WASHINGTON – One of the weirder moments of Donald J. Trump’s presidency came when he publicly floated the idea of buying Greenland. It caused a predictable furore, sparked nightly TV jokes and soured relations with Denmark, which rejected the idea of selling the gigantic Arctic.
But it wasn’t a passing whim. While many assumed at the time that it was just Mr. Trump who was Mr. Trump expressing a far-fetched thought that popped into his head, the idea was in fact planted by one of his billionaire friends and became the subject of months of serious internal study and debate that cabinet secretaries did. and White House aides stunned.
The idea came from Ronald S. Lauder, the New York cosmetics heir who had known Mr Trump since college. “A friend of mine, a really, really experienced businessman, thinks we can get Greenland,” Trump told his national security adviser. “What do you think?” That led to a special team being appointed to evaluate the prospects, which resulted in a memo outlining several options, including a rental proposal that resembled a New York real estate deal.
This account of the Greenlandic escapade is based on interviews with a wide variety of figures close to the former president for a forthcoming book by this reporter and Susan Glasser of The New Yorker magazine called “The Divider: Trump in the White.” House, 2017-2021,” published Tuesday by Doubleday. The portrait that emerged of Mr. Trump was of a mercurial commander-in-chief with a retinue who struggled to manage him, bewildered by his fantasies and fearful that he could start a war. would begin or break the law long before his push to overthrow the 2020 election led to the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
The Greenland idea was just one of many that aides left behind to find ways to lead Mr. Trump away from paths they found bizarre or reckless. After an early Oval Office meeting where he outlined his interest in Greenland, a stunned cabinet member was struck by its deceptive nature. Other advisers tried to prevent the idea from leaking out for fear it would cause a diplomatic incident.
Trump’s tail-wagging approach to the presidency so confused John F. Kelly, his second chief of staff, that Mr. Kelly secretly bought a bestselling copy of a group of psychiatrists who had doubts about mental health. from Mr Trump. Kelly told others that the book was a useful guide for a president he came to regard as a pathological liar whose inflated ego was, in fact, the sign of a deeply insecure person.
Mr. Kelly often treated others to stories of Mr. Trump’s ignorance of basic historical facts and his inability to absorb information. But it was Mr. Trump’s flawed judgment that most upset Mr. Kelly, and he concluded that the problem was not that Mr. Trump couldn’t tell right from wrong, but that “he always does the wrong thing.”
mr. Kelly became so dissatisfied with Mr. Trump for snapping at him when the president refused to lower the flag following the death of Senator John McCain. “If you don’t support John McCain’s funeral, the public will come to your grave and piss on it when you die,” Kelly told Trump, according to interviews for the book.
Rarely shy in front of a camera, Mr Trump has nevertheless been even more biting behind the scenes at times. He harshly criticized women for their appearance and told visitors that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was an example of why women should be careful with plastic surgery and that he would not choose Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations, as a running mate because she has a “complexion color.” ” had. issue.”
At times, he denigrated his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, telling other aides that “all he cares about is his liberal New York crowd.” Some aides interpreted those and other comments from Mr. Trump to mean that he wanted Mr. Kushner and Ivanka Trump to leave the White House and return to New York, but he never enforced the matter.
So many cabinet secretaries were disenchanted with the president that at one point they discussed a plan to resign en masse. There were also other mutual suicide pacts during the Trump administration. Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, agreed with Alex Azar, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, that they would both resign in protest if Mr Trump continued to segregate the children of migrants at their borders. parents.
Trump regularly tried to use government power to punish his enemies, ordering aides to block a merger in retaliation against CNN and to ensure a government contract didn’t go to Jeff Bezos’ Amazon — actions that assistants considered illegal or unethical. He was so determined to kill former intelligence officials James R. Clapper Jr. and John O. Brennan that he demanded about 50 to 75 times that aides deprive them of their security clearance. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked one of his policies, Mr. Trump ordered his aides to “cancel” or eliminate the court altogether, another demand they ignored.
While advisers were sometimes able to walk slowly or avoid acting on some of Mr Trump’s desires, he often ignored their counsel. At one point, it fell to Melania Trump to push her husband to take the Covid-19 pandemic more seriously. “You’re ruining it,” she told him aboard Air Force One flying back from India, according to a report she gave to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie when she called him to beg him to talk sensibly with the president. .
Greenland was an issue that occupied the National Security Council staff for months. Mr Trump later claimed the idea was his personal inspiration. “I said, ‘Why don’t we have that?'” he recalled in an interview for the book last year. “You look at a map. I am a real estate developer. I look to a corner and say, ‘I have to have that shop for the building I’m building’, etc. It’s not that different.’
He added: “I like cards. And I always said, ‘Look how big this is. It’s huge. That should be part of the United States.’”
But in fact, Mr. Lauder discussed it with him from the beginning of the presidency and offered himself as a back channel to the Danish government to negotiate. John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, instructed his assistant Fiona Hill to assemble a small team to brainstorm ideas. They held secret talks with the Danish ambassador and drew up an option memo.
Mr. Bolton, concerned about the expansion of Chinese influence in the Arctic, thought a greater US presence in Greenland made sense, but a direct purchase was not feasible. Mr Trump kept pushing. He proposed to take federal money from Puerto Rico, which he despised, and use it to buy Greenland. On another occasion, he suggested trading Puerto Rico outright for Greenland.
After The Wall Street Journal reported interest in Greenland, the Danish government rejected the idea. “When it became public, they lost their political courage,” Trump said in the interview last year, as if the Danes had ever been serious about selling.
But Bolton believed they were losing a chance at something more realistic, such as an improved security arrangement, even though the United States eventually reopened a consulate in Greenland. “If Trump had just kept his mouth shut,” Bolton told others, “we could have found out. But it was just gone, just completely gone.”