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Real Estate Magnate Trump Defends Using Eminent Domain to Seize Homes for Private Development

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At Saturday’s debate, Jeb Bush attacked Donald Trump for using eminent domain to try to seize the home of an elderly woman in Atlantic City to build a “limousine parking lot.” Trump defended the practice but hit back after the debate, accusing the Bush family of using eminent domain to build the Texas Rangers baseball stadium. We speak to George Mason University professor Ilya Somin, author of “The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we move on right now to another issue raised in the Republican presidential primary debate Saturday, this is Josh McElveen, the political director and anchor for WMUR-TV in Manchester.

JOSH McELVEEN: Mr. Trump, you have said, quote, “I love eminent domain,” which is the seizure of private property for the sake of the greater good, theoretically. You’ve tried to use the measure in business endeavors. You’ve said you’d support its use for the Keystone pipeline project. Here in New Hampshire, a project, though, known as the Northern Pass would bring hydroelectric power from Canada into the Northeastern grid. Do you see eminent domain as an appropriate tool to get that project done?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, let me just tell you about eminent domain, because almost all of these people—actually, Chris hasn’t, but so many people have hit me with commercials and other things about eminent domain. Eminent domain is an absolute necessity for a country, for our country. Without it, you wouldn’t have roads, you wouldn’t have hospitals, you wouldn’t have anything. You wouldn’t have schools. You wouldn’t have bridges. You need eminent domain. And a lot of the big conservatives that tell me how conservative they are—I think I’m more than they are—they tell me, oh, well, they all want the Keystone pipeline. The Keystone pipeline, without eminent domain, it wouldn’t go 10 feet. OK? You need eminent domain. And eminent domain is a good thing, not a bad thing. And what a lot of people don’t know—because they were all saying, “Oh, you’re going to take their property.” When somebody—when eminent domain is used on somebody’s property, that person gets a fortune. They get at least fair market value. And if they’re smart, they’ll get two or three times the value of their property. But without eminent domain, you don’t have roads, highways, schools, bridges or anything. So, eminent domain, it’s not that I love it, but eminent domain is absolutely—it’s a necessity for a country. And certainly, it’s a necessity for our country.


JOSH McELVEEN: So, would that be yes on the Northern Pass project?

JEB BUSH: Josh, the difference—

JOSH McELVEEN: One second, Governor.

JEB BUSH: The difference—

DONALD TRUMP: Yes, yes, yes.

JEB BUSH: The difference between eminent domain for public purpose—as Donald said, roads and infrastructure, pipelines and all that, that’s for public purpose. What Donald Trump did was use eminent domain to try to take the property of an elderly woman on the strip in Atlantic City. That is not public purpose. That is downright wrong. And here’s the problem with that.

DONALD TRUMP: All right, OK.

JEB BUSH: The problem was, it was to tear down—


JEB BUSH: It was to tear down—

DONALD TRUMP: Jeb wants to be—

JEB BUSH: It was to tear down—

DONALD TRUMP: He wants to be a tough guy. He wants to be a tough guy tonight.

JEB BUSH: It was to tear down the house.

DONALD TRUMP: I didn’t take the property.

JEB BUSH: And the net result was—


JEB BUSH: You tried.

DONALD TRUMP: I didn’t take the property.

JEB BUSH: And you lost in the court.

DONALD TRUMP: The woman ultimately didn’t want to do that. I walked away.

JEB BUSH: That is not true.

DONALD TRUMP: And it was great that I didn’t.

JEB BUSH: The simple fact is, to turn this into a limousine parking lot for his casinos is not a public use.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Jeb Bush and Donald Trump sparring in Saturday’s presidential primary debate in New Hampshire.

We’re joined by Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University. He writes for The Washington Post's blog The Volokh Conspiracy. His new piece is called “Donald Trump's Lightweight Defense of Taking Property for Private Development.” Somin is also the author of The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain.

So what are they fighting about? What happened in Atlantic City? What was this woman’s place there, Ilya Somin, that Donald Trump wanted?

ILYA SOMIN: Well, what Jeb Bush said was basically correct. Donald Trump wanted to build a parking lot for one of his casinos, but in order to do that, he needed to acquire the property of several people, including this elderly widow’s home. Her name was Vera Coking. She didn’t want to sell, so Donald Trump successfully lobbied the government to condemn her property. And he would have gotten away with it but for the fact that a court struck down the condemnation, saying it wasn’t for any kind of legitimate public purpose. So Donald Trump was not telling the truth when he said that he just walked away. The only reason why he walked away is because he lost in court.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to her? She had bought this house with her husband. It was right there. In fact, ultimately, first, didn’t Carl Icahn buy it?

ILYA SOMIN: I’m not sure about that, but I do know that she had refused previous offers from other people to buy it from her, and she also did not want to sell to Donald Trump, which I think is fine. That is her right. And the government should not have tried to use the force of eminent domain to take it from her.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Donald Trump ultimately did not succeed in getting her house, right, before he went bankrupt there?

ILYA SOMIN: Yes, that’s right. But the only reason why he didn’t succeed is because a court struck down the condemnation that he had lobbied for.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain—fit this into the larger eminent domain debate in this country.

ILYA SOMIN: Certainly. There’s been a long-standing debate about whether courts should supervise eminent domain and enforce the public use provision of the Fifth Amendment, which says that the government can only take property for a public use, such as a road or a bridge or some other sort of public facility. And on the other side are people like Donald Trump, who argue that the government should be able to take property for virtually any reason, including transferring it to a private developer like Trump, and often the private developer isn’t even required to produce the economic benefits that supposedly justify the condemnation in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Donald Trump, after the debate, went on the talk shows yesterday and said that in fact the Bush family—not Jeb Bush himself, it was actually George W. Bush—had also used eminent domain, in Texas, to condemn property to build a stadium for his—for his team.

ILYA SOMIN: That’s basically correct, although it was actually a parking lot for the stadium rather than the stadium itself. I think what George W. Bush did there was wrong, but it in no way justifies what Donald Trump did. Neither one of them should have been permitted to use eminent domain for this sort of purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ilya Somin, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of law at George Mason University, writes for The Washington Post's blog The Volokh Conspiracy. His latest piece, “Donald Trump's Lightweight Defense of Taking Property for Private Development.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll look at the candidates’ response to a question about police brutality. And then, it was—well, you probably know it—the Super Bowl yesterday. And did you see Beyoncé at halftime, the message she was sending out? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Hey, a shout out to the Cathedral School [of] St. John the Divine students visiting today Democracy Now!, and that was “Formation,” the song that and video that Beyoncé released on Saturday, a day before her halftime show at the Super Bowl. We’re going to talk about all of this in a minute, as she sang about police brutality and also Hurricane Katrina. But this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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