Fair and Unbalanced

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Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

We’ve finally reached a point where people — and not just people, but even some Republican people — feel the need to go there.

You know, there.

Not collusion there or obstruction-of-justice there or anything to do with the emoluments clause or Don Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with the Russians. But there, where the real, dark question lies: Is Vladimir Putin actually holding something over Donald Trump’s head?

The question has been there all along — whether the answer is with the so-called pee tape or in his undisclosed tax returns — but it was inevitable following the Trump-Putin joint press conference in Helsinki that the question would go mainstream. Where was the Trump we know — the bully boy who had just stormed his way through NATO — suddenly being described as somewhere between servile and toadying? What else do you call an American president who stands next to Putin and and says he trusts Putin’s gangster government more than his own.

It was so clear that tabloid headline writers were calling Trump “Putin’s poodle” and Time magazine had Trump morphing into Putin on its cover. They’re not as bad, I guess, as former CIA director John Brennan calling Trump’s behavior “treasonous,” but I’m pretty sure Trump took the poodle insult harder.

It’s not that there can’t be alternative explanations for Trump’s deference, starting with his overriding concern that any admission of Russian involvement in his 2016 election only serves to delegitimize his upset victory, which, as you know, he won overwhelmingly despite not actually having won the popular vote.

But when Jeff Flake, the retiring Republican senator from Arizona and frequent Trump critic, goes to the Senate floor to question why Trump would go to Helsinki to side with Putin against America’s intelligence agencies or to blame America’s “foolishness” and “stupidity” and “rigged witch hunt” for our bad relations with Russia, Flake couldn’t resist going all the way.

Trump’s behavior, Flake said, “now leaves us contemplating the dark mystery: Why did he do that? What would compel our president to do such a thing?”

It’s no mystery what Flake meant by mystery. Flake wanted to know why Trump and Putin met alone — apparently at Trump’s suggestion — for more than two hours and why Trump’s closest advisors still don’t seem to know what Trump and Putin had agreed to. As many have pointed out, Kissinger was there with Nixon in Beijing and Reagan had a whole team with him when he met Gorbachev in Geneva.

The dark mystery. It has everyone talking now. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper  told CNN that while he wanted to give Trump the benefit of the doubt more Russia, “More and more, I come to the conclusion that after the Helsinki performance and since, that I really do wonder whether the Russians have something on him.”

I can’t bring myself to believe in watershed moments any more regarding Trump. I read the polls. He’s been running a solid 40-42 percent approval rating for a year now. Charlottesville didn’t change anything. The outrage over the placing-of-children-in-cages story, which, by the way, gets worse with each new revelation, hasn’t seemed to change anything. 

But in Friday’s New York Times, Texas Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who spent many years in the CIA, wrote an op-ed beginning this way: “Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the CIA, I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people. I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them.”

Meanwhile, there’s the viral video of Dan Coats, the current director of national intelligence, being informed by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that Trump had invited Putin to visit Washington in the fall. “Say that again. Did I hear you?” Coats said, clearly stunned to hear the news from a reporter and not, say, from his boss. “OK, that’s going to be special.” 

Coats had already defended the assessment that the Russians interfered with the 2016 elections and were going for it again in the 2018 midterms. No wonder they were saying at the White House that Coats had gone rogue. It may be just a coincidence, but The New York Times had a story earlier saying that all of this — all the Russian interference in 2016, all the connections to Putin — were laid out for Trump by intelligence officials two months before he took the oath of office.

At the same conference, in Aspen, FBI Director Chris Wray refuted the Trump claim that the Mueller investigation was a witch hunt. When told that Trump was still saying that the Russians aren’t active — which he sort of walked back in what is now semi-officially known as Trump’s Walkback Week —  Wray said, “He’s got his view. I can tell you what my view is.” 

The fact that both leading Trump officials would dispute the president so clearly means either they’re both expecting to be fired or that, for a few, country over party is still a thing. Just don’t spend much of your time looking to Congress for guidance on that.

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of what Trump called Putin’s “incredible offer” to have the Russians interrogate 11 Americans, including a former ambassador, in exchange for giving Robert Mueller access to the Mueller-indicted Russia 12. A day later, Sarah Sanders said the idea was actually being considered, at which the time the outrage meter blew so high that the Capitol dome was set atwirl. Maybe Trump wasn’t a very stable genius after all.

