Go ahead and file this one under Stories You Probably Didn’t Expect to Read About the White House This Week: President Trump has been thinking about buying Greenland. Greenland says no, absolutely not.
“If he is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof that he has gone mad,” Soren Espersen, the foreign affairs spokesman for the populist Danish People’s Party, told a Danish broadcaster on Friday. Greenland is a semiautonomous territory of Denmark.
Greenland’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was a bit less colorful: “We’re open for business, not for sale,” the agency posted on Twitter.
Both Danish and Greenlandic officials have been up in arms over the news, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, that Mr. Trump, ever the real estate maven, was eyeing the ice-covered island, the largest in the world, as a new property acquisition for the United States.
The president’s interest has rattled nerves — or at least a sense of national pride — ahead of Mr. Trump’s scheduled visit to Denmark next month.
“The thought of Denmark selling 50,000 citizens to the United States is completely ridiculous,” Mr. Espersen added.
[Read more about Denmark’s chilly reception to the idea of selling Greenland.]
But in Mr. Trump’s world, his real estate prowess has never been a laughing matter — even if his persona as a mogul has at times been based on selective facts. Mr. Trump’s past as a New York City developer is a fact he often wistfully references, whether it is at a campaign rally, on Twitter, in the Oval Office, or even next to friendly foreign leaders. In a May news conference in Tokyo alongside Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, Mr. Trump referred to North Korea as “all waterfront property. It’s a great location, as we used to say in the real estate business.”
In largely off-the-cuff remarks delivered to assembled real estate agents in Washington in May, Mr. Trump told the group he is “always looking at the real estate.” Assessing properties is a muscle-memory compulsion he hasn’t been able to shake, not even in the White House. “I’ll never get it out of my blood,” he told the brokers, who heard this and clapped.
“Even as president, I ride down those streets, and I say, ‘Wow, is that place nice. Wow, what could you do with that? Look at that site,’” Mr. Trump said. “And then I said, ‘Wait a minute, I have to deal with China. Forget about this now.’”
Still, the idea of buying Greenland apparently has kept recirculating in his mind. What could be the appeal? Sure, it is the largest island in the world, with (Arctic) ocean views and the world’s only Arctic grass golf course. But there is no private land ownership in Greenland. And it survives in large part through support from Denmark: An annual block grant worth roughly $600 million accounts for more than half of Greenland’s public budget. It doesn’t exactly fit the “Make America Great Again” ethos.
The exact provenance of Mr. Trump’s interest is murky, but one person who has heard the president talk about it said that he has brought up the idea of a possible purchase — albeit fleetingly — since the first year of his presidency. That person, a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said Mr. Trump never spoke at length about buying the island, and the context of the conversation centered around the potential of Greenland’s untapped natural resources.
The shrinking ice sheets surrounding Greenland have caught the attention of other Trump administration officials who see potential. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in May during an address in Finland to the Arctic Council that he saw new trade opportunities in the Arctic.
“It houses 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered gas, an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources, fisheries galore,” Mr. Pompeo said of the Arctic region.
About 80 percent of Greenland is covered in ice, said Jon Gertner, who wrote “The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future.” Although China has expanded its efforts to mine the Arctic, Mr. Gertner said that it remains largely difficult to extract the materials for profit.
“I suppose if you look at the world in terms of natural resources and development, rather than technology and skills,” Mr. Gertner said, “it’s an older, almost antiquated way of looking at things.”
On Friday, the White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether Mr. Trump would bring up his interest on his coming trip to Denmark, when he is scheduled to visit with the queen. A spokesman at the Danish embassy in Washington pointed to the embassy’s Twitter account, which said Greenland “is not for sale neither in dollars, yuans or roubles,” referring to the currencies of the United States, Russia and China — three countries currently vying for strategic dominance of the Arctic.
Others briefed on Mr. Trump’s potential desire for Greenland told The New York Times on Thursday that his interest was born out of national security concerns. There is precedent for this: Since World War II, the land and water of the Arctic have been staked out by countries competing for dominance, with tensions ramping up during the Cold War.
In the 1950s, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States built Thule Air Base, a military installation on Greenland, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle. In 1968, the United States risked a global catastrophe and strained relations with Denmark when a bomber carrying four nuclear bombs crashed into a fjord. Under Mr. Trump, the upgraded air base houses a squadron of military officers whose role is to monitor and respond to ballistic missile threats against the United States.
If he ever actually made an offer, Mr. Trump wouldn’t be the first president to do so: In 1946, James F. Byrnes, the secretary of state under President Truman, made an offer to the Danish foreign minister to purchase the territory at a meeting of the United Nations in New York.
That transaction didn’t go far, either. Back then, as now, Denmark wasn’t interested in selling.