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Ronald S. Lauder, the Estée Lauder heir, offered himself up as back-channel negotiator to purchase Greenland from Denmark, a new book says. Denmark said no.
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WASHINGTON — One of the odder moments of Donald J. Trump’s presidency came when he publicly floated the idea of buying Greenland. It caused a predictable furor, generated gales of late-night television jokes and soured relations with Denmark, which rejected the idea of selling the giant Arctic territory.
But it was no passing whim. While many assumed at the time that it was just Mr. Trump being Mr. Trump, expressing a far-fetched thought that came into his head, in fact the idea had been planted by one of his billionaire friends and became the subject of months of serious internal study and debate that flabbergasted cabinet secretaries and White House aides.
The notion 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,” Mr. Trump told his national security adviser. “What do you think?” That led to a special team being assigned to evaluate the prospects, resulting in a memo that laid out various options, including a lease proposal akin to a New York real estate deal.
This account of the Greenland escapade is based on interviews with a wide array 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,” to be published by Doubleday on Tuesday. The portrait that emerged of Mr. Trump was of a mercurial commander in chief with a retinue that struggled to manage him, baffled by his flights of fancy and fearful that he would launch a war or violate the law long before his drive to overturn the 2020 election led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
The Greenland idea was just one of many that left aides trying to find ways of steering Mr. Trump away from paths they deemed bizarre or reckless. After an early Oval Office meeting where he expounded on his interest in Greenland, one mystified cabinet member was struck by the delusional nature of it. Other advisers tried to keep the idea from leaking out for fear that it would cause a diplomatic incident.
Mr. Trump’s mercurial approach to the presidency so baffled John F. Kelly, his second chief of staff, that Mr. Kelly secretly bought a copy of a best-selling book by a group of psychiatrists questioning Mr. Trump’s mental health. Mr. Kelly told others that the book was a helpful guide to a president he came to consider a pathological liar whose inflated ego was in fact the sign of a deeply insecure person.
Mr. Kelly often regaled others with stories of Mr. Trump’s ignorance about basic historical facts and his inability to absorb information. But it was Mr. Trump’s flawed judgment that most rattled Mr. Kelly, and he concluded that the problem was not that Mr. Trump did not know right from wrong, but that “he always does the wrong thing.”
Mr. Kelly grew so disaffected from Mr. Trump that he snapped at him when the president refused to lower the flag after Senator John McCain’s death. “If you don’t support John McCain’s funeral, when you die, the public will come to your grave and piss on it,” Mr. Kelly told Mr. Trump, according to interviews for the book.
Rarely restrained in front of a camera, Mr. Trump nonetheless was even more caustic at times behind the scenes. He harshly criticized women for their looks, telling visitors that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was an example of why women should be careful about plastic surgery and that he would not pick Nikki Haley, his United Nations ambassador, as a running mate because she had a “complexion problem.”
He sometimes denigrated his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, telling other aides that “all he cares about is his New York liberal crowd.” Some aides interpreted those and other comments by 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 forced the issue.
So many cabinet secretaries were disenchanted with the president that at one point they discussed a plan to resign en masse. There were other mutual suicide pacts during the Trump administration as well. Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, agreed with Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, that they would both resign in protest if Mr. Trump resumed separating the children of migrants at the border from their parents.
Mr. Trump regularly sought to use government power to punish his enemies, ordering aides to block a merger in retaliation against CNN and to ensure that a government contract did not go to Jeff Bezos’ Amazon — actions aides considered illegal or unethical. He was so intent on targeting the former intelligence officials James R. Clapper Jr. and John O. Brennan that he demanded some 50 to 75 times that aides strip them of their security clearance. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked one of his policies, Mr. Trump ordered aides to “cancel” or eliminate the court altogether, another demand they ignored.
While advisers sometimes were able to slow-walk 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 blowing it,” she told him aboard Air Force One flying back from India, according to an account she gave former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey when she called him to implore him to talk sense into the president.
Greenland was one issue that absorbed 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 last year for the book. “You take a look at a map. I’m a real estate developer. I look at a corner, I say, ‘I’ve got to get that store for the building that I’m building,’ etc. It’s not that different.”
He added: “I love maps. And I always said: ‘Look at the size of this. It’s massive. That should be part of the United States.’”
But in fact, Mr. Lauder discussed it with him from the early days of the presidency and offered himself as a back channel to the Danish government to negotiate. John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, assigned his aide Fiona Hill to assemble a small team to brainstorm ideas. They engaged in secret talks with Denmark’s ambassador and produced an options memo.
Mr. Bolton, concerned about expanding Chinese influence in the Arctic, thought that an increased American presence in Greenland made sense but that an outright purchase was not feasible. Mr. Trump kept pushing. He suggested taking federal money from Puerto Rico, which he disparaged, and using it to buy Greenland. On another occasion, he suggested outright trading Puerto Rico for Greenland.
After The Wall Street Journal reported the interest in Greenland, Denmark’s government slammed the idea. “When it became public, they lost their political courage,” Mr. Trump said in the interview last year, as if the Danes had ever been serious about selling.
But Mr. Bolton believed they lost a chance for something more realistic like an enhanced security arrangement, although the United States did eventually reopen a consulate in Greenland. “If Trump had just kept his mouth shut,” Mr. Bolton told others, “we could have found out. But it was just gone, just completely gone.”
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