In a rare Trump rebuke, the Senate voted 98-0 for a resolution saying, in effect, no American president would ever hand over Americans to that extra-judicial nightmare that is Putin’s Russia. It was only 98-0 because two senators weren’t there for the vote. For once, there wasn’t a poodle in sight. That streak lasted for maybe five minutes — when two other similar, but tougher, resolutions were shot down without a vote. Pretty soon Republicans will be back trying to shut down the Mueller investigation.

In my last column, I asked if anything would change after Helsinki or, for that matter, anything else Trump does. That’s the other dark mystery — deep, dark and, 18 months into Trump’s disastrous presidency, still unsolved.

 

Photo by The White House for Creative Commons in Flickr.

For those keeping score at home, Donald Trump hit an all-time low in his post-summit news conference from Helsinki with his friend (co-conspirator?) Vladimir Putin.

This is not an overstatement. There is no possibility of overstatement here. In fact, you couldn’t possibly disagree with this assessment unless you were either Mike Pence or Sean Hannity. 

The moment the news conference ended, CNN’s Anderson Cooper rolled out “disgraceful” to describe Trump’s performance, and for the next few hours, pundits and politicos would compete in a deep thesaurus dive searching for the perfect word or phrase: shameful or astonishing or deeply troubling or devastating or dangerous or imbecilic or disingenuous or shocking or unprecedented or Munich-like appeasement or, according to former CIA chief John Brennan, treasonous. Brennan also called for “patriotic Republicans” to finally stand up to Trump.

I’ll go with David Gergen, who has served under every president in recent memory and who put it this way: “Never have I seen a president so badly betray his own country on the world stage.” 

Meanwhile, Politico summed up the news conference in a succinct tweet.

Reporter: Do you hold Russia accountable for anything?

Trump: We’re all to blame.

Check the link. Trump says Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned him that Putin was to blame for interference in the 2016 election. Trump says Putin made an “incredibly strong and confident” argument that he wasn’t. If you’re wondering which side Trump came down on,Trump said “I do not see any reason why it would be” Russia’s fault.

This was such a low point that you’d almost — yes, I said almost — think that such a presidential-sized betrayal would finally shock the nation into action.

Ok, we know what happened — Trump chose Putin over country while slamming the FBI in front of the former KGB agent — even if we’re not sure why. Does Putin really have something on Trump? Is this yet another reworking of the Manchurian Candidate? As a confirmed anti-conspiracy theorist, I’ve long thought that Trump’s unwillingness to concede Russia’s role in the 2016 election must be about his ego and the Electoral College or maybe something in his tax returns or perhaps just his bromance with the world’s tyrants. In a video message to Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger went with the groupie theory, saying Trump looked like a “fanboy” ready to ask for Putin’s autograph.

As The Atlantic’s James Fallows put it: Conscious tool or useful idiot? In some ways, it doesn’t matter. There are a hundred other theories, which we can probably leave Bob Mueller to sort out. The question is not whether Ronald Reagan is rolling over in his grave, but what do we do now.

There is an answer, but it could come only from Trump’s Republican enablers. This is what they call a gut check. If you don’t count John McCain, who is home battling brain cancer, Republicans hold a 50-49 majority in the Senate. This is easy math, if difficult politics. If only one Republican were to become an independent and caucus with Democrats, imagine the stunning change, the subpoenas, the hearings, etc.

Actually, the lone Republican — yes, more would be better — wouldn’t even have to defect. All it would take is joining Democrats in protecting Mueller’s investigation and in calling for hearings on Trump’s Make Russia Great Again summit.

I don’t expect that to happen. I don’t expect much to happen. Some are suggesting that any Trump aide with a conscience should resign. Some are suggesting that if this crisis heats up, there could be the need for a scapegoat. John Kelly, anyone?

If you think this is a crisis point for America — and I certainly do — that doesn’t mean you have to believe it will play out any differently from all the rest. Isn’t the essence of Trumpworld that we now live in the post-tipping-point era?

