WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump personally intervened to stop the FBI from moving its headquarters in Washington to the Maryland or Virginia suburbs, emails made public Thursday reveal. The decision that the bureau will not move will help the president’s bottom line by reducing competition for his flagship hotel property located in the Old Post Office building across the street from the current FBI building.
The emails between officials at the General Services Administration, which oversees government-owned properties, and the FBI show that the decision to stop the long-running plan to move FBI headquarters to the suburbs and sell the sprawling, brutalist J. Edgar Hoover Building to developers for a mixed-use development came directly from the president.
In the emails, made public by House Democrats, officials discuss “what was decided in the meeting with POTUS,” “the President’s instructions,” and “direction from WH” following a January 2018 meeting about the plan.
“Given this background, President Trump should have avoided all interactions or communications relating to the FBI headquarters project to prevent both real and perceived conflicts of interest,” Democrats on several House committees wrote in a letter Thursday. “He should not have played any role in a determination that bears directly on his own financial interests with the Trump Hotel. The GSA also should have taken steps to wall off the decision from improper influence.”
The revelations in the newly released emails provide further problems for GSA Administrator Emily Murphy. At a congressional oversight hearing in April, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) asked Murphy if the president was involved in the discussions to change the decade-old plan to relocate the FBI headquarters. Murphy said the decision came solely from the FBI.
That answer was “incomplete and may have left the misleading impression that she had no discussions with White House officials in the decision-making,” an inspector general report on Murphy’s comments revealed in August.
That inspector general report revealed that the White House held multiple meetings with GSA officials, including Murphy, for discussions about the FBI building.
Trump’s ownership of the Trump International Hotel in the Old Post Office building attracted immediate criticism upon his 2016 election victory. The Old Post Office building is owned by the GSA, and the president’s business operates out of the historic structure on a 60-year lease. When Trump took the unprecedented step to not divest from his personal business he effectively became the boss of his lessor, the GSA. No situation could be more ripe for conflicts of interest.
The lease technically states that “no … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” But a GSA contracting officer ruled in March 2017, after Trump assumed the presidency and authority over the agency, that the hotel was in “full compliance” of the lease.
Trump is also potentially in violation of the U.S. Constitution clause that forbids federal government officials from receiving any emolument (a financial or material gain) from “the United States, or any [state]” or from foreign governments. The domestic section of the clause is designed to prevent individual states or parts of the federal government from bribing high-ranking officials.
The president and his business are the targets of two separate lawsuits arguing that he is in violation of the emoluments clause. The federal judges overseeing both cases ― one brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia and the other by Democratic senators led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) ― have already ruled that the emoluments clause applies to the president and that an emolument is defined as “any ‘profit,’ ‘gain,’ or ‘advantage.’”
Karl Racine, the District of Columbia attorney general, reacted to the revelations in the emails by telling HuffPost that “this kind of behavior demonstrates precisely why we sued President Trump: to stop him from violating the Constitution’s original anti-corruption provisions and to ensure he is working for the American people and not his personal financial interest.”
Anne Weismann, counsel for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said, “It’s one more example we see where, because of the president’s personal financial interests, he’s willing to compromise the interests of our government.”
This story has been updated with comment from Karl Racine, the District of Columbia attorney general.