Three years after President Trump canceled a decade-long plan to build an FBI headquarters in the Washington suburbs, the bureau’s effort at securing a new home remains mired in uncertainty, with no active plan or funding source and thousands of agents still working at the crumbling and poorly secured J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington.
But there is ample financial support and a clear plan for another FBI headquarters project, one in Huntsville, Ala., that will welcome 1,500 of the bureau’s headquarters staff from the Washington region next year and probably thousands more in coming years.
The principal architect of the flow of FBI staff to Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal complex is Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who has shepherded the project through approvals and secured $1.1 billion in funding for it over the past four years.
During the same time period, Trump has fixated on building a new FBI headquarters in the District of Columbia, including his recent insistence that the Senate GOP novel coronavirus bill include a $1.8 billion request for the idea.
But Trump’s request has further hardened opposition from Democrats who are angry with the president for canceling in 2017 a years-long effort by the bureau to construct a secure campus in the Washington suburbs. Democrats say Trump’s interest is in preventing a hotel from ever being built on the Hoover site, where it could compete with the nearby Trump hotel.
“It reaffirmed what we originally thought ―that this is personal to the president and his financial interests,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
White House spokesman Judd Deere denied the accusations and said that “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.”
Trump’s surprise provision included no budget or plan for a new building and showed up in the bill after days of closed-door negotiations last month between administration officials, Shelby and other GOP senators on a variety of spending provisions in the legislation. A Shelby aide said the FBI money was included at the insistence of the administration.
“Republicans were trying to reach a unified position going into negotiations with the Democrats. The administration was taking the lead in those negotiations and insisted it be included. That’s why it was in there,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Committee chairmen generally consult with leadership on potentially contentious issues in pending legislation, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed caught off guard upon hearing that the FBI language had made it into the bill when it was released.
“I’m not sure that it is, is it?” McConnell replied after introducing the bill last week, when a reporter asked him why the FBI money was in the legislation. Upon being assured that it was, McConnell suggested asking the administration about its inclusion.
When asked what the FBI provision was doing in a bill aimed at combating the coronavirus, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said, “I think everybody acknowledges that it’s a funding mechanism. And I don’t see it standing in the way of us getting a deal.”
The FBI, which spent years pushing the Washington suburban campus project under previous administrations, issued a statement to The Washington Post on Thursday saying it now supports the president’s plan to build a smaller structure downtown and move more staff outside the Beltway, but that its top priority is having a fully funded plan.
“The FBI supports the option of staying on Pennsylvania Avenue; however, most important, the FBI seeks a viable, fully funded path that allows us to fulfill our facility requirements,” spokeswoman Lauren Hagee Glintz said.
Trump’s FBI funding request faces bipartisan opposition to make it into any final package. Shelby has acknowledged that the administration’s provision was a “stretch” to link to the pandemic. McConnell has said he opposes the provision because he does not think the bill should include “non-germane amendments.”
Before Trump came into office, Shelby had supported the Washington campus plan through an agreement made with Barbara A. Mikulski, then a powerful Maryland Democratic senator on the appropriations committee.
In short, according to members of Congress and aides from both parties, Shelby agreed to support funds for a new 11,000-employee campus in the Washington area that Mikulski wanted for Maryland. She supported his efforts to beef up the bureau’s presence in Huntsville, at the Redstone Arsenal complex that already includes a national center and school for the analysis of improvised explosive devices.
The agreement produced $913 million in appropriations for the Washington-area campus and an initial $76 million for Huntsville. In 2017, when Mikulski retired and Trump spiked the campus plan, the idea of a home for the bureau in Maryland’s Prince George’s County collapsed.
Shelby’s ambitions for Huntsville, however, have grown. With him as chair of the committee the past three-plus years, Congress appropriated $313 million in 2018, $285 million in 2019 and $433 million this year for the project, putting it over $1.1 billion.
The FBI announced in 2018 that it would be moving 1,350 jobs to Huntsville from Washington-area locations.
“I’m bullish on the FBI here,” Shelby said during a gathering of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce last year, according to the website AL.Com. “I think it will be one of the biggest presences for the FBI outside of Washington.”
Indeed, the bureau later disclosed that it could move as many as 4,000 people there over the next decade. Paul Abbate, associate deputy director at the FBI, told CNBC that “we really look at it like an HQ2, a backup for the footprint that we have here in Washington, D.C.”
Regardless of whether Huntsville will benefit from the lack of a plan for a central FBI headquarters, it will be the bureau’s biggest new facility outside Washington, capable of accommodating large staff transfers.
Hagee Glintz said that as of now, 1,500 jobs are headed there, with most of the functions being operational by the end of 2021. The ultimate number, she said, will depend on future funding. The bureau also is planning to relocate 250 jobs to a new data center and office in Pocatello, Idaho, and is evaluating space availability at existing facilities in Clarksburg, W.Va., and at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.
When Trump came into office, policymakers in both parties were hopeful that he might be able to advance a building project that would consolidate the FBI by using his much ballyhooed dealmaking skills and private-sector real estate experience to cut red tape and construct a building that others could not.
But his efforts so far have run aground amid accusations of conflicts of interest and lack of transparency. Early in the administration, Trump’s administrator of the General Services Administration, the agency that handles federal real estate, was asked by House Democrats about the White House’s involvement in the project.
When the administrator, Emily Murphy, did not disclose that she had met in the Oval Office with the president about it, the agency’s inspector general later determined that she may have left Congress with the “misleading impression” that the White House had not been involved. The administration has since largely sidelined the GSA. When reached for comment, the GSA referred questions about the FBI provision in the coronavirus bill to the Office of Management and Budget and the FBI.
Instead it has been Shelby, not Trump, who has fashioned agreements and swung bureaucratic workarounds to advance construction ― at least for the FBI building in his state. At Redstone Arsenal, which is already home to more than 40,000 employees working at commands including an office of the Missile Defense Agency and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the FBI facility will add to a secure campus and bring jobs to a state with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates.
Sens. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland remain some of Trump’s fiercest critics for his handling of FBI consolidation, saying that they think he has set it back years and put the bureau at risk to advance his own interests.
“It was outrageous for the president to try to exploit a national health emergency for his own purposes,” Van Hollen said of the provision.
But they do not begrudge Shelby for continuing to advance his part of the deal with Mikulski. There was no response to a message left with a former Mikulski aide.
“She envisioned both these efforts moving forward at the same time,” Van Hollen said. “And obviously the much bigger operation has been set back.”
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