There has been tough criticism from some Republicans, mostly from the usual suspects like McCain — who said he’d never seen a U.S. president so “abase himself” before a tyrant — and from those who have already announced they’re not seeking re-election. More often the comments resemble those from our own Cory Gardner, who said he strongly disagreed with Trump’s words and actions in Helsinki (and presumably those from Belgium earlier in Trump’s world travels), but couldn’t actually bring himself to mention Trump’s name.

He also couldn’t bring himself to defend Mueller or to note that it was only three days ago that Coats had warned of more Russian interference, saying “the red lights are blinking again.” Instead Gardner said he hoped this administration wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of past administrations. You could call that weak tea. I’d call it weak-kneed.

The best American moments in Helsinki came from an AP reporter and a Reuters reporter — you know, enemies of the people — who were the lone American journalists called on to ask questions at the news conference. They put Trump on the spot in asking him to choose between Putin and U.S intelligence. We watched Trump as he faltered, once again blaming the “witch hunt” for the problems between Russia and the United States instead of blaming the witch — OK, the thug — standing next to him.

It was a disgraceful performance, but hardly surprising. I mean, you weren’t really expecting Trump to debate Putin on Crimea, were you? When Mueller indicted the 12 Russian intelligence agents for interfering in the 2016 election, Trump’s game plan was set.  After lashing out against our allies in Europe, Trump would buddy up to Putin, who deserves great credit for not once cracking a smile as Trump prattled on about Hillary Clinton and her emails and Peter Strzok and his texts.

You can argue, I guess, whether Trump betrayed his country by his performance. What’s inarguable is that he humiliated himself and everyone who has ever supported him.

A 2017 photo of actors in prosthetics in London in by Paddy Power Joe Pepler, via Flickr: Creative Comm

As you may have heard, Indy editor Susan Greene was handcuffed and detained by two Denver cops Thursday in front of the state Capitol for — and I can’t emphasize this enough — simply trying to do her job and for nothing more.

It’s an outrage, of course. This standoff between cop and reporter is not a product of the Trumpian fake news era, by the way. This is the product of a longstanding police issue with what we’ll call transparency and which long predates Donald Trump.

But if you read the comments on Greene’s column — a column that went viral because the First Amendment apparently still means something in America — you’ll see the national divide being played out in its usual ugly form. Greene, many of the commenters complained, was whining, she was disrespectful, she was a cop-hater, she was out to exploit the man held by the police, she was a purveyor of fake news. If you read carefully, you could almost hear those at a Trump rally cheering the commenters on. 

Evidence for what had happened with the man — cuffed, naked except for a smallish towel — and what happened to Greene for investigating the incident should be available from the cop-cams that police officers wear. We’ll see. To this point, the police have refused to release the evidence to The Indy. In the days of #blacklivesmatter, more and more cops across the country are wearing cameras, but we’ve also seen how often the cameras are somehow turned off when the situation grows dicey.

Greene was driving down Colfax and saw a group of cops surrounding a man sitting on the sidewalk, with just a cloth covering the parts that, by law, needed to be covered. It looked, well, potentially dicey. As a reporter who writes often and well on social justice issues and especially criminal justice issues, she pulled over to find out what was going on. (For evidence of Greene’s profound interest in this area, you can read here of her award last year from the ACLU of Colorado for her work in civil rights.) Among other things, she wanted to know why the police had not covered up the man sitting exposed on the sidewalk.

This is what reporters do. Meanwhile, what cops often do when confronted with nosy civilians or nosy reporters is to try to shoo them away and try to shut them down. Any reporter can tell you of such confrontations. I can’t say how many I’ve had, but I can say that none of them ended with me in cuffs. These cops crossed a line this time that must never be crossed.

Greene was taking pictures with her smart phone. The cops told her she couldn’t. She explained it was a public sidewalk and that, according to the Supreme Court’s reading of the First Amendment, she can take all the pictures she wants in a public place. One cop then said — and this was amazing both in its ignorance of the law and, I’ll concede, in its speed of reply — that she was violating HIPAA rules by taking photos of a mostly naked guy.

