Emails Reveal President Trump's Involvement In Halting Redevelopment of FBI Headquarters

Oct 18, 2018
Originally published on October 18, 2018 10:03 pm
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For years there's been a debate about what to do with the aging headquarters of the FBI which happens to sit across the street from President Trump's Washington hotel. A newly released batch of emails indicates the president influenced a federal decision to keep the FBI on the same site. Trump's involvement in the fate of the property is being investigated by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee who are concerned about possible presidential conflicts of interest. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This all has to do with the FBI and its old, dilapidated headquarters in D.C. The building sits across Pennsylvania Avenue from President Trump's hotel. The General Services Administration, the federal government's real estate manager, planned to move the FBI to bigger facilities in the Washington suburbs. Dorothy Robyn, a GSA official, explained the financial angle to a House hearing in 2013.

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DOROTHY ROBYN: We believe the Pennsylvania Avenue site has considerable potential for higher and better use than as a headquarters of a federal agency. We hope to unlock that hidden value and apply it to the creation of a new facility.

OVERBY: In fact, Donald Trump, before he was president, showed an interest in developing the old FBI site. But by 2016, he was about to cut the ribbon at the current hotel. He bragged about it on the campaign trail. Here he is in Fairfield, Conn.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're building a very, very complex super-luxury hotel. It's going to employ a lot of people. It's almost finished. It's more than...

OVERBY: And last winter, Trump stopped the FBI's move. It happened in a White House meeting with officials from the FBI and GSA. The new plan is to rebuild the old headquarters, although it means moving thousands of workers elsewhere. This spring, GSA administrator Emily Murphy told a House committee Trump had nothing to do with the decision to rebuild.

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EMILY MURPHY: The - this direction that we got came from the FBI. It was the FBI that directed GSA as to what its requirements would be.

OVERBY: But the emails released today suggest something else. One GSA official referred to the project as, quote, "a demolition, new construction per the president's instructions." Another referred to it as, quote, "what POTUS directed everyone to do." Gerry Connolly is a Democratic congressman from just across the Potomac in Virginia. He said that redevelopment could land a competitor across the street from Trump's hotel.

GERRY CONNOLLY: A number of us thought the president had to have something to do with this personally.

OVERBY: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told The New York Times that, quote, "the president wanted to save the government money, and also, the FBI leadership did not want to move its headquarters." Kathleen Clark is a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Her specialty is governmental ethics.

KATHLEEN CLARK: This is a problem because Trump's intervention may well have been motivated by his personal financial concerns with his own hotel.

OVERBY: But she points out the president is exempt from federal ethics laws, including the ban on conflicts of interest. A GSA spokeswoman said the emails were taken out of context and referred to funding issues, not the location.

Congressman Elijah Cummings is the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. If Democrats take the House next month, Cummings is in line to become chairman. In a phone call this afternoon, Cummings said he'll wait for official responses from the White House and GSA. He said the White House often stonewalls and said it's quite possible the oversight committee won't take up the issue again until January. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.