Washington — House Democrats said Thursday that they have obtained emails showing President Donald Trump intervened in a decision to build a new FBI headquarters at its current Washington location.
The lawmakers said it was in Trump’s interest to prevent commercial development of the site that could compete with the nearby Trump International Hotel.
The change in course was a blow to Maryland and Virginia, which had been competing for years for the project and its anticipated 11,000 jobs.
In a letter to the General Services Administration, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and other Democrats wrote that Trump has a “clear conflict of interest on this matter.” Cummings is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Trump administration has maintained that decisions about the location were made because of input from senior FBI leadership, not the White House.
“The idea that the reason the president wanted the FBI headquarters to remain in its current location is based on anything other than the recommendation of the FBI is simply false,” White House spokesman Judson Deere said in an email Thursday. “I would also add: House Democrats have it all wrong. The president wanted to save the government money and also the FBI leadership did not want to move its headquarters.”
Thursday's letter from the lawmakers cites correspondence from a senior official at the GSA, which manages real estate for the federal government, outlining a January 2018 Oval Office meeting and describing the headquarters decision as “what POTUS directed everyone to do.” Another email describes steps that will be “necessary to deliver the project the president wants on the timetable he wants it done.”
“After he was sworn in as president … he reportedly became ‘dead opposed’ to the government selling the property, which would have allowed commercial developers to compete directly with the Trump Hotel,” the Democrats’ letter says.
The Democrats asked the GSA for further information and documents about the president’s role in the decision.
The GSA said the decision to keep the FBI headquarters at its current site was made by FBI leaders.
“A number of emails referenced in today’s congressional letter are taken out of context and refer to the project's funding approach, not the location decision,” said Pamela Dixon, a GSA spokeswoman. “Suggestions that those emails indicate presidential involvement in the location decision are inaccurate.”
In 2014, the GSA had said the project would be built at one of three locations: Greenbelt or Landover in Maryland, or Springfield, Va.
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The Trump administration said in February that it was reversing course. It said its plan would include a worthy building and a better deal for taxpayers.
In August, an inspector general’s report said the GSA official overseeing plans for the headquarters delivered incomplete — and possibly misleading — testimony to a congressional committee about the White House’s input.
The report said statements by GSA administrator Emily Murphy “may have left the misleading impression that she had no discussions with the president or senior White House officials in the decision-making process about the project.”
The GSA replied that the inspector general’s report "acknowledges an indisputable fact: the administrator's congressional testimony was truthful" and that the agency was “unaware of any White House involvement in the FBI’s decision.”
The correspondence cited by Democrats was also available to the inspector general. Democrats say the documents are particularly significant.
The documents “confirm what many in the media have reported and what many lawmakers have long suspected: that the president was intimately involved in, and single-handedly altered the FBI’s original plans to build a new consolidated headquarters in Maryland or Virginia,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, a Democrat who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.
“The president and his administration have employed faulty and misleading reasoning to keep the FBI in its current location, and have displayed an alarming lack of transparency and accountability with Congress,” Brown said.