Since he shot to the top of the presidential polls, Donald Trump’s serial bankruptcies and bullying nature have made big headlines. But no one seems to have brought up a bullying business practice he’s particularly fond of: eminent domain.
The billionaire mogul‐turned‐reality TV celebrity, who says he wants to work on behalf of “the silent majority,” has had no compunction about benefiting from the coercive power of the state to kick innocent Americans out of their homes.
For more than 30 years Vera Coking lived in a three‐story house just off the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Donald Trump built his 22‐story Trump Plaza next door. In the mid‐1990s Trump wanted to build a limousine parking lot for the hotel, so he bought several nearby properties. But three owners, including the by then elderly and widowed Ms Coking, refused to sell.
As his daughter Ivanka said in introducing him at his campaign announcement, Donald Trump doesn’t take no for an answer.
Trump turned to a government agency — the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) — to take Coking’s property. CRDA offeredher $250,000 for the property — one‐fourth of what another hotel builder had offered her a decade earlier. When she turned that down, the agency went into court to claim her property under eminent domain so that Trump could pave it and put up a parking lot.
Peter Banin and his brother owned another building on the block. A few months after they paid $500,000 to purchase the building for a pawn shop, CRDA offered them $174,000 and told them to leave the property. A Russian immigrant, Banin said: “I knew they could do this in Russia, but not here. I would understand if they needed it for an airport runway, but for a casino?”
Ms Coking and her neighbors spent several years in court, but eventually with the assistance of the Institute for Justice they won on July 20, 1998. A state judge rejected the agency’s demand on the narrow grounds that there was no guarantee that Trump would use the land for the specified purpose. “TRUMPED!” blared the front page of the tabloid New York Post.
It wasn’t the only time Trump tried to benefit from eminent domain. In 1994, Trump incongruously promised to turn Bridgeport, Connecticut, into “a national tourist destination” by building a $350m office and entertainment complex on the waterfront. The Hartford Courant reported: “At a press conference during which almost every statement contained the term ‘world class,’ Trump and Mayor Joseph Ganim lavished praise on one another and the development project and spoke of restoring Bridgeport to its glory days.”
But alas, five businesses owned the land. What to do? As the Courant reported: “Under the development proposal described by Trump’s lawyers, the city would become a partner with Trump Connecticut Inc and obtain the land through its powers of condemnation. Trump would in turn buy the land from the city.” The project fell apart, though.
Trump consistently defended the use of eminent domain. Interviewed by John Stossel on ABC News, he said: “Cities have the right to condemn for the good of the city. Everybody coming into Atlantic City sees this terrible house instead of staring at beautiful fountains and beautiful other things that would be good.” Challenged by Stossel, he said that eminent domain was necessary to build schools and roads. But of course he just wanted to build a limousine parking lot.
In 2005 the Institute for Justice took another eminent domain case to the Supreme Court. By 5–4 the Court held that the city of New London, Connecticut, could take the property of Susette Kelo and her neighbors so that Pfizer could build a research facility. That qualified as a “public use” within the meaning of the Constitution’s “takings” clause. The case created an uproar.
Polls showed that more than 80% of the public opposed the decision. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor issued a scathing dissent: “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms … The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.”
Conservatives were especially outraged by this assault on property rights. Not Donald Trump, though. He told Neil Cavuto on Fox News: “I happen to agree with it 100%. if you have a person living in an area that’s not even necessarily a good area, and … government wants to build a tremendous economic development, where a lot of people are going to be put to work and … create thousands upon thousands of jobs and beautification and lots of other things, I think it happens to be good.”
When Donald Trump says: “I give to everybody. They do whatever I want,” this is what he’s talking about: well‐connected interests getting favors from government. Vera Coking knows the feeling.