The cop was wrong, of course, in about a half-dozen ways — HIPAA rules? Seriously? He could have made a better case for spitting on the sidewalk. That didn’t stop him from detaining Greene for obstruction, slapping on the cuffs, roughly twisting her arm while insisting she was resisting the officers, advising her to act more ladylike. For the record, and in what should be obvious to anyone, Greene wasn’t interested in photos of the man in question or anything that would invade his privacy. She wanted photos of the cops surrounding the naked guy. And that was the issue.

This is no story of cops facing danger, as they too often do. This is no story of split-second judgment in which mistakes are inevitably made. This was the story of a reporter doing her job and cops going to extraordinary measures to prevent her from doing her job, which, they should know, is protected both by the Constitution and by state law.

The police defended their actions by saying the man in question was “in crisis” and that they were awaiting medical help. The man was not arrested. He was taken to a hospital, from which he has been released. What this explanation doesn’t do is explain how Greene ended up in cuffs in the back of a police car. 

It’s no secret that the news-gathering institutions are under assault. Days after five reporters were killed at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Trump was in North Dakota at a political rally and, predictably, back on his fake-news kick. We journalists are not alone, of course. Trump also insulted a dying John McCain, a frail 93-year-old George H.W. Bush, and Maxine Waters’ supposedly low IQ.

In Denver, the story is different. We know of the needless deaths of men in police custody who have mental issues, maybe issues not so different from the man Greene saw on the sidewalk. We know of these stories because Greene has been at the center in covering them. Most of the officers involved have been lightly reprimanded despite the evidence uncovered by Greene and other reporters, the same evidence that has led to millions of dollars in settlements with the families of those who died.

It’s something in that history that led Greene to pull over. It’s something in that history that led Greene to be cuffed.

It’s something in that history that is prompting the Denver police to launch an internal investigation of the matter.

It is something — no, everything — in that history that should worry every Denver resident.

Photo of marks left by restraints on Susan Greene’s wrist after Denver Police detained and then released her. Photo by Susan Greene.

By popular demand, the Littwin gov panel has reconvened for a gov primary postscript.

Now that the race is over and Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton are set to face off in the November election, we looked at a seemingly endless list of issues, looking both backward and forward. Not all that surprisingly, there’s something close to unanimity on a wide range of issues from the Littwin all-star panel, which I remind you is big-shot GOP strategist Josh Penry, principal at EIS; long-time Dem strategist and Hancock chief of staff Alan Salazar; ProgressNow progressive Ian Silverii; GOP strategist, and always good quote, Cinamon Watson, principal at Blueprint Strategies — and, of course, me.

