In an congressional oversight hearing focused on the FBI’s years-long effort to build a new headquarters, the government’s top landlord repeatedly refused to discuss discussions she’d had with President Donald Trump about the project — an important point, given Trump’s obsession with the FBI’s building plans.
Before taking office, Trump expressed interest in purchasing the FBI’s current address, a few feet from his Washington, D.C. hotel. After he was elected (and after he became ineligible to bid on the property) Trump began insisting that the FBI’s current address was too valuable to give up for a new building in the suburbs, which was the agency’s plan for years before he took office. A year ago, the General Services Administration and FBI changed course and submitted a plan to Congress to rebuild at the bureau’s current address.
Instead of answering several questions about Trump’s potential involvement in the behind-the-scenes planning, GSA Administrator Emily Murphy (pictured above) repeated a similar phrase multiple times during Wednesday’s hour-and-a-half hearing.
“It’s longstanding executive branch practice and privilege not to discuss conversations between the President, his advisers, heads of agencies and senior White House advisers,” she said. “So I’m going to respectfully decline to answer that question.”
Murphy wasn’t asserting executive privilege during her testimony before the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, she clarified. That option belongs to Trump, not her.
“So you’re asserting a privilege that the President hasn’t?” Chairman Mike Quigley (D-IL) asked.
“I am not asserting a privilege, I’m declining to answer,” Murphy replied.
In that instance, Murphy was refusing to answer Quigley’s question about whether she was aware of the White House communicating its preference about the FBI’s building plans to FBI Director Christopher Wray.
She refused to answer several more times during the hearing, including in response to Rep. Charlie Crist’s (D-FL) question about whether, “at any time,” she had “any knowledge of the President’s preference of which of the two plans he preferred?”
She refused to answer again when she was asked if the White House counsel’s office had spoken to her before Wednesday’s hearing about her testimony.
“It’s my understanding that no matter the party, no matter the administration, that witnesses don’t discuss what they did to prepare, and that heads of agencies don’t discuss the details of conversations they had with the President or his senior advisers,” Murphy said.
The GSA inspector general’s report, released in August last year, revealed that the White House counsel’s office had instructed several officials at the GSA not to discuss Murphy’s meeting with Trump and others at the White House the previous January.
The same report also accused Murphy of giving “incomplete” and “misleading” testimony when she made no mention of her White House meeting in a hearing three months after it took place.
Quigley asked at the time whether “to your knowledge” the President “was involved” in the discussions about the FBI’s building plans.
Murphy made no mention of her White House meeting, instead saying the direction GSA received came from the FBI.
In response to the inspector general’s report, a former GSA inspector general hired by Murphy’s private attorney asserted that she answered “truthfully,” and that it wasn’t her “job to answer follow-ups to questions that the witness wasn’t asked.”
Murphy stated Wednesday: “To my knowledge then, and now, the President had no involvement in the FBI’s location decision.”
She further asserted that she wasn’t aware of any influence on the FBI building process rooted in a desire to benefit Trump’s bottom line.
“None whatsoever,” she said.
Correction: This post initially identified Rep. Charlie Crist as a Republican. He changed affiliations to the Democratic Party in 2012.