WASHINGTON – The Senate's top Republican said Tuesday that he opposes a push by President Donald Trump to include nearly $1.8 billion in a new coronavirus aid package to rebuild the FBI headquarters on its current site in downtown Washington.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters he opposes inclusion of the FBI money and all other measures not related to the government's response to the virus.
“When we get to the end of the process, I would hope all of the non-COVID-related measures are out,'' McConnell said. "No matter what bills they were in at the start.”
McConnell's comments came after Democrats accused Trump of self-dealing with his push on the FBI building, which sits across the street from a downtown hotel that Trump owns on Pennsylvania Avenue, blocks from the White House. The Trump International Hotel could face competition if the FBI moves from the site and another hotel is developed on the property.
Before running for office, Trump expressed interest in redeveloping the FBI property himself, and he has taken a strong personal interest in the effort to rebuild the headquarters.
“They don’t have money for food stamps, but they have money for an FBI building just so that they can diminish competition for the president’s hotel,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday night.
“More than 150,000 Americans have died from coronavirus, millions are unemployed ... and Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are more concerned about protecting Trump Hotel. That is shameful,'' Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., also said Monday.
The White House defended the spending request. "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,'' spokesperson Judd Deere said Tuesday.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby said the administration requested money for the FBI building, adding: "The reason is, it is needed.''
Shelby, an Alabama Republican, acknowledged that the plan “might have trouble” getting through Congress. "Some of the Virginia people want to build in Virginia and Maryland Democrats want the new FBI building built there,'' he said Tuesday before McConnell spoke, citing an earlier, failed proposal to move the FBI building from downtown Washington.
Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he did not know why money for the FBI building was included in the virus relief bill. “That makes no sense to me,'' Graham told reporters Tuesday. ”I’d be fine, okay with stripping it out” of the bill.
Asked why the administration asked for the FBI money in the virus aid bill, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said, "Well, it’s just a pressing need, so whether it’s this bill or (another spending bill) later, it's just a pressing need.”
The current J. Edgar Hoover building, built in 1974, is crumbling badly. The space is not big enough to consolidate all FBI personnel, and advocates of a suburban location say it would be less expensive and more efficient to rebuild outside the city.
The Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating the cancellation of the original plan. That investigation remains ongoing more than a year later.
Democrats said they only found out about the FBI plan after the GOP bill was released.
“They managed to have enough money for $2 billion for the FBI headquarters that benefits Trump hotel, and they say they have no money for food assistance. What the heck is going on?” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
Trump said last week that a new FBI building is needed and that it should be near the Justice Department headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“The site they have now is better'' than any alternative, Trump said Thursday. Sites in Maryland or Virginia "would’ve been too far away,'' he said.
The government faces a choice, Trump said: “You can renovate the existing building — but it’s not a good building — or you could take it down and build a great building for the FBI for 100 years and have it be incredible.''
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said lawmakers agree with Trump that the FBI needs a new headquarters, "but to suddenly slip this ill-suited and unworkable downtown proposal as part of a COVID-19 relief package is the height of absurdity.”