By Mark Hosenball and Ginger Gibson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s role in decisions about a new FBI headquarters will face intense scrutiny when Democrats take control of a key U.S. House of Representatives committee in January, one of the panel’s leaders said on Tuesday.
Democratic U.S. Representative Gerald Connolly told Reuters in an interview that the Trump administration’s abrupt cancellation last year of plans to build a new FBI headquarters in the Washington suburbs are a “prime subject for exploration.”
Connolly would likely lead such an inquiry if, as expected, he becomes chairman of a House Oversight subcommittee.
He said the FBI building project is a top investigative priority for him and fellow Democrat Elijah Cummings, who is expected to chair the full House Oversight committee.
Connolly is one of several senior House Democrats involved in preparing to investigate Trump and his presidency starting in January. U.S. voters ended Republican control of the House in the Nov. 6 elections and handed it to the Democrats. With that power will come increased resources for investigations.
Connolly said Democrats have strong evidence showing Trump, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and General Services Administrator (GSA) Emily Murphy discussed the FBI building project in the Oval Office and in emails.
He said Murphy “has to come back to the Congress and explain herself.” As chairman of the subcommittee, Connolly could launch such an inquiry and seek testimony from Murphy.
The GSA manages government buildings, including the FBI’s existing downtown Washington headquarters, a crumbling, 1970s-era edifice with nets on it to catch falling chunks of concrete and too little room for thousands of local employees.
Before he became president, Trump favoured a U.S. government plan to move the FBI out of downtown Washington to roomier quarters in the suburbs, Democrats have said.
After he became president and was disqualified from bidding to acquire the current FBI site for commercial development, Trump switched his position, they said.
He now favours replacing the old FBI building with a new structure on the same site, just a block away from the existing Trump International Hotel. Both landmarks occupy prime properties on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue.
The discussions between Trump, Kelly and Murphy raise “questions about conflicts of interest,” Connolly said.
Under the cancelled relocation plan, the current FBI site “would almost certainly be developed commercially and in theory, whatever was developed commercially could compete with some parts of the Trump Hotel just a block away,” he said.
GSA press secretary Pamela Dixon told Reuters by email, “The decision to cancel the initial procurement for a suburban FBI campus was made by career officials in July 2017 because the project did not receive the necessary funding from Congress.
“As the FBI testified under oath, the subsequent decision for its headquarters to remain at the current Pennsylvania Avenue location was made by FBI leadership,” Dixon said.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Besides the FBI project, Connolly said, Democrats also will examine meddling by Russia in the 2016 presidential election, any collusion between the Kremlin and Trump’s campaign and whether Trump obstructed justice in trying to hamper Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of these matters.
Moscow denies findings by U.S. intelligence agencies that it tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential contest. Trump denies any collusion or obstruction occurred.
Connolly, like other senior Democrats, cautioned against moving forward with impeachment proceedings against Trump, a possibility that some Democrats aired during the 2018 campaign.
At the same time, Connolly said, “If there is compelling, incontrovertible evidence that this president and his team actively colluded with a foreign power to distort our election, and maybe violate laws too, I think then I have a constitutional obligation to support an impeachment inquiry.”
Democrats are also grappling with how to proceed on investigating Trump’s personal finances and businesses, White House security clearances and other issues.
Connolly said Democratic leadership will use a “coordinating mechanism” to ensure various committees work together. He said he sees no signs of bipartisan cooperation on investigations.
(Additional reporting by Sarah Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jonathan Oatis)