It started as a headline seemingly straight out of The Onion. Then it launched a torrent of jokes on late-night television and social media. And finally it exploded into a serious diplomatic rupture between the United States and one of its longtime allies.
In the latest only-in-Trumpland episode skating precariously along the line between farce and tragedy, the president of the United States on Wednesday attacked the prime minister of Denmark because she will not sell him Greenland — and found the very notion “absurd.”
Never mind that much of the rest of the world thought it sounded absurd as well. Amid a global laughing fit, Trump got his back up and lashed out, as he is wont to do, and called the prime minister “nasty,” one of his favorite insults, particularly employed against women who offend him, like Hillary Clinton and Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex.
All of which might be written off as just another odd moment in a presidency unlike any other. Except that attacking Denmark was not enough for the president. He decided to expand his target list to include NATO because, as he pointed out, Denmark is a member of the Atlantic alliance. And he chose to do this just two days before leaving Washington to travel to an international summit in France, which also happens to be a NATO member.
Mockery, of course, is not the reaction most presidents seek to inspire in foreign counterparts heading into important meetings. Most of the other leaders of the Group of 7 powers will no doubt save their eye-rolling for when he is not looking, but they have come to see mercurial behavior as the new norm by the president.
“This is yet another blow to American credibility under President Trump,” said Ivo H. Daalder, a former ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama. “No leader, friend or foe, will take America seriously.”
“It’s not just the unthinkable notion of buying and selling territory as if we’re talking about a building or golf course,” he added. “It’s also the abrupt cancellation of a state visit as a result of the totally predictable rejection of that notion.”
To be sure, Greenland has increasingly absorbed American policymakers lately because of the opening of the Arctic with warming weather. U.S. officials have talked about how to counter China, which has expressed interest in expanding ties with Greenland.
U.S. leaders “remain concerned about some of the involvements of both the Chinese and the Russians in the Arctic,” Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, said Wednesday.
The aborted Greenland venture comes at a time when Trump has seemed particularly erratic. In recent days, he proudly quoted a radio host declaring that Israeli Jews love him as if he were the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God,” while Trump himself accused Jews who vote for Democrats of “great disloyalty.”
Speaking with reporters on the South Lawn on Wednesday, he suggested that God had tapped him to lead a trade war with China. “I am the chosen one,” he said, glancing heavenward. In the Oval Office on Tuesday, he exhibited his universal suspicion. “In my world, in this world, I think nobody can be trusted,” he said. At a rally last week, he ridiculed a man he thought was a protester for being fat, only to learn later that it was one of his supporters.
Some former Trump administration officials in recent days said they were increasingly worried about the president’s behavior, suggesting it stems from increasing pressure on Trump as the economy seems more worrisome and next year’s election approaches.
After casting off advisers who displeased him at a record rate in his first 2 1/2 years in office, Trump now has fewer aides around him willing or able to challenge him, much less restrain his more impulsive instincts.
With a growing schedule of campaign rallies, he will be talking in public even more in the coming months, each time a chance to say something provocative that may distract from the messages his staff would prefer to emphasize.
Greenland, for one, was not on the staff’s list of priorities for the week. But while Trump has long derided nation-building, his flirtation with nation-buying turned out to be more serious than many originally thought. He has been talking privately about buying Greenland for more than a year and even detailed the National Security Council staff to study the idea.
At one point last year, according to a former official who heard him, he even joked in a meeting about trading Puerto Rico for Greenland — happy to rid himself of a U.S. territory whose leadership he has feuded with repeatedly.
The notion of acquiring 836,300 square miles, or three times the size of Texas, appealed to the real estate developer in Trump, even if most of it is covered in ice. Aside from the potential military position and natural resources to gain, it fit his desire to do something big as president, in this case literally to increase the size of the country by more than 20%.
Supporters said Trump was onto something. “This idea isn’t as crazy as the headline makes it seem,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said last week, calling it “a smart geopolitical move.”
“The United States has a compelling strategic interest in Greenland,” he continued, “and this should absolutely be on the table.”
Yet even Trump at one point seemed to see the absurdity of it, posting on Twitter a picture of a giant gold Trump Tower in a barely developed Greenland and writing, “I promise not to do this to Greenland!”
But when Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen made clear that Greenland was not for sale, Trump canceled a trip to Denmark scheduled for September. Even though the president initially insisted that the trip was not about buying Greenland, in canceling it he said it actually was.
His original polite response to Frederiksen on Tuesday, when he expressed gratitude that she was “so direct” because it saved time and expense, turned darker on Wednesday amid the derision heaped on him. “Fjord to Trump: Drop Dead,” read the banner headline in The Daily News, a takeoff on one of its most famous headlines involving President Gerald R. Ford in the 1970s.
Trump focused on Frederiksen’s comment that selling Greenland was an “absurd discussion,” as she put it. “It was nasty,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to Kentucky. “I thought it was an inappropriate statement. All she had to do is say, ‘No, we wouldn’t be interested.’”
To Trump, it was not just an insult to him but to the nation as a whole. “She’s not talking to me. She’s talking to the United States of America,” he said. “You don’t talk to the United States that way, at least under me.”
That was not enough, however. He then took to Twitter to further assail Denmark, saying that as a NATO member it did not contribute enough to military spending. And then for good measure, he went after NATO as a whole for not spending enough on their militaries.
“We protect Europe and yet, only 8 of the 28 NATO countries are at the 2% mark,” he wrote, referring to the goal set by the alliance for members to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense.
The dust-up could have wider ramifications, analysts said. “The president’s anger and his menacing tweet about Danish defense spending reignites Europeans’ worst fears about the U.S. commitment to NATO,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Presumably, the administration isn’t considering foreclosure. But is selling our territory now a proof of fealty for President Trump?”
Frederiksen opted not to fire back. “I’m not going to enter a war of words with anybody, nor with the American president,” she said on Danish television. She added that she found the Danish response to Trump’s planned visit and its cancellation “good and wise.”
It fell to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to do damage control, calling his Danish counterpart, Jeppe Kofod, to express “appreciation for Denmark’s cooperation as one of the United States’ allies,” according to Ortagus.
“Appreciate frank, friendly and constructive talk with @SecPompeo this evening, affirming strong US-DK bond,” Kofod wrote on Twitter. “US & Denmark are close friends and allies with long history of active engagement across globe.”
Engagement, but no sale.