  1. The Polis-Stapleton wins were not exactly surprising. Stapleton led for every week in the Littwin gov rankings, and Polis led for every week but two, after Kennedy’s big win at the assembly.
  2. The negative ad on Polis by the Teachers for Kennedy PAC failed. It was either Hickenlooper’s fault for calling the ad “disappointing” or it was a strategic error by the Kennedy team. Polis counterattacked with far greater resources to the point that the fact of the negative ad outweighed any message it might have conveyed. Panelist Josh Penry blamed Hick for “refusing to let any Democratic candidate mention Polis’ name without calling a press conference to condemn. If Jared Polis funds a Super PAC for John Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign, no one should be surprised.” Panelist Alan Salazar noted that nothing in the race “changed the narrative, so Jared ended strong.”
  3. Neither Polis nor Stapleton is exactly charismatic or warm (at least on screen), but it is generally believed that Polis ran a fairly mistake-free campaign (history lesson here: having money hardly guarantees competence) whereas Stapleton was consistently hammered by GOP guru Dick Wadhams for running a Stumbleton campaign. Wadhams even publicly questioned whether Stapleton was sufficiently prepared to run in the general. Penry says Polis is a slight favorite but discounts the Stumbleton factor. “Maybe if all these same wise guys hadn’t told us that Hillary was a shoe-in,” Penry said, “or maybe if Walker Stapleton hadn’t won two statewide races, someone might put some stock in all that gibberish.”
  4. Michael Johnston finished strong while Cary Kennedy barely held on to second place, far behind Polis. Kennedy has now lost two big races in a row and that’s probably at least one too many. Panelist Cinamon Watson says it’s pretty certain “we haven’t heard the last from Johnston.” The rumor mill has Johnston preparing to gear up for a run in 2020 against Cory Gardner for the U.S. Senate seat. None of the panelists seemed to predict any bright political future for any of the runners-up on the Republican side.
  5. The Trump factor. Trump is deeply unpopular in Colorado. The latest Morning Consult state-by-state poll had Trump deeply underwater at 40-56. Panelist Alan Salazar says Chris Keating of  Keating Research found “a majority 58% of Colorado voters are unfavorable toward Trump including 52% very unfavorable. Also, nearly half (46%) of Colorado voters give Trump an F on his job rating.” Salazar says Stapleton, who tied himself to Trump at every turn in order to win the GOP primary, is running with a Trumpian “leg weight” in the general election.
  6. Stapleton’s Trump campaign problem. Panelist Ian Silverii sums it up pretty succinctly. “In order to keep the MAGA crowd happy, he needs to stay aligned with Trump, but if he’s going to win a general election in Colorado, where Hillary won by 5 points before the laundry list of daily presidency-ending-for-anyone-else scandals, he’s going to need to get away from the president.” We already saw election night Stapleton dodging the question of whether he would want Trump to campaign for him. 
  7. The Boulder liberal factor. Calling someone a “Boulder tax-and-spend liberal” was once a sure-fire strategy for Republicans. Now, maybe not so much. But if Polis wins in November, he will be the most liberal Dem to win a governor’s seat or U.S. Senate seat in at least a generation. This race may tell us whether Democrats have shifted too far left. It’s my view that Republicans began to lose their way in Colorado when they shifted too far right when they politically controlled the state in the early 2000s. It’s also true that Polis is the candidate that Republicans most wanted to face. But as you know by now, Bill Owens is the only Republican to have been elected governor over the last 40 years. Does Stapleton have the talent to change that narrative?
  8. The Polis money factor. I get the feeling sometimes that I’m the only one upset that Polis could spend more than $11 million of his own money to win the Democratic primary. Isn’t there a fairness factor here? Money doesn’t always win (see: Mitchell, Victor), but it doesn’t hurt. Analyst Eric Sondermann predicted that oil and gas would spend $20 million to try to defeat Polis, and that Polis would spend as much or more of his own money in return. But others I’ve talked to from the Republican Party don’t think oil and gas may switch gears, particularly since Polis is the favorite to win the race. I’m told by more than a few people that the oil industry may try to work a compromise with Polis.
  9. The issues. Will Stapleton go all in on “illegal aliens” and “sanctuary cities”? Are those winning issues in Colorado? Wouldn’t we have a Gov. Tancredo if they were? And who wins the cross-party fracking attacks? It’s an interesting question. Will Polis attack TABOR? There’s a strong feeling that TABOR reform is increasingly possible, which doesn’t mean that attacking TABOR doesn’t hold risks. Polis has a long list of things he wants to accomplish — all-day kindergarten, universal healthcare, for two big examples — many of which cost money. Republicans will be sure to mention the costs loud and often. I have the feeling that while Dems will go after Stapleton for all the so-called missed PERA meetings, it didn’t seem to work for Republicans. Republicans will try to say that Polis is buying the election, but I don’t know how that plays for the Citizens United team. Democrats will talk Trump, Trump, Trump, with a side dish of Tancredo. Here’s the best guess, and this is pretty much unanimous: The race will be mean and ugly and expensive and by November, we’ll be very glad to see it go.
  10. The what-if factor. If Ed Perlmutter had stayed in the race, would he have beaten Polis? My guess: yes. This is not a unanimous opinion among the panelists. If George Brauchler stayed in the race, would he have beaten Stapleton? My guess: yes. This is also not a unanimous opinion. But Salazar says given that Brauchler will be running against former CU law dean Paul Weiser for attorney general (that race has yet to be declared, but it would take a miracle for Rep. Joe Salazar to pass Weiser at this point), Brauchler might have wished he were running against Polis instead. 
  11. The unaffiliateds: They came out in bigger numbers than expected. Penry said the big winner in the campaign was democracy in Colorado. As he put it: “Colorado got game.” Since neither race was close, the unaffiliateds didn’t mean much in this primary. But it is a sign for the future. As panelist Watson said, all the work done in the primary will carry over to the general. The unaffiliateds who did vote were more likely to vote Democratic, which seems to be a bad sign for Republicans.
  12. Hick. He has finally conceded that he is going to spend the summer figuring out whether to run for president. He wants to obviously, or maybe just vice-president. But here’s a prediction: He will spend the summer finding out that he’s having trouble raising money and having trouble identifying a base and will come back to Colorado for a 2020 showdown with Gardner, which, in local terms, would be so big it would rival the Trump re-election campaign.
Illustration of Mike Littwin by Mike Keefe

