft's biggest acquisitions since he took charge of the company seven years ago. Minecraft in 2014, LinkedIn in 2016 and GitHub in 2018; each were about building community, he said. 

So, when TikTok came to Microsoft, apparently intrigued by its work on child safety and its efforts to build a better community on its Xbox video game console, Nadella said it made sense to him.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at Code Conference 2021

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella being interviewed by Recode's Kara Swisher at Code Conference 2021

Asa Mathat/Vox Media

"That gave us permission," he said during an interview with Recode's Kara Swisher at the annual Code Conference

But he got far more than he expected. The deal soon became a high stakes drama between the fast-growing Chinese social networking giant and whatever US company was potentially going to shell out the money to buy it. Then-President Donald Trump reportedly worked on the deal behind the scenes and made public declarations, including at one point demanding an illegal finder's fee if the deal went through. Other companies, including business software maker Oracle and even retailing giant Walmart, got involved too. The New York Times at one point declared it a "soap opera."

"It's the strangest thing I've ever sort of worked on," Nadella said. But that was all just a couple months before the 2020 presidential election, and just as quickly as the drama unfolded, he noted it pretty much "dropped off." Nadella also declined to say what it was like negotiating with Trump, seemingly playing up his coyness for laughs.

Nadella said he has no idea what's happening now with the deal. (It's on hold.)

Swisher asked if he's called. "No," he said. 

"Would you like to acquire TikTok?" she asks.

"At this point, I'm happy with what I have," he says.

"Are you looking at anything else?" Swisher asks. Microsoft had also been reportedly interested in buying the game chat app Discord for as much as $10 billion back in the spring. But that deal fell through.

Nadella responded to the question by repeating himself, "I'm... happy with what I have."