President Donald Trump distorted the facts about the construction of a new embassy in London, wrongly implying it ended up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The new embassy, at a cost of $1 billion, was entirely paid for by the sale of the long-term leases for the old embassy as well as other U.S. property in London, as planned since 2007, a state department official told us.
As Robert “Woody” Johnson, the Trump-appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, wrote in January, “the new embassy did not cost the US taxpayer a cent.”
Trump also said the U.S. gave up “the best site in all of London” for a “horrible location” that ended up costing the U.S. a lot more. That’s a matter of opinion, but State Department officials in the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump have said that the old location, while centrally located in an historic part of London, was unable to meet modern security standards, and was already overcrowded by a growing staff.
Trump’s account of what he described as a bad deal came during a campaign-style rally in Michigan on April 28. Here’s what he had to say about the deal:
Trump, April 28: Now in, as you know, in the UK, in London, we had the best site in all of London. The best site. Well some genius said, “We are going to sell the site and then we are going to take the money and build a new embassy.” That sounds good, right? But you have to have money left over if you do that, right?
So they sold the site for like, I think — and I’ll check the numbers because they’ll say, oh, he misrepresented, but these numbers are close enough. They sold the site for like $250 million. They think they are geniuses. They go out and they buy a horrible location and they build a new embassy. That’s the good news. The bad news, the embassy cost over a billion dollars.
So now what do we have? We have an embassy in a lousy location and I was supposed to cut the ribbon. I didn’t do the deal. It was started by Bush and Obama. It was a Bush-Obama special. Okay. But it could have been stopped by Obama. It would have been stopped by me.
So, they have — listen, they have — so I said, “What kind of a deal is that? You sold this great site. It’s the best site in London. Literally, the best site.
They were so happy, they got $250 million, or whatever, but they spent all of that money plus a lot more to build a new embassy in a lousy location. So, I don’t know, folks, we need a whole new thinking here.
Trump aired similar complaints about the London embassy move back in January when he cancelled a visit to London to officially open the new embassy –though some media reports claimed the trip was actually cancelled due to fear of mass protests about Trump’s policies and his style of governing.
Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2018
Unlike that tweet, Trump rightly noted in Michigan that the real estate deal begun under Bush and finished under Obama. After that, though, Trump’s account strays from the facts about the history of the move.
There’s no question the old embassy in historic Grosvenor Square was situated in a desirable, high-value, historic neighborhood in London. But amid growing safety concerns — mainly fear of a terrorist bombing — State Department officials considered retrofitting the old building. They ultimately decided the building could not accommodate their security needs. For example, it would never have been able to meet the recommended 100-foot setback requirement from roads after two terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in 1998.
In 2008, then-U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle announced that he had signed a conditional agreement to purchase a nearly five-acre site in the Nine Elms area of Wandsworth, a London borough in the southwest of the city. At the time, an official with the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations said it would have cost up to $600 million and taken seven years to renovate the existing embassy building, and that it still would not have included state-of-the-art security.
In 2009, the building was designated as having historical and architectural significance, which would have made upgrades even more costly. Lydia Muniz, director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations at the State Department, told the New York Times in 2015 that it would have cost $730 million to renovate the old facility and it still would not have met all of their security needs.
State Department officials also told the Times that the embassy had outgrown the Grosvenor Square building, which was housing 1,000 employees in a building meant for only 800.
More recently, Tuttle, who served as U.S. ambassador to Britain from 2005 to 2009, told the Washington Post the security of the old embassy building was the overriding factor in the decision to move.
“There were two narrow side streets by the embassy,” Tuttle told the Post. “They are very slim, and if someone came down there with a truck, a la the Oklahoma City bombing, it would not only blow up half the embassy and kill half the people in it but it would also kill half the people in nearby residences.”
In a guest editorial for the Evening Standard in London, Robert “Woody” Johnson, Trump’s appointee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, said that while the building in Grosvenor Square carried substantial American historical significance, a new facility was needed to “better protect American citizens and our British neighbours” and meet “the complex challenges of the 21st century and beyond.”
Johnson, Jan. 12: I agree with President Trump that Grosvenor Square, in the heart of London, was a perfect location for our embassy. Security concerns after September 11 meant we had to move to a location that could better protect American citizens and our British neighbours. On Tuesday we will open the doors of our brand-new embassy to the general public in Nine Elms, a site selected under a previous administration.
Designed by Philadelphia architects KieranTimberlake, the new embassy is not just bigger, it is better and capable of meeting the complex challenges of the 21st century and beyond. It is the most secure, hi-tech and environmentally friendly embassy that the United States has ever built.
Moreover, he said, it was entirely paid for by the sale of other London properties owned by the U.S.
Johnson: Purchased and built from the sale of our London properties, the new embassy did not cost the US taxpayer a cent. Yet is one of the most advanced embassies we have ever built.
The sale of the embassy in Grosvenor Square alone was never anticipated to cover the whole cost of the new embassy. The sale of the embassy combined with the proceeds from the sale of another building in Grosvenor Square the year before for $500 million would cover the cost, according to a Washington Post story in 2008 about the announced deal to purchase the Nine Elms property.
(And to be more precise, the U.S. did not sell the buildings but rather the long-term leases it held on the buildings.)
As far as we can tell, the sales price for the old embassy has not been publicly released, and the State Department did not divulge that price when we asked. But the sales price is likely far more than the $250 million cited by Trump.
According to Reuters, local media reported the old embassy was sold for about 500 million pounds, roughly $680 million, to Qatari Diar Real Estate, a wing of the Qatari government. But Reuters was not able to independently verify that figure.
But assuming that figure is roughly accurate, that sum together with the reported $500 million from the sale of the lease of the nearby building is pretty close to the reported price of the new embassy in Nine Elms.
And as we said, the current U.S. ambassador to the U.K., a Trump appointee, said the new embassy property and building were “Purchased and built from the sale of our London properties, the new embassy did not cost the US taxpayer a cent.”
That was the plan all along, a State Department official confirmed that in an email to FactCheck.org.
“In 2007, the Department developed a plan to finance a new Embassy project through a property swap for existing U.S. government property in London,” the official told us. “This solution allowed construction of a new chancery that meets all security standards, yet used no taxpayer dollars to fund the project. The approximately $1 billion project budget includes the costs for site purchase, design, and construction. The project has been executed within the established budget.”
That directly contradicts the Trump narrative.
The U.S. embassy in London is not the only diplomatic facility that has drawn Trump’s ire.
In Michigan, Trump also repeated his distorted claim about the cost of a new embassy in Jerusalem. Trump told supporters he balked at the reported $1 billion cost for a new facility and that David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, assured him he could open a “temporary” embassy in Jerusalem within months by renovating and adding to a “corner” of an existing facility, and at a cost of just $150,000.
“Big difference, right?” Trump said, drawing cheers from the crowd. “Biiiiig difference. So we went from a billion dollars to $150,000. … So we save a bit.”
But as we wrote when he made a similar claim in March, Trump is comparing the cost of renovating an existing facility in Jerusalem to use as an interim embassy on a temporary basis with the cost of building a new, permanent embassy in Jerusalem. Since the State Department is moving ahead with plans to build a permanent facility, it’s unclear if the construction of a temporary facility will reduce the ultimate cost of a permanent home or not.