President Donald Trump had no role in deciding to keep the FBI headquarters downtown, General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy told Congress Wednesday, at least none that she was aware of.
Murphy also said she was not aware of any discussions regarding the Trump hotel, which is down the street from the headquarters, and how it might be affected if the current FBI headquarters were replaced by private development. Democrats have alleged that Trump inserted himself into the planning — a rarity for a president — in order to prevent the J. Edgar Hoover Building from being replaced by a hotel that could compete with his.
Murphy said that when she met with Trump, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, budget director John Mulvaney and then-White House chief of staff Gen. John Kelly in January of 2018, Wray had already indicated to her he preferred to keep the FBI downtown.
“The location had already been decided weeks before meeting with the president,” Murphy told the House Appropriations subcommittee, adding later that: “What we concluded at that meeting was how we were going to pay for that project.”
Murphy, who was previously criticized by her agency’s inspector general for not being more forthcoming with Congress about Trump’s involvement in the project, repeatedly declined to answer questions from Democrats about her discussions with the president.
“I can say who was there and what we concluded,” she said when Democrats inquired about the president’s involvement.
Murphy is a top target for Democrats because of her authority over not only the FBI headquarters but the Old Post Office Pavilion, which the GSA leases to the president’s company despite criticism from ethics experts and Constitutional scholars.
Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., was frustrated to see that during the government shutdown, the clock tower at the Old Post Office was staffed by National Park Service employees while the agency failed to protect Joshua Tree National Park, allowing it to be battered by vandals.
Murphy said Public Buildings Service staff was not furloughed during the shutdown and worked out an agreement with the Park Service to keep the clock tower open using funds from the project, which did not rely on appropriations.
“There was no influence from political appointees and no influence from the White House,” in that decision, Murphy said.
Much of the discussion however focused on the FBI and the president’s involvement in its future facilities. For more than a decade, officials from the FBI and GSA argued that the dilapidated Hoover Building lacked needed modern security requirements and that the bureau ought to move to a suburban campus akin to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The Trump administration cancelled those plans after Wray — according to FBI and GSA officials — said he wanted to move around 2,300 employees out of the Washington area and maintain a smaller Washington presence that could fit in a new building on the Hoover site.
Murphy said Wray told her of his desire to remain downtown before she met with Trump. She acknowledged initially pushing back on Wray’s idea because the agency had already secured hundreds of millions of dollars in appropriations for the suburban plan.
“My concern was that by switching from a campus to remaining at the current location we would have a lot of trouble getting funding,” she said.
In a subsequent meeting, however, she said Wray told her that the existing plan “no longer met their needs.”
“That took that [suburban campus option] off the table,” she said.
Appropriators are moving forward with plans to relocate some back-office FBI functions outside of the area, to Alabama, Idaho and West Virginia. But the Trump administration did not include a request for any new headquarters funds in its budget proposal, leaving the project in limbo.
Murphy said the need to get out of the Hoover Building remained dire and that an eight-pound block of concrete had recently crashed through the ceiling and landed on an employee’s desk, startling but not injuring the employee.
Democrats remained unconvinced that the new plan would provide a secure and more cost-efficient home for the bureau. “Let’s be clear, we are off the tracks,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., subcommittee chair.
Murphy has not appeared in front of Congress since last April when, under questioning from Quigley, she avoided mentioning the president’s involvement in the project.
A report by the agency’s inspector general found that Murphy’s testimony “was incomplete and may have left the misleading impression that she had no discussions with the President or senior White House officials about the project.”
Murphy stood by her prior testimony Wednesday, saying she believed she was being asked at the time about her discussions regarding where the FBI would be located, not the project at large.
“I understood the questions that I was being asked to be about the location decision,” she said.
In a separate inquiry, GSA Inspector General Carol Ochoa took aim at the GSA’s willingness to look the other way when it allowed Trump to keep the hotel lease after he was elected president. She issued a report in January saying the agency “improperly” ignored constitutional concerns before allowing Trump to keep the lease.
Ochoa did not, however, recommend cancelling the hotel deal. Two lawsuits currently in federal court allege that Trump’s business accepting payments from foreign governments at the hotel violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause to bar gifts or payments from other nations.
The Justice Department, defending Trump in the cases, argues he has not received emoluments and that the agreement ought to remain in place.