President Trump made his name on the world’s most famous island. Now he wants to buy the world’s biggest.
The idea of the U.S. purchasing Greenland has captured the former real-estate developer’s imagination, according to people familiar with the discussions, who said Mr. Trump has, with varying degrees of seriousness, repeatedly expressed interest in buying the ice-covered autonomous Danish territory between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans.
In meetings, at dinners and in passing conversations, Mr. Trump has asked advisers whether the U.S. can acquire Greenland, listened with interest when they discuss its abundant resources and geopolitical importance and, according to two of the people, has asked his White House counsel to look into the idea.
Some of his advisers have supported the concept, saying it was a good economic play, two of the people said, while others dismissed it as a fleeting fascination that will never come to fruition. It is also unclear how the U.S. would go about acquiring Greenland even if the effort were serious.
With a population of about 56,000, Greenland is a self-ruling part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and while its government decides on most domestic matters, foreign and security policy is handled by Copenhagen. Mr. Trump is scheduled to make his first visit to Denmark early next month, although the visit is unrelated, these people said.
The White House and State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment. Officials with Denmark’s Royal House and the Danish embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did officials with Greenland’s representative office in Washington and Greenland’s prime minister’s office.
U.S. officials view Greenland as important to American national-security interests. A decades-old defense treaty between Denmark and the U.S. gives the U.S. military virtually unlimited rights in Greenland at America’s northernmost base, Thule Air Base. Located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it includes a radar station that is part of a U.S. ballistic missile early-warning system. The base is also used by the U.S. Air Force Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
The U.S. has sought to derail Chinese efforts to gain an economic foothold in Greenland. The Pentagon worked successfully in 2018 to block China from financing three airports on the island.
People outside the White House have described purchasing Greenland as an Alaska-type acquisition for Mr. Trump’s legacy, advisers said. The few current and former White House officials who had heard of the notion described it with a mix of anticipation and apprehension, since it remains unknown how far the president might push the idea.
It generated a cascade of questions among his advisers, such as whether the U.S. could use Greenland to establish a stronger military presence in the Arctic, and what kind of research opportunities it might present.
Though it has vast natural resources across its 811,000 square miles, Greenland relies on $591 million of subsidies from Denmark annually, which make up about 60% of its annual budget, according to U.S. and Danish government statistics.
Though Greenland is technically part of North America, it is culturally and politically linked to Europe. Following World War II, the U.S. under President Harry Truman developed a geopolitical interest in Greenland and in 1946 offered to buy it from Denmark for $100 million. But Denmark refused to sell. And that was the second failed attempt—the State Department had also launched an inquiry into buying Greenland and Iceland in 1867.
At a dinner with associates last spring, Mr. Trump said someone had told him at a roundtable that Denmark was having financial trouble over its assistance to Greenland, and suggested that he should consider buying the island, according to one of the people.
“What do you guys think about that?” he asked the room, the person said. “Do you think it would work?”
The person described the question less as a serious inquiry than as a joke meant to indicate “I’m so powerful I could buy a country,” noting that since Mr. Trump hadn’t floated the idea at a campaign rally yet, he probably wasn’t seriously considering it. The person believed the president was interested in the idea because of the island’s natural resources and because it would give him a legacy akin to President Dwight Eisenhower ’s admission of Alaska into the U.S. as a state.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to visit Greenland in May with the aim of discussing long-term peace and sustainable economic developments, particularly since “we’re concerned about activities of other nations, including China, that do not share these same commitments,” a senior State Department official said at the time. Mr. Pompeo was also scheduled to visit the New York Air National Guard in Kangerlussuaq, which supports U.S. scientists conducting research on Greenland’s ice cap.
His trip was called off at the last minute because of escalating tensions with Iran.
Kenneth Mortensen, a real-estate agent in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, said that the running joke in Greenland currently is that Mr. Trump is traveling to Denmark with the sole intention of buying their island. But he said Mr. Trump might run into some trouble.
“You can never own land here,” Mr. Mortensen said, as all land is owned by the government. “In Greenland, you get a right to use the land where you want to build a house, but you can’t buy.”
“Of course, buying Greenland is a different issue altogether,” he added. “I’m not sure about that.”