Democrats itching to investigate President Trump’s possible conflicts of interests have zeroed in on a familiar presidential foe: the FBI.
House Democrats released a trove of new documents this week that they say prove Trump was directly involved in canceling plans developed by the federal government to sell the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Critics argue that Trump intervened because he wanted to prevent commercial developers from building a new property at the downtown Washington, D.C., spot that might compete with the Trump Hotel, which is located across the street.
If Democrats take back the House this fall, they say they will seek to get their hands on more potentially damning documents, haul in FBI and General Services Administration (GSA) officials to testify under oath and possibly pass legislation to block the administration from moving forward with the rebuilding plan.
The FBI building is just one example of the many ways that Democrats could make life hell for the president if they win the ability to conduct rigorous oversight of the administration.
“This is something the White House and [incoming counsel] Pat Cipollone need to buckle in for,” David Urban, a former Trump campaign strategist, said on CNN this week. “There’s gonna be a lot of this coming. A lot of it.”
The GSA, which oversees government buildings, had long debated whether to demolish the FBI’s aging J. Edgar Hoover Building and let a commercial developer come in to build something new, which would allow the FBI to relocate its headquarters to a larger and more secure location in the Washington suburbs.
The FBI decided in February to instead go along with a more expensive proposal to rebuild the D.C. headquarters.
Democrats say the documents they released this week suggest the FBI did so at Trump’s behest, though the administration has maintained that it was the FBI’s decision, and that it wanted to stay close to the nearby Department of Justice.
“As previously testified by GSA and the FBI, the leadership team at the FBI made the decision to keep its headquarters at the current Pennsylvania Avenue location,” said Pamela Dixon, press secretary for the GSA.
She said emails highlighted by Democrats that suggest Trump was involved in the decision have been “taken out of context.”
“Suggestions that those emails indicate presidential involvement in the location decision are inaccurate,” Dixon added.
Democrats say their documents show the decision was actually approved during an Oval Office meeting between Trump and GSA officials on Jan. 24.
The documents include a picture of the meeting in question and emails that describe the project as what “the president wants” and “what POTUS directed everyone to do.” GSA officials are also quoted in emails saying that they were operating “per the President’s instructions.”
Democrats believe that Trump, who expressed interest in redeveloping the FBI headquarters before he ran for president, interfered in the procurement process to help his financial bottom line. The real-estate-developer-turned-president has faced repeated accusations about his conflicts of interest since stepping into the White House.
“President Trump has an obvious conflict of interest, but instead of keeping him as far away as possible from this decision, his top advisors enabled the President, were complicit in these abuses, and withheld the truth from Congress,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement to The Hill.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), the top Democrat on an Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, also questioned whether Trump’s decision was influenced by his ongoing feud with the FBI. The law enforcement agency is investigating whether his campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
“He has made a lot of disparaging statements about the FBI. One has to wonder if that may have crept into the decision,” Connolly told The Hill. “Is this another example of his vindictiveness and pettiness?”
Democrats are also furious that they were misled about Trump’s involvement in the procurement process.
GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, one of the officials captured in the photo of the January Oval Office meeting, testified in front of Congress earlier this year about the FBI building, but did not mention meeting with Trump to discuss the project. An inspector general report released in August called her testimony “incomplete.”
Now, Democrats not only want to have Murphy come back and testify under oath, but they also want to grill FBI Director Christopher Wray and other White House officials about the administration’s role in the decision making process.
Cummings, Connolly and several other senior Democrats sent a letter to the GSA this week demanding a batch of new documents from the administration, including a timeline of all meetings and discussions between the GSA and White House on the FBI headquarters, all correspondence related to the project and any communication regarding Murphy’s congressional testimony.
They are also exploring legislative options, such as attaching an amendment to the annual GSA spending bill aimed at forcing the administration to reverse its decision.
But as the minority party, Democrats have few tools at their disposal to force the administration’s hand. If they win back the House, however, they could convene hearings, subpoena officials to testify, require the administration to hand over documents and hold officials in contempt of Congress if they fail to comply.
“Obviously, [the FBI building] is gonna be a big priority, given who signed the letter,” Connolly told The Hill. “If there is a new majority in January, we will take this issue seriously, as it deserves.”
Democrats have plenty of other targets in their sights when it comes to Trump’s businesses. Another area that they see as ripe for potential conflicts of interest is the Trump Hotel in D.C.
Trump signed a lease with the GSA to rent the Old Post Office building for his hotel, but the lease contains a provision explicitly prohibiting any elected official from benefiting from the lease. Trump’s critics have cried foul that the arrangement has been allowed to continue after Trump became president.
And Democrats also worry that foreign government officials are booking rooms and events at the Trump Hotel to curry favor with the White House, which could violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
“Republicans have failed to conduct basic, independent investigations of President Trump’s conflicts of interest, but this is exactly what the Constitution requires, and it is what Democrats will do if we are fortunate enough to be in the majority in November,” Cummings said.
BY MELANIE ZANONA – 10/21/18