President Donald Trump claims that moving the US embassy in the United Kingdom to a different location was a bad decision and a "bad deal". He puts the blame on the Obama administration.

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, 5:57 am · 12 Jan 2018

The above tweet blames the Obama administration for the decision to move the embassy, selling the old one for too low a price, and the budget to build a new one.

I have a few questions about that, all related, so I'll ask them in one go.

  1. Did the Obama administration have any say in the decision to move the embassy?
  2. Was the Obama administration responsible for the size of the budget for building a new one?
  3. Was the Obama administration responsible for the sale of the old one and the price it fetched?
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    Is this even a plausible claim in that anyone believes those are the actual reasons for his cancelling the visit? – DJClayworth Jan 12 at 15:03
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    @Oddthinking thanks for your edit; it cleared up and clarified the question. I disagree with the opinion-basedness of the two sub-questions, though. The price it fetched being too low can be answered by comparing its price with that of other real estate in that area at that time. The new location being an "off location" can be answered by noting that other countries are moving their embassies to that same area. – SQB Jan 12 at 15:06
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    @DJClayworth Pretty much nobody believes it, but I think there was an actual Meta discussion about it and yes, anything the sitting POTUS says is by definition a notable claim... – Shadur Jan 12 at 16:21
up vote 78 down vote accepted

TL;DR

Trump has several key details wrong or incomplete.

1. Did the Obama administration have any say in the decision to move the embassy?

A quick google search on "US Embassy London Moved" gets you the Wikipedia entry:

On October 8, 2008, the embassy announced a conditional agreement with the real estate developer Ballymore to purchase property for a new embassy site on the south bank of the River Thames in the Nine Elms area of the London Borough of Wandsworth. The site lies within the Vauxhall/Nine Elms/Battersea Opportunity Area as set out in the London Plan. The proposed plan would only go forward if approved by the United States Congress and by the local planning authority. The Northern line extension to Battersea will have new stations at Battersea and Nine Elms—combined with major local development. The United States Department of State announced in January 2009 that it was choosing among nine architectural firms, all "modern" and "upmarket", to replace the ageing embassy headquarters. In March 2009 the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations announced that four architectural firms had been selected for the final phase of the design competition. By law, the architect for a U.S. embassy must be an American firm with "numerous security clearances".

The agreement for the embassy's new location was made before Obama even won the election. It's safe to assume that the decision to move had been made long before that, because negotiations of that kind of level take a lot of time.

So that's an immediate and definite "No".

2. Was the Obama administration responsible for the size of the budget for building a new one?

Technically "yes" because ultimately the running administration has responsibility for everything that happens during said administration. The buck, as they say, stops there. That said, according to an article in the Independent, the London US Embassy Building is the most expensive embassy in the world and features numerous innovations against terrorist attacks, threats of which were one of the reasons behind the move:

The current embassy in Grosvenor Square has been the target of terrorist threats in the past and a nuisance to its wealthy neighbours, prompting one aristocrat - a countess named Anca Vidaeff - to stage a hunger strike in protest of it, according to the newspaper.

3. Was the Obama administration responsible for the sale of the old one and the price it fetched?

Yes, obviously. It's what you do when you no longer need an incredibly expensive building.


EDIT: The statement made Politifact overnight, and they're rating it "Mostly false":

Trump said Obama sold the otherwise fine American embassy in London and relocated at a cost of $1.2 billion.

Actually, the Bush administration put the plan in place after concluding that the existing embassy could not meet security requirements. The cost was about $200 million less than Trump said, $1.02 billion rather than $1.2 billion, and was financed through the sale of the old embassy and two other State Department properties in London.

While he is correct that the sale occurred on Obama’s watch, the wheels were turning and preliminary contracts had been signed earlier.

Trump’s tweet blows past those key details. We rate this claim Mostly False.