 

My friend worked at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md. My friend is dead. Shot by a madman with a gun that, in America, madmen can routinely legally possess.

My friend worked with me for a decade at the Baltimore Sun, where I wrote a column before I came to Denver. He was a newspaper character. His big brother is a famous newspaper character. He is the kind of person who populates newsrooms, not the kind  you’re told is an enemy of the people. My friend Rob Hiaasen was, as far as I know, no one’s enemy.

I’ve worked in newsrooms all my adult life, and even before I was an adult. Newsrooms are a place for profane, off-kilter, wonderfully cynical, big-hearted, some not so big-hearted, newspaper-as-family people who, for the most part, and despite constant threats to the business, could never think of doing anything else.

A mutual friend, Michael Ollove, who worked with us at the Sun, wrote these words:  “Rob Hiaasen was a sweet soul in a hard-nosed, cynical business. There wasn’t a better colleague or friend, generous, empathetic, supportive with a whimsical sense of humor that delighted readers and pals alike. There are no  words to make this loss comprehensible.”

Rob Hiaasen was 59. The obits say he was a mentor to young journalists. I believe that. I knew him best when he was young and eager and already a very funny journalist with a decidedly quirky take on life, like the column he wrote not so long ago on a hard winter’s day about the joys of, yes, snow snorkeling. He left the Sun at some point — I don’t know the details, but I’ll assume his departure was another painful step in the long, long decline of daily newspapers — but got a job in nearby Annapolis as an editor and a Sunday mostly-humor columnist.

Threats from crazy people are part of the business, and have been so long before the Trump era. I’ve endured several stalkers during my career. When I worked at the Rocky, one man would call and leave threatening messages nearly every night at about 2 a.m. I used to laugh at these and pass them around. And then one day he told me in a message he knew my address and he knew the names of my family. I called the cops, the cops found the stalker and warned him to cut it out and he stopped. Life went on.

But not Rob Hiaasen’s life. A man was angry about something that was written about him in the paper. Not by Rob. The columnist who wrote it no longer works there. The shooter sued the paper for defamation. He lost the suit because he couldn’t cite even one word in the offending column that wasn’t true.

Six years later, he got a gun and he killed five people in the newsroom, blasting terror from a shotgun, reporters huddled under desks, one tweeting that there was no worse feeling than hiding from a shooter and hearing him reload. The shooter had barricaded the back door, leaving no place to escape. And now, for reporters already under siege, many wonder if there will be other such shootings. When it was all over in Annapolis,Capital Gazette reporters tweeted that there were would be a paper the next day. And there was.

Five dead. And in this horrible case, one of the people killed was gentle Rob, whose big brother was the gifted novelist and newspaper columnist Carl Hiaasen, in whose footsteps Rob was so proud to follow. There are no footsteps now. Just a very large and enduring footprint. 

And that’s all I can manage to say, except that the epidemic that is the mass-murder crisis in this country has hit home. Of course, it already had. In Columbine. In Aurora.

And I know how wrongly demonized the people I have worked with for nearly 50 years in newsrooms across America have been. I have a close newspaper friend in Denver whose very close friend lost a son at Aurora. And I became friends with some of the families I covered at Columbine. Next April will be the 20th anniversary of that terrible day.

And now? This is now. I mourn for a friend, I mourn for my business. And, as all of us do, I mourn knowing there will inevitably be more tears, after more shootings, after more deaths, in what has become an endlessly tragic news cycle that America has steadfastly refused to address.

 

 

Lead photo of Rob Hiaasen via Maria Hiaasen’s Facebook page. Inset photo via Rob Hiaasen’s Facebook. Ending photo via Rob Hiaasen’s Facebook.