WASHINGTON – Under White House pressure, Senate Republicans agreed Monday to allocate $1.75 billion in their coronavirus relief bill toward the construction of a new D.C. headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
But top Senate Republicans immediately began distancing themselves from the provision after it was made public, saying they were not sure why the White House repeatedly insisted on putting it in the bill.
In calling for a new “Washington, DC headquarters facility,” the provision reflects Trump’s ongoing interest in building a new headquarters for the FBI downtown, rather than a secure campus in the suburbs that was envisioned before he took office.
At a news conference Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., initially denied that the FBI money was in the bill, but then he was notified by his staff that the money had been included.
“You’ll have to ask them why they insisted that be included,” he told reporters, referring to the White House.
Although the provision says the money would enable the bureau to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally,” the request did not appear to be related to the economic fallout of the pandemic, which lawmakers are rushing to address before expanded jobless aid expires later this week.
Asked Monday what a new FBI building had to do with the virus, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a key negotiator of the stimulus package, paused and said “good question.”
Shelby, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that for some items the bill had to “stretch the link” to the pandemic.
“This is an administration proposal to move on with the FBI. They need a new FBI building down the street, it’s not safe to work in, you know, and so forth,” he said.
When the White House first proposed inserting money on the FBI building in the legislation and conditioning it on keeping the headquarters in Washington, Republican lawmakers blocked it from being in the bill, people familiar with the discussions said. But White House officials persisted in demanding the money, and it ended up back in the legislation.
“As President Trump has said, the FBI desperately needs a new building and this measure provides critical funding for this project that would keep the building responsibly near the Department of Justice,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.
Trump said at a news conference last week that a new FBI headquarters should be built downtown on the site of the crumbling J. Edgar Hoover Building.
“The best idea would be to build a new building, and that way you have it for a long time,” he said.
While there is wide agreement in both parties that the FBI needs a new headquarters, Trump’s decision shortly after taking office to cancel an advanced plan to build a suburban campus and press for a new downtown location has flummoxed congressional leaders, with some Democrats accusing him of acting in his own self-interest.
Complicating efforts for a compromise are potential conflicts of interest stemming from Trump’s continued ownership of a hotel a block down Pennsylvania Avenue. Before Trump was elected, officials at his company raised concerns about a competing hotel possibly being built in place of the Hoover Building should the FBI relocate to the suburbs.
White House officials have denied that Trump’s business interests have anything to do with his plans for the bureau’s new headquarters, and last year Trump’s company announced plans to sell the hotel’s lease. Those plans are on hold due to the economic repercussions of the pandemic.
Concerns over Trump’s financial interests prompted the Department of Justice’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, to launch an investigation of the decision-making that led to the cancellation of the original plan. That investigation continues more than a year later, the inspector general’s office said Monday. A spokeswoman declined to comment further.
Spokespersons at the FBI did not respond to questions about the provision but issued a statement saying that “the need for a new FBI headquarters facility has not abated” and that the bureau was working with Congress and the administration on a path forward.
A spokeswoman at the General Services Administration, which handles federal real estate, referred questions to White House Office of Management and Budget, where officials did not provide comment.
As Trump pointed out in his news conference, pieces of concrete have been falling off the Hoover Building for years, prompting officials to adorn the building’s eastern facade with netting to prevent pieces from falling onto the sidewalk. The 46-year-old building falls short of many security requirements put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Federal officials under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama long had insisted that the FBI required a suburban Washington campus where it could consolidate 11,000 FBI personnel in a modern and secure facility, much like the CIA has in Langley, Va.
By 2016, officials had decided on three finalist locations for a campus near the Beltway in Maryland or Virginia, and Congress had appropriated $913 million toward a project expected to cost more than $3 billion. Federal officials had begun vetting the locations with neighborhood residents and local officials.
But six months after Trump took office, his administration ditched the plan, with officials including FBI Director Christopher Wray saying they wanted the FBI to remain downtown. Administration officials said they would move 2,300 staffers out of the Washington area altogether, to Alabama, Idaho and West Virginia, to make the plan work.
Shelby referenced those transfers Monday, saying the bureau had relocated some staff members because of advances in communications.
Trump reiterated his interest in keeping the FBI downtown in his remarks last week, saying that if the bureau were in the suburbs, it “would have been too far away.”
“They want to build it at the site that they have it,” Trump said. “They had options very far away from Washington, and I said to them, ‘Frankly you have to be near the Justice Department.’ There’s nothing better than the site they have.”
Ever the real estate developer, Trump said the new building could have a running track on top, where agents could work out.
“You could have literally quarter-mile tracks on top”, he said.
House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said she did not expect a provision requiring the project to be built in the District of Columbia to pass because of the difficulty of providing adequate security setbacks in what is normally a bustling section of downtown.
“I would be surprised when they get into negotiations if this proposal survived, particularly given the setback issue,” she said in an interview.
Norton said she would still like to see the FBI headquarters moved to the suburbs. Redeveloping the Hoover Building site into a mix of new housing and commercial space would return some of D.C.’s most valuable real estate to its tax base.
“Pennsylvania Avenue doesn’t’ have much space of the kind that could create revenue for the District, so there is no question I would like that piece of land to be used for revenue purposes,” she said.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., whose state has been pushing to secure the FBI project for years, issued a statement last week criticizing the idea of rebuilding downtown, calling it “misguided” and accusing Trump of using the FBI project to protect his hotel interests.
Some Democrats would like to see the administration submit a new plan. In an appropriations bill that could be voted on this week, House Democrats included a provision that would require the GSA to provide a plan to Congress outlining a plan for the project “including all the costs associated with site acquisition, design, management, and inspection, and a description of all buildings and infrastructure needed to complete the project.”