Zuckerberg Meets With Trump, Faces Tough Questions From Senators

Image: Zach Gibson/Getty


WASHINGTON (WALL STREE JOURNAL)—With his company under a regulatory spotlight, Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg scored a meeting at the White House with President Trump Thursday—but faced a chillier reception from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

A spokesman for Facebook said Mr. Zuckerberg was visiting Washington to meet with policy makers “to hear their concerns and talk about future internet regulation.” The spokesman said Mr. Zuckerberg’s meeting with the president was “constructive.”

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and White House social media director Dan Scavino also joined the meeting, a person familiar with the meeting said.

“Nice meeting with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook in the Oval Office today,” Mr. Trump posted Thursday night on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, along with a photo of the president and Mr. Zuckerberg shaking hands.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Zuckerberg received an earful of complaints, and two and two influential lawmakers couldn’t find the time to meet with him.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) said he challenged Mr. Zuckerberg to spin off its Instagram and WhatsApp units—two acquisitions that are now part of a government antitrust probe into Facebook.

“I said to him, ‘Prove that you’re serious…sell WhatsApp, and sell Instagram,’” Mr. Hawley said following his afternoon meeting with Mr. Zuckerberg. “I think it’s safe to say that he was not receptive to those suggestions,” he added.

Mr. Zuckerberg, clad in a dark suit and tie, was trailed throughout his Capitol Hill visit by a swarm of reporters and camera crews. He declined to comment.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Zuckerberg kicked off the trip by sparring with a group of senators at a private dinner. One attendee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), described the meeting as a mix of criticism and constructive dialogue over the tech industry’s “repeated failures” to protect election security and consumer privacy.

“We had [a] serious, substantive conversation even when we may have differed,” Mr. Blumenthal said in a statement. He added that he welcomed “the strong, constructive interest shown by Mr. Zuckerberg.”

Mr. Blumenthal has been sharply critical of Facebook, particularly over its privacy and election missteps of recent years.

Facebook declined to comment beyond a statement it issued on Wednesday saying that Mr. Zuckerberg would be in Washington “to meet with policy makers and talk about future internet regulation.”

Mr. Zuckerberg even had a few expected get-togethers fall through, mainly because Senate leaders decided not to hold votes on Thursday, leading many senators to head for the airport.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), who heads the Senate consumer protection subcommittee, had planned to meet with Mr. Zuckerberg but decided to catch an early flight home instead. “They will definitely try and meet the next time he [Mr. Zuckerberg] is here,” a spokesman said.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii), the top Democrat on the Senate’s technology and internet subcommittee, also had been expected to meet with Mr. Zuckerberg, but they were unable to find a time to get together due to scheduling conflicts. Mr. Schatz had recently met with Mr. Zuckerberg in the senator’s Honolulu office, however.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s meetings were aimed at giving the Facebook co-founder a chance to pitch his own vision for moderate internet regulation and seek to placate lawmakers who are weighing stricter standards for lightly regulated platforms.

In the wake of a series of disclosures about questionable practices at Facebook and other internet companies, lawmakers have been considering stringent new regulation of platforms in areas such as user privacy and content moderation.

No action appears imminent on any of the measures. But one idea that has gained attention is placing new limits on the sweeping legal immunity that platforms enjoy for harms caused by their users. Mr. Hawley has been among those advocating such an approach.

Mr. Zuckerberg was also expected to pitch lawmakers on a different vision of internet regulation, one that includes more self-regulation by the companies. The visit also gave Mr. Zuckerberg a chance to tout progress in Facebook’s compliance with a recently announced $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy missteps.

Among the lawmakers who met with Mr. Zuckerberg was Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), who is chairman of the Senate antitrust subcommittee. Facebook is under antitrust investigation by the FTC, and could soon face a separate investigation by the Justice Department. Mr. Lee has raised concerns about possible duplication of effort by the federal agencies.

Mr. Zuckerberg also met with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), the top Democrat on the powerful Commerce Committee. The two discussed data privacy and election security.

The visit represents Mr. Zuckerberg’s first foray into Capitol Hill since two days of hearings in spring 2018. At the time, following damaging revelations about Facebook’s privacy practices, Mr. Zuckerberg said that it was “inevitable that there will need to be some regulation.” But he also cautioned lawmakers, “You have to be careful about what regulations you put in place.”

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com, Lindsay Wise at lindsay.wise@wsj.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com