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Bill Straub: The view from Trump’s DC hotel is ruined by an ‘ugly’ FBI building — and therein is a story


Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell has emerged in the past few months as such a snuggling lapdog for “President’’ Trump (Lord have mercy) that even the most adorable Pomeranian might sneer in contempt.

The Louisville Republican who, history shows, regularly places the desires of his party above those of the nation he has taken an oath to serve, has been doing the president’s often dubious bidding even though he leads a separate and equal branch of government free to operate independently of White House demands. But ol’ Mitch is ceding legislative power to Trump in a way that diminishes Congress in return for a mere bag of shells.

Examples are abundant but consider the most recent. In a rare example of bipartisanship, Sen. James Lankford, R-OK, introduced the Secure Elections Act, aimed at strengthening the nation’s electoral system, which, as had become obvious with Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign, is full of holes.

The measure isn’t particularly trailblazing but it’s a start. S2261 as the bill is designated would provide the top election official in every state – in Kentucky’s case, Secretary of State Alice Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat — security clearance to receive information about potential threats to the voting process. It would further set standards for exchanging information between the states and the federal government regarding threats to electoral infrastructures.

A board would be created under Lankford’s plan to develop best practices when it comes to cybersecurity. It would also require each state to conduct an audit following elections to assure that voting was on the up-and-up and provide incentives to the state to utilize voting machines that leave a paper trail — considered an effective way to foil hackers who might use the internet in an attempt to finagle the tallies.

A good bill but hardly the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A great bill would find a way to condemn attempts in some states – are you listening, North Carolina and Georgia? – to disenfranchise African-American voters. But such obvious shortcomings don’t mean the measure isn’t worthwhile.

The prime sponsor was, as noted, a Republican and it contained the names of five co-sponsors – three Democrats and two Republicans. It appeared to carry the support of most lawmakers in the upper chamber and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, was ready to call it up for consideration when…
Nothing.

Blunt canceled the meeting without explanation. It seems the Trump administration, which apparently benefitted supremely from the Kremlin’s involvement in the 2016 campaign, isn’t all that eager to address election security. In a statement to Yahoo News, which broke the story, the White House maintained the Department of Homeland Security “has all the statutory authority it needs to assist state and local officials to improve the security of existing election infrastructure.” It further asserted that “We cannot support legislation with inappropriate mandates or that moves power or funding from the states to Washington for the planning and operation of elections.”

A kind word for that is baloney. An unkind word is, well, use your imagination.

The 2016 election established that the American electoral system is vulnerable. While the Trumpster persists in dismissing the severity of Russian involvement in the outcome, every Tom, Dick, and Harry who knows a thing about the situation will tell you it ain’t that hard for determined hackers to gum up the works. And the executive branch has done darn little since November 2016 to patch up the beleaguered process.

Trump benefitted from Russian involvement. Now you’re relying on him to stop it? C’mon.

Anyway, Blunt was apologetic about the turn of events, rendering it apparent who put the kibosh on the Secure Elections Act. Like Nipper in the old RCA Victor ads, ol’ Root-‘n-Branch heard his master’s voice and rolled over to get a nice pat on the tummy.

McConnell, in his usual stolid way, had nothing to say about the turn of events. If nothing else – he serves on the Rules Committee, by the way – ol’ Mitch could have, had he so desired, told the man-child of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to get stuffed and passed the thing. Of course, he chose not to. Unlike Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, he did not persist. Now the bill’s future is extremely murky.

It should be noted that McConnell has a long record of throwing a monkey wrench into the electoral process. He fought the late Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, tooth, and nail over campaign finance reform and he is now responsible, more than anyone, for the present hideous system.

And he famously refused to sign on to an effort by then-President Barack Obama to reveal the extent of Russian involvement in the in the 2016 election, threatening to expose anything Obama might say as a political maneuver.

Regardless, opportunities loom now for McConnell to reverse course, break from the demagogue in the White House and, finally follow the Constitution and put the nation first. Whatever report Special Counsel Robert Mueller produces about the Kremlin’s electoral involvement will certainly provide that opening. And there’s another.

The J. Edgar Hoover Building, a few blocks down from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue has served as the headquarters for the FBI since 1975 and is terribly outdated. The structure which takes up an entire city block is deteriorating and has security issues. It was built long before the computer age and, despite upgrades, is terribly outdated technologically, placing the nation’s top law enforcement agency at a disadvantage.

And if there’s one agency you don’t want placed at a disadvantage, it’s the FBI.

So it was determined that the FBI would move elsewhere – Greenbelt, Md, Landover, MD, and Springfield, VA, were among the candidates. But the General Services Administration, which oversees federal government construction, unexpectedly reversed course in February, recommending that the current facility instead be razed and that a new headquarters be built on the site.

It now appears that the “President,’’ Donald J. Trump, played a significant role in that change of plans, meeting with the General Services Administration on at least two occasions to consider the project.

Huh. Funny. it’s highly unusual for a president to, well, micromanage a building project, usually leaving it to those in the know.

Oh, hold on a second, forgot to tell you something. The current FBI Building? It’s almost directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the old Post Office building which has been transformed into a hotel. The extremely swank inn is called the Trump International Hotel, Washington DC. The Trump organization renovated the building and is leasing it from the General Services Administration.

Several news sources maintain that Trump regularly rails against the current FBI building, not because of its shortcomings but because it’s ugly and ruins the view from his hotel. Retaining the site, rather than moving the headquarters out and then leasing the property to a private firm, assures that Trump will be able to keep the project under his thumb and enhance the atmosphere surrounding his money-making project.

That, friends, is what your president is doing in the globe’s highest office – making a cheap buck.

Congress can step in. A Senate committee, under McConnell’s direction, could certainly probe the circumstances surrounding the siting decision and appropriate money if it so chooses to build the headquarters on a site outside DC.

But the Senate under ol’ Root-‘n-Branch is about as likely to perform that necessary public service as the Baltimore Orioles are of winning the World Series this year. They were eliminated weeks ago.

And don’t expect Mitch to have anything to say about it. If he did, he would have to respond with one word:
“Arf.’’

And a tail wag.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.


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