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August 19th, 2017

Insight

Donald Trump, eminent-domain abuser

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published August 27, 2015

Supporters of Donald Trump relish the prospect of a president who knows how to "get things done," and won't bore them with details or principles. They like hearing Trump tout the stop-at-nothing aggressiveness of his business dealings, as in this description, in a CNN interview, of how he acquired the Doral golf resort in Miami:

"I didn't sit down and say 'let's do a 14-point plan.' I went in and got it. I took it away from so many people."

Trump boasted of his prowess at a rally in Michigan on Aug. 11. "You have to be able to do certain things" if you want to be successful, he crowed. I "beat the hell out of people.... I know how to get things."

Republican voters might wish to ponder what Trump doesn't say — that the people he has been willing to "beat the hell out of" in order to get what he craves include small property owners and mom-and-pop businesses. And that one of his tactics for going after other people's land is to get the government to do it through eminent domain. Trump has sought to build some of his gaudiest developments on the modest holdings of private citizens who didn't want to relinquish their property.

The Cato Institute's David Boaz recently recalled the story of Vera Coking, an elderly widow who had lived in Atlantic City for more than three decades. Coking owned a three-story boarding house near the ocean, in which she had raised her kids and where she looked forward to spending her golden years.

But with the arrival of legalized gambling and casinos, Coking's land drew the interest of developers. In the 1980s, she turned down a $1 million offer from one builder, who accepted her refusal and proceeded to build around the house. When that project ran out of money, it was acquired by Trump, who was determined to get Coking's house by any means necessary.

Those means didn't include offering Coking better terms. Instead Trump turned to a New Jersey government agency — the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority — which condemned the widow's home, agreed to acquire it on Trump's behalf for $251,000, and ordered Coking to move out within 90 days. Under the Constitution, governments may take private property only for "public use." Trump wished to use the Coking land as a waiting area for limousines at the Trump Plaza Hotel.

Coking went to court, along with the owners of two other small parcels on the same block. Their case was taken up, pro bono, by the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal group that defends private-property rights. After years of litigation, Coking was eventually allowed to keep her home. But Trump was unabashed in rationalizing the right of billionaire developers to deploy eminent domain as a weapon to confiscate land from unwilling sellers.

"Do you want to live in a city where you can't build roads or highways or have access to hospitals?" he demanded in an interview with ABC's John Stossel. "Condemnation is a necessary evil."

When Stossel raised the obvious objection — "We're not talking about a hospital. This is [about] a building a rich guy finds ugly" — Trump resorted to insults. "You're talking about ... a little group of terrible, terrible tenements; just terrible stuff, tenement housing."

Trump lost that round. But seven years later the Supreme Court issued its notorious Kelo decision, upholding precisely the kind of state-assisted thievery he had attempted against Vera Coking. Trump gloated: "I happen to agree with it 100 percent."

He agrees, that is, that government exists to help avaricious moguls prey on poorer citizens. "I know how to get things," Trump says. And good luck to any widows who get in his way.

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