Donald Trump has confirmed he is considering an attempt to buy Greenland for strategic reasons, though he said the idea is “not No1 on the burner”.
Trump’s interest, reported earlier this week, was greeted internationally with widespread hilarity but with indignation in Greenland and Denmark.
The government of the semi-autonomous Danish territory insisted it was not for sale. The Danish prime minister called any discussion of a sale “absurd”.
Nonetheless, on Sunday White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow first confirmed the story in an interview, before Trump spoke to reporters as he left New Jersey to return from vacation to Washington.
Saying the “concept came up” and he was “looking at it”, the man who runs a notoriously leaky White House also questioned how the idea found its way to the press.
Trump sought to tie the idea of a US purchase of the world’s largest island – not including the continent of Australia – to his own area of professional expertise, saying it would be “essentially a large real estate deal”.
“Denmark essentially owns it,” he said. “We’re very good allies with Denmark, we protect Denmark like we protect large portions of the world. So the concept came up and I said, ‘Certainly I’d be.’ Strategically it’s interesting and we’d be interested but we’ll talk to them a little bit. It’s not No1 on the burner, I can tell you that.”
Denmark is a member of Nato, a mutual defence organisation frequently criticised by the US president. Trump believes member nations do not pay enough for the privilege of membership alongside the powerful US military.
Such American forces have operated for decades from Thule Air Base in Greenland, the northern-most US base which is part of a global network of radars and sensors for missile warnings and space surveillance.
“Well a lot of things can be done,” Trump said on Sunday. “Essentially it’s a large real estate deal. A lot of things can be done.”
He then claimed without offering evidence that ownership of Greenland was “hurting Denmark very badly because they’re losing almost $700m a year carrying it. So they carry it at a great loss and strategically for the United States it would be very nice and we’re a big ally of Denmark, we protect Denmark and we help Denmark and we will.”
Trump is scheduled to visit Denmark in September, as part of a trip to Europe.
“I’m supposed to be going there,” he said. “We may be going to Denmark but not for this reason at all.”
On Sunday, during a visit to Greenland, Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen told the newspaper Sermitsiaq: “Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland. I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously.”
In remarks to the Danish broadcaster DR, Frederiksen said: “It’s an absurd discussion, and [Greenland prime minister] Kim Kielsen has of course made it clear that Greenland is not for sale. That’s where the conversation ends.”
US presidents have paid for territory before. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson bought huge tracts of land from France for $15m in the Louisiana Purchase. In 1867, Andrew Johnson paid $7.2m for Alaska from Russia. Territory has also been purchased from Denmark. In 1917 Woodrow Wilson bought the Danish West Indies for $25m, renaming them the US Virgin Islands.
Kudlow appeared on Fox News Sunday, for an interview mostly given over to rejecting fears of looming recession and defending policy on trade with China. Wrapping up, host Dana Perino asked: “If you get asked to go do a site survey about purchasing Greenland, can I go with you?”
“Well,” said Kudlow, laughing, “maybe I’ll run the central bank.”
He continued: “Look, it’s an interesting story. It’s developing. We’re looking at it. We don’t know. Years ago, Harry Truman wanted to buy Greenland.”
That is true: the Democrat offered Denmark $100m in 1946 but was turned down.
“Denmark owns Greenland,” Kudlow said. “Denmark is an ally.” But he also said “Greenland is a strategic place up there” and added something not discussed by Trump: “They’ve got a lot of valuable minerals.”
“I don’t want to predict it now,” Kudlow said. “I’m just saying the president, who knows a thing or two about buying real estate, wants to take a look at a potential Greenland purchase.”
Greenlanders have expressed horror. One, Else Mathiesen, told local media: “You can’t just buy an island or a people. This sounds like something from the era of slavery and colonial power.”
Nonetheless, Fox host Perino seemed taken with the idea, asking again if Kudlow would take her on any official visit.
“You know,” said Kudlow, “I could make that happen.”