By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Democrats on Friday asked the White House for more information about planning for a new FBI headquarters and released a government email that they said raises fresh concerns about the Trump administration’s handling of the matter.
In the latest skirmish between top Democratic investigators in the U.S. House of Representatives and the administration, five lawmakers sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly including the internal email from February 2018.
The Feb. 13 email included in the letter says a White House-backed proposal for a new FBI building at the agency’s existing headquarters site in central Washington, D.C., would result in a “less secure facility” and have a “higher per seat cost” than an earlier plan to move the FBI to the suburbs.
The letter was signed by senior Democrats, including Elijah Cummings and Peter DeFazio, who would take over leadership of powerful House committees if their party wins a House majority in Tuesday’s congressional elections.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said: “We have received the ranking members’ letter and are currently reviewing it.” The General Services Administration (GSA), which manages federal buildings, referred questions to the White House.
The FBI’s decaying, 1970s-built home in the J. Edgar Hoover Building is one block from the Trump International Hotel.
In their letter, the lawmakers reiterated concerns “with President (Donald) Trump’s direct involvement in the administration’s abrupt decision to reverse longstanding plans to relocate the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters.”
They said the administration’s support for keeping the FBI where it is on prime commercial land, would “block potential competitors from developing the existing property on Pennsylvania Avenue across the street from the Trump Hotel.”
They questioned “why the White House and GSA allowed President Trump to participate directly in a decision that affects his own personal financial interests.”
The email shows, they said, that administration officials knew at least as early as February 2018 that constructing a new FBI headquarters on its present site would cost taxpayers more than relocating the agency to nearby Virginia or Maryland.
The members of Congress questioned why White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, in response to an earlier letter, said on Oct. 18, “Once again House Democrats have it all wrong. The president wanted to save the government money, and also the FBI leadership did not want to move its headquarters.”
Last month, the same Democrats sent a letter to GSA saying they had serious concerns about an “abrupt decision” by Trump to abandon earlier plans to relocate the FBI out of Washington.
In the earlier letter, the Democrats said that before he became president, Trump expressed interest in the FBI leaving its present home so he could buy the land and redevelop it.
After he was sworn in as president and became disqualified from buying the land, the Democrats alleged, Trump became “dead opposed” to the government selling the FBI property to other commercial developers who might compete with his nearby hotel.
In their latest letter, the Democrats asked Kelly to provide them by Nov. 15 extensive details on discussions, documents and communication between the White House, GSA, FBI and others regarding the FBI headquarters project.
The House committees on which the Democrats sit are now controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, none of whom signed the letter.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Andrea Ricci)