President Donald Trump announced Friday that he had rejected a plan to spend $1 billion to open a new embassy in Jerusalem.
Trump claimed that he had his name “half signed” before he noticed the massive dollar amount and that he stopped just five letters short of approving the deal. Instead, Trump authorized spending of up to $400,000 to renovate existing property owned by the United States in Jerusalem. Trump also said that he "may go" to the embassy once it opens.
The president made these comments during a news conference at the White House with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
What did the ambassador say?
Trump said that when he questioned David Friedman, his pick to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel, about the $1 billion cost, Friedman said that he could renovate an existing U.S. property for $150,000. Trump said that he told Friedman “David. Let’s not go from a billion dollars to $150,000. Let’s go to three, four hundred thousand. And that’s what we did."
Trump said that the embassy at the renovated location "will be somewhat temporary, but it could be for many years, because by the time they build it the other way it's going to be many, many years."
In his retelling of the story, Trump emphasized how close he had come to signing off on the new embassy:
They came to me with a proposal for a $1 billion embassy in Jerusalem. And the papers — Mike Pence can tell you — the papers were put before me, to sign an application for more than $1 billion to build an embassy. I said, "What are you talking about, a billion dollars?" You know, most embassies are like a single story. And they said, "Yes, sir, it’s $1 billion." And I had my name half signed, then I noticed the figure and didn’t — I never got to the word "Trump." I had "Donald" signed, but I never got to the word "Trump."
And I called my ambassador, who is a great lawyer, most people in business know David Friedman, he’s the ambassador to Israel, and loves Israel, loves our country, loves Israel too. And I said, "What’s this one billion?" He said, "I can build it for $150,000." I said, "What?" He said, "I can build it for $150,000, the embassy. We have a building, we have the site. We already own the site, we own the building, I can take a corner of the building, and for $150,000 we can fix it up, make it beautiful, open our embassy. Instead of in 10 years from now, we can open it up in three months." And that’s what we did.
The fact that Trump claimed to have been halfway through signing his name before he noticed the dollar amount raised questions about how much attention the president is paying to things he approves.
The White House issued an official statement Dec. 6 declaring that “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel." That same day, Trump announced that he planned to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, but until 2017, every U.S. president had continued to renew a waiver to delay the embassy’s move from Tel Aviv for six additional months.