Why the FBI headquarters' location is suddenly important again

It's long been one of the under-appreciated Trump scandals, but the future of the FBI headquarters is suddenly relevant anew.
Image: FILES-US-POLITICS-TRUMP-FBI
The J. Edgar Hoover Building, seen in 2013, is the headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images, file
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By Steve Benen

By all accounts, there are a variety of disagreements among Republicans about how best to proceed with a new economic-aid package, each of which are contributing to an ongoing debacle for the GOP. But there's one sticking point in particular that's worth paying close attention to.

The Washington Post had an interesting report yesterday on the breakdowns among Republicans, which touched on a detail I haven't seen elsewhere.

Complicating matters, the White House renewed its push for language related to the location of the Federal Bureau of Investigation building in downtown Washington -- which is cater-cornered from Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave NW -- according to two people with knowledge of the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss them. Trump has expressed interest in the location of the FBI’s headquarters for some time.

In other words, one of the reasons GOP officials still can't produce an aid package is that Team Trump wants to see a provision in the bill related to the FBI’s headquarters. What does this have to do with keeping the economy afloat during a pandemic? Not much, but the White House reportedly has made it a priority anyway.

In fact, at yesterday's press briefing, a reporter specifically asked the president whether this is one of the things holding up the bill. Donald Trump delivered a rather long answer, but he didn't deny the Post's reporting.

The president said the bureau needs a new building, but he wants the FBI to remain at its current location. "There’s nothing better than the [existing] site," Trump claimed. He added that he'd like to see an "incredible" new headquarters, in the same spot, complete with a running track on the roof "because FBI people like to work out a lot."

Trump then wrapped up his answer about the FBI building, ended the briefing, and left the room.

On the surface, this may seem like a bizarre topic. Why would the president care so much about the FBI's location? As it turns out, there's an under-appreciated controversy about this.

Let's circle back to our earlier coverage for those who may need a refresher.

Trump’s keen interest in the FBI’s headquarters has been at the center of a controversy for quite a while. In fact, Axios reported two years ago this week on the president's "obsession" with the question about whether to leave the FBI where it is or relocate the bureau’s headquarters to a nearby suburb.

The president made it clear he was “dead opposed to plans to move it out of D.C.”

Asked for an explanation, then-White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in October 2018, “The president wanted to save the government money,” which is why he directly intervened in the project. The Wall Street Journal reported soon after that Sanders’ argument was the opposite of the truth: the administration knew that keeping the FBI headquarters in downtown D.C. "would cost more than a competing proposal to relocate to the suburbs."

As for why the president would take an interest in this in the first place, some geographic context is probably in order. For those unfamiliar with D.C., the Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently located along Pennsylvania Avenue, about four blocks east of the White House.

It’s also, incidentally, about a block from the Trump International Hotel, which the president still leases, operates, and profits from. If the current FBI headquarters were redeveloped in its existing space, it’d benefit Trump’s investment. Just as importantly, keeping the bureau in its current home would guarantee that a competing hotel wouldn’t go in at that location.

All of which makes it interesting that the White House has not only been directly involved in the talks about plans for the building, but it's also pushing for a provision about the FBI headquarters' future in an unrelated economic package.