Amid pandemic, Republicans bewildered by Trump’s demand for $1.75bn new FBI building

Donald Trump’s Republican allies in the US Senate are scratching their heads over his administration’s sudden insistence that a $1.75bn reconstruction of the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington DC be included in the highly-contentious coronavirus relief bill now being negotiated on Capitol Hill.

The out-of-the-blue demand this week throws a cog in the wheels of last-minute talks between Republicans, who want to limit the bill’s spending to around $1trn, and the Democrats, who are pushing for a $3trn relief package.

The two sides have yet to reach agreement on extending the $600-a-week support for the unemployed that is due to expire Friday.

"Makes no sense to me"

"I just don’t get it – how is it tied to coronavirus?" said Florida’s Republican senator, Rick Scott, reports The New York Times.

Trump ally Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator for South Carolina, said including the funding "makes no sense to me", while Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chipped in with, "I don’t think it should be in the bill," NBC reported.

Even Republican senate majority leader Mitch McConnell objected to the unexpected White House demand.

"I would hope that all non-Covid related measures are out no matter what bills they were in at the start," he told reporters yesterday.

Democrats object

Democrats have accused Trump, who owns a hotel nearby, of having a commercial interest in the plan.

For years, lawmakers have been discussing what to do about the J. Edgar Hoover Building (pictured), as it is known. Completed in 1974, it is now described as rundown and unfit for purpose.

In 2012 the federal government’s facilities arm, the General Services Administration (GSA), began developing a plan to sell the site and move the FBI to the suburbs in Virginia or Maryland.

But that plan hit a barrier when Congress refused to allocate sufficient funds for it in 2017.

Championed by Trump

In 2018, GSA switched tack, proposing instead to tear the building down and build a new one on the same site, a scheme championed by Trump.

Democrats accuse Trump of wanting to keep the FBI there to prevent a competing hotel going up on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, told NBC: "My guess is that this is a personal issue for the president of the United States. I think it has as much to do with the fact that his hotel is on Pennsylvania Avenue as it does with the FBI itself."  

Trump’s possible influence on the GSA’s change of plan was a subject of a 2018 review into the matter carried out by the GSA Office of Inspector General.

It found that building a new HQ on the same site would end up costing more than moving it out of town.

It also found that that Trump-appointed GSA administrator, Emily Murphy, had not disclosed discussions with the President or senior White House officials in the decision-making process about the project.

"Desperately needed"

The White House defended the inclusion of the new building in the Covid relief bill, saying the need for a new HQ was urgent, and that the FBI should remain close to the Department of Justice.

"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," Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.

Image: The J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI, on Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC (I, Aude/CC BY-SA 3.0)

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