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    Hmm... The first question is "Did the Obama administration have any say in the decision to move the embassy?" not, "Did the Obama administration pick the location for the new embassy?" That a tentative, but not final, decision had been made a few months prior to the beginning of the Obama administration does not seem meet the standard for the "immediate and definite 'No' " that you describe. The Obama administration (and every other administration, especially after party flips) frequently cancelled or decided not to go forward with things planned by prior administrations. – reirab Jan 12 at 16:42
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    For example, the Obama administration cancelled what was at the time the entire planned future of manned spaceflight in the U.S., even though it had not only been planned, but had been taken all the way to the point of successful test flights by the previous administration. Similarly, the Trump administration has decided not to go forward with several things started or tentatively agreed to by the Obama administration (e.g. Paris climate accords.) That said, Trump's quote certainly does overstate the culpability of the Obama administration in this case. – reirab Jan 12 at 16:45
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    @reirab - NASA plans get totally wiped every time a new POTUS is installed. There's nothing unusual about that, and I don't think it can really be used as an example balancing out something someone else did that wasn't NASA-plan related. – T.E.D. Jan 12 at 20:38
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    @T.E.D. That was merely a single example; there were many (several missile defense programs started by Clinton and Bush and F-22 production were other high-profile examples.) That said, it's definitely not true that every new POTUS cancels NASA's primary launch platform. Most of them take more than an entire administration's term just to design. The previous one began design in the 60s and lasted through 2011, 10 administrations later. At any rate, the point was merely that each administration decides what it wants to keep or change from the previous one. – reirab Jan 12 at 21:38
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    @t.sar That isn't part of the original question, but here's the argument breakdown for and against: For: Building isn't owned by US, modification restrictions make it impractical and/or impossible to harden against modern terror attacks, maintenance is getting expensive. Against: Trump thinks the old building and location were pretty. – Shadur Jan 13 at 13:55

(Most of this information comes from Reuters.)

Questions #2 and #3 seem to treat Trump's statement that this was a bad deal as a "fact" (I think SQB's original question asked directly whether this was a bad deal, according to his comment, and I think that should remain part of the original question). While a "bad deal" might be opinion-based, I think we can at least compare the net price of getting a modern, secure facility and judge that this was not a "bad deal."

Key portion of Trump's statement:

The Obama Administration ... 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.

Parsing this:

sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London

The old embassy was not considered secure enough to handle the increasing amount of threats that it has been getting, and its neighbors felt threatened, as Shadur explained in his answer. Adding to this contentiousness, the Duke of Westminster owns the land the old embassy was located on, and America tends to prefer to own the land its embassies are on.

It is also of "special architectural interest" for its design and detail. Renovating it would have been difficult and any serious alterations would have ruined its appearance and its value. Furthermore, renovations would have been extremely expensive and ineffective. According to Lydia Muniz, director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations at the State Department, renovations would have cost $730 million and the embassy still would not have had state-of-the-art security.

sold.. for "peanuts"

Local British media reported that the old embassy was sold for 500 million pounds (the amount was not officially disclosed). On December 31st, 2009 this was equivalent to 806,700,000 U.S. dollars. The new embassy was funded entirely by sales of property in London, and this figure would account for most of the price of the new embassy, which has a variety of state of the art security features.

only to build a new one in an off location

We have already established that the embassy needed to be changed to a location that did not threaten its neighbors, and SQB (the OP) says himself that this location is one in which other embassies are moving. In addition to this, as David Richerby notes in a comment below, "this 'off' location is only two miles away from the original one ... on the south bank of the Thames."

for 1.2 billion dollars

The price of the embassy was actually 1 billion dollars.

In short, renovations on the old facility would have cost $730 million dollars vs the 1 billion dollars for the new facility. The old facility is thought to have been sold for 500 million pounds (and we didn't own the land so that is just for the facility itself), roughly equivalent back then to 809 million dollars, and we would not have been able to sell it for anything, since we would still be using it.

So for 191 million dollars (net) we got a state-of-the-art facility in a less contentious area (the point of an embassy being diplomacy, this is important) that other embassies are moving to, on land that we actually own, instead of spending 730 million dollars for a facility that was still not as secure as possible and added threat to its neighbors due to its location.

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    Also, this "off" location is only two miles away from the original one. It's often described as being in "south London", which makes it sound like it's somewhere out in the 'burbs but it's actually right on the south bank of the Thames. – David Richerby Jan 12 at 17:22
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    It's only a short walk away from the (former) Battersea power station, where Apple is building their new headquarters. And London is extending the Northern underground line to go to Battersea, at a cost of about £1.2 billion. It's an up and coming area. – gnasher729 Jan 13 at 1:50
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    So in other words it's in an area that's currently cheap but is about to have property values increase significantly? That kind of sounds like the opposite of a bad deal to me... – Shadur Jan 13 at 9:39
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    @Shadur - one of the causes of the likely increase in land values in that part of Battersea is being near the new US embassy, so it gets a bit circular – Henry Jan 13 at 14:05
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    @RussellBorogove Agreed, but it was Trump who came up with such criteria ("bad deal") – Hagen von Eitzen Jan 14 at 16:02

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