Washington — The federal government's ongoing and sometimes contentious evaluation of sites for the construction of a new FBI headquarters was not impeded or unduly affected by the Trump White House, a new report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found Tuesday.
For years, the FBI and General Services Administration (GSA) officials have been thinking about moving the bureau's 1970's-era, downtown Washington, D.C., headquarters to suburban locations in either Maryland or Virginia. But in 2019, the FBI changed its stance and recommended remaining in the nation's capital, across the street from the Justice Department.
The Justice Department watchdog's review centered around that shift in preference and whether concerns raised by congressional Democrats about then-President Donald Trump's influence were valid. Democrats in Congress alleged Trump may have wanted to keep the FBI headquarters in Washington in order to avoid the possibility that a hotel might be built there — which would have competed with the Trump International Hotel a few blocks away. The Trump Organization announced in May 2022 that it had.
Between 2014 and 2017, the government sought to sell the current FBI headquarters land to a developer in exchange for the discounted construction of a new site at a different location.
"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 Tuesday. "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 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."
Under the Biden administration, momentum has shifted against keeping the FBI headquarters entirely in Washington, D.C. Now, the FBI plans to split components of its headquarters between Washington and another location. There are three possible sites — Springfield, Virginia; Greenbelt or Landover, Maryland — to be chosen by the GSA in coordination with an advisory panel.
The report said the inspector general was "concerned" by the lack of progress made by the FBI and Justice Department in moving forward with a new facility.
"Although we recognize that considerable work toward determining the FBI's requirements for a new Headquarters facility has been accomplished, GSA, DOJ, and the FBI must make significant decisions, obtain necessary congressional support, and complete substantial work over the next several years before the FBI's essential mission can be supported by a new Headquarters," the report said.
The watchdog investigators said they conducted over 50 interviews with 31 witnesses, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and then-former Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Robert Hur, who has since been named special counsel to investigate documents with classified markings found at President Joe Biden's office and residence from his time as vice president.
Wray told the inspector general, according to the report, that ongoing discussions about the billion-dollar decision came up in his 2017 interview with Trump to replace James Comey, on a call later that year and again during a 2018 Oval Office meeting, but said he did not feel pressured by the president.
"I did not feel pressured. I did not feel bullied," Wray said of the 2018 meeting, the report revealed. Wray told Trump, according to a memo summarizing the meeting and detailed in the report, that it would be "great" if the FBI could remain in its current location and asked for the White House's support. He made similar remarks in testimony before to Congress around the same time.
"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 memo said, as described in the inspector general's analysis. " There was nothing inappropriate or improper. The President said go forth and make plans."
The Justice Department watchdog found that many of the FBI's leadership and its employees opposed the plans to move the headquarters outside of Washington, D.C., because they preferred being in closer proximity to law enforcement partners and other officials in the area.
Wray told the inspector general that the decision to change the location recommendation was based on "merits" and other equities, and not any undue influence.
The FBI remains headquartered in downtown Washington, D.C. and its potential move has become a flashpoint between congressional representatives of Virginia and Maryland because development would be a boon to the local economy.
The FBI declined to comment on the report, citing its standard practice of not commenting on IG reports.
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