After a lengthy review, a Department of Justice watchdog has found that President Donald Trump didn’t improperly influence the FBI’s decision to keep its headquarters in downtown Washington rather than move it to suburban locations in Maryland or Virginia.
“With regard to possible influence by then-President Trump or the White House, we found no evidence that the FBI’s decisions were based on improper considerations or motives,” the Justice Department inspector general wrote in a report released on Oct. 24, after a four-year investigation.
Roughly 20 years ago, the FBI concluded that its Washington-based headquarters—the J. Edgar Hoover Building—was no longer meeting the needs of the agency in terms of security and supporting the needs of its workforce.
Starting in 2014, the government began to explore the possibility of transferring ownership of the current FBI headquarters land to a developer, who in exchange would build a new facility in the city’s suburbs in a deal dubbed an “exchange procurement.”
However, the General Services Administration (GSA) found that the value of the existing site wouldn’t cover the cost of a new facility, and so the Office of Management and Budget asked Congress for money to cover the difference.
In July 2017, the GSA announced that it had canceled plans to go ahead with the exchange procurement deal because Congress didn’t appropriate all of the requested funds. This prompted the FBI to scrap plans for a suburban campus and instead recommend that the J. Edgar Hoover Building be demolished and a new headquarters constructed in its place.
However, some Democrats saw a conspiracy afoot. They accused President Trump of meddling in that decision, claiming in an October 2018 letter to the GSA that he did it to keep competitors away from his Washington-based commercial property, the Trump International Hotel.
They alleged that President Trump directly influenced the decision to scrap the suburban campus construction deal during a January 2018 meeting that included officials from the GSA, the FBI, and the White House.
“He was directly involved with the decision to abandon the long-term relocation plan and instead move ahead [with the alternate plan],” the Democrats wrote.
“He should not have played any role in a determination that bears directly on his own financial interests with the Trump hotel.”
The letter prompted an investigation, which concluded by finding President Trump innocent of the allegations.
“Specifically, we found no evidence that, in making the decision to seek to have the new FBI headquarters remain at its current JEH site, Director [Christopher] Wray or others at the FBI considered the location of the then-named Trump International Hotel or how then-President Trump’s financial interests could be impacted by the decision,” the watchdog wrote in the report.
‘I Did Not Feel Pressured’: FBI Director
Mr. Wray told the watchdog that the matter of relocating the headquarters came up in discussions with President Trump on several occasions but that he never felt pressured by the 45th president into making any kind of decision.
“I did not feel pressured. I did not feel bullied,” Mr. Wray said in reference to one of the discussions that he had with President Trump in 2018, according to a memo cited in the watchdog’s report.
In fact, Mr. Wray told President Trump that he thought that it would be “great” if the FBI’s headquarters could remain in Washington rather than be relocated to the suburbs.
“There was no pressure to go in a particular direction. There was no requirement to stay in the current location. The Director concluded that the President had a topic that was in his element, he knows building. He was excited and engaged about the topic,” the watchdog report reads, citing a memo describing Mr. Wray’s characterization of President Trump’s comments.
“There was nothing inappropriate or improper. The President said go forth and make plans.”
In fact, the watchdog found that there was opposition to moving the FBI headquarters to the suburbs among many of the agency’s leadership and staff because they didn’t like the idea of being farther away from law enforcement partners and other agencies.
Although Mr. Wray told the watchdog that he believed that President Trump and he had the same preference for leaving the facility in the city, he insisted that the decision was based on the “merits of the decision” and wasn’t “driven by or based on … anything the President said or wanted.”
When asked to characterize President Trump’s involvement in the decision, Mr. Wray said: “I would say he was not involved in my recommendation,” and the watchdog report cited several points of evidence that President Trump left the decision to Mr. Wray in a way that was “in the best interest of the FBI.”
Plans for the FBI headquarters have shifted under the Biden administration, with the FBI and GSA now planning to keep some parts of the headquarters in Washington and relocate others to somewhere else, possibly in Springfield, Virginia, or in Greenbelt or Landover in Maryland.