Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, under fire for allowing President Trump to post inflammatory statements on his platform, tells Axios there's no truth to whispers that the two have a secret understanding.

Why it matters: Zuckerberg, facing a growing ad boycott from brands that say Facebook hasn't done enough to curtail hate speech, has become increasingly public in criticizing Trump. "I’ve heard this speculation, too, so let me be clear: There's no deal of any kind," Zuckerberg told Axios. "Actually, the whole idea of a deal is pretty ridiculous."

  • "I do speak with the president from time to time, just like I spoke with our last president and political leaders around the world," he added.

The context: Facebook has removed Trump ads and posts at least five times going back to 2018, for reasons that include "targeting personal attributes" and copyright violation.

  • Zuckerberg pointed out that "under this administration, we've faced record fines of $5 billion, are under antitrust investigation by multiple agencies, and have been targeted by an executive order to strip protections in Section 230," which shields tech companies from liability for content on their platforms.
  • The CEO panned the administration's coronavirus response during a live interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci last week.

I asked Zuckerberg about Trump after the CEO told a companywide Q&A on Thursday, in remarks obtained by Axios:

  • "One specific critique that I've seen is that there are a lot of people who've said that maybe we're too sympathetic or too close in some way to the Trump administration."
  • "I just want to push back on that a bit," Zuckerberg told employees. "[W]e need to separate out the fact of giving people some space for discourse, from the positions that we have individually, where I feel like the company and I personally have been."

Zuckerberg went on to cite many disagreements with Trump, "whether it's the immigration policies, which I think have not only been unfair, but I think put the country at a huge disadvantage going forward, compared to the opportunities that we should be going after ... climate change, where I think moves like pulling out of Paris agreement were a huge step back for the world ... things like his divisive and inflammatory rhetoric."

Axios and others have reported on private conversations between Trump and Zuckerberg, and even a White House dinner.

  • "I accepted the invite for dinner because I was in town and he is the president of the United States," Zuckerberg said. "For what it's worth, I also had multiple meals and meetings with President Obama ... both at the White House and outside, including hosting an event for him at Facebook HQ."
  • "The fact that I met with a head of state should not be surprising, and does not suggest we have some kind of deal."

Zuckerberg said he believes deeply "in giving people a voice, even when I disagree with them. I believe in a broad definition of free expression, especially around political speech — but those are my principles and I don't think that's a surprise to anyone."

  • Asked if he has lost any friends over policies affecting Trump, Zuckerberg replied: "The answer is: not that I know of! I think most of my friends understand my values — and understand the difference between agreeing with someone and believing it's important for them to be able to say what they think, even when you disagree. I've certainly had lots of people, including friends, disagree, but that's normal."

A White House official told me Trump "has always respected Zuckerberg’s strong pro-First Amendment position."

  • "He's entitled to his position, as are the tens of millions of Trump supporters on Facebook."
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