Donald Trump: ‘Eminent Domain Is Wonderful’

by Jim Geraghty

Donald Trump sees a simple reason why so many conservatives disagree with him on eminent domain, the controversial power by which the government seizes private land for development projects: They just don’t understand the issue as well as he does.

“I fully understand the conservative approach, but I don’t think it was explained to most conservatives,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier that aired yesterday. “Nobody knows this better than I do, because I’ve built a lot of buildings in Manhattan and you’ll have twelve sites and you’ll get eleven and you’ll have the one holdout, and you end up building around them. I know it better than anybody.”

Eminent domain may seem like an obscure issue, but the Club for Growth Action Fund found it important enough to spotlight in an attack ad against Trump. The ad focused on Trump’s full-throated support for the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. New London, which allowed state and local governments to seize land from one private owner and give it to another private owner to further economic development.

Many conservatives saw the decision as expanding the power of elected officials and wealthy developers at the expense of the private landholders who often stand in the way of their ambitions. In a perfect irony, the state and city spent $78 million to purchase and bulldoze the home of Susette Kelo . . . and then the developer couldn’t finance the project. (The site remains an empty lot today.)

As Ilya Somin put it, “Trump did not merely claim that the Kelo v. New London decision was legally correct; he argued that it was ‘good’ to give government the power to forcibly displace homeowners and small businesses and transfer their property to influential developers on the theory that doing so might promote ‘economic development.’”​

In his interview with Baier, Trump didn’t back down one inch; he insisted that the compensated, involuntary transfer of private property by the government was in the public’s best interests. He first used the example of a government seizing land for a road or highway — generally the least controversial and most broadly supported use of eminent domain. But he quickly broadened his argument, insisting that government should always be allowed to take private land for development projects if the promised public benefits are big enough.

“If you have a factory, where you have thousands of jobs, you need eminent domain, it’s called economic development,” Trump said. “Now you’re employing thousands of people and you’re able to build a factory, you’re able to build an Apple computer center, where thousands of people can work. You can do that, or you can say, ‘Let the man have his house.’”

Trump added that he thinks “eminent domain is wonderful,” and contended that those who are forced out of their homes often end up better off. “The little guy sometimes gets a lot of money. Sometimes they’ll get four or five times what their property is worth.”

Most of the time, they just want money. It’s very rarely they say, I love my house, I love my house, it’s the greatest thing ever.”’

Baier pointed out that some homeowners might not want to move out of their homes, even if the promised compensation is significant. Trump argued that homeowners often fight eminent domain not out of principled support for private-property rights, but as a negotiating tactic.

“Most of the time, they just want money,” he said. “It’s very rarely they say, ‘I love my house, I love my house, it’s the greatest thing ever.’ Because these people could buy a house now, that’s five times bigger, in a better location.”

Trump has firsthand experience with eminent domain fights. In 1993, he tried to purchase the home of Atlantic City resident Vera Coking to expand his hotel and casino. When she refused to sell, New Jersey attempted to condemn the property and have her evicted. She fought in court and, with the assistance of the Institute for Justice, won.

“She made a terrible mistake,” Trump said to Baier. “I was going to expand a hotel, put in thousands of rooms. I had the one house in the way. We would have had, probably, 1,400 employees getting jobs. She was offered four, five, six times what her house was worth. Eventually we couldn’t do it because one court ruled against us.”

Trump later said he offered Coking $4 million; her grandson said Trump’s top offer was $1.9 million. Whatever the sum, Coking refused. In July 2014, with Coking now in a San Francisco retirement home, her family sold the property for $530,000. Trump called that amount “peanuts.”

“She saved me a fortune!” Trump said with amusement. “I didn’t build a hotel in Atlantic City, which is dying, okay? I should send her a letter [of thanks.] I mean, honestly!”

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.