It started as a headline seemingly straight out of The Onion. Then it unleashed a torrent of jokes on late-night television and social media. And finally it exploded into a serious diplomatic rupturebetween 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, Mr. 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. American officials have talked about how to counter China, which has expressed interest in expanding ties with Greenland.
American 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 on Wednesday.
The aborted Greenland venture comes at a time when Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 two and a half years in office, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 an American 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 Mr. 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 percent.
Supporters said Mr. Trump was onto something. “This idea isn’t as crazy as the headline makes it seem,” Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Trump canceled a trip to Denmarkscheduled 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 Ms. 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.
Mr. Trump focused on Ms. Frederiksen’s comment that selling Greenland was an “absurd discussion,” as she put it. “It was nasty,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 percent 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?”
Ms. 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 Mr. 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 Ms. Ortagus.
“Appreciate frank, friendly and constructive talk with @SecPompeo this evening, affirming strong US-DK bond,” Mr. Kofod wrote on Twitter. “US & Denmark are close friends and allies with long history of active engagement across globe.”
Engagement, but no sale.
Last Monday, when President Trump tweeted that his Administration would stage nationwide immigration raids the following week, with the goal of deporting “millions of illegal aliens,” agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement were suddenly forced to scramble. The agency was not ready to carry out such a large operation. Preparations that would typically take field officers six to eight weeks were compressed into a few days, and, because of Trump’s tweet, the officers would be entering communities that now knew they were coming. “It was a dumb-shit political move that will only hurt the agents,” John Amaya, a former deputy chief of staff at ice, told me. On Saturday, hours before the operation was supposed to start in ten major cities across the country, the President changed course, delaying it for another two weeks.
On Sunday, I spoke to an ice officer about the week’s events. “Almost nobody was looking forward to this operation,” the officer said. “It was a boondoggle, a nightmare.” Even on the eve of the operation, many of the most important details remained unresolved. “This was a family op. So where are we going to put the families? There’s no room to detain them, so are we going to put them in hotels?” the officer said. On Friday, an answer came down from ice leadership: the families would be placed in hotels while ice figured out what to do with them. That, in turn, raised other questions. “So the families are in hotels, but who’s going to watch them?” the officer continued. “What happens if the person we arrest has a U.S.-citizen child? What do we do with the children? Do we need to get booster seats for the vans? Should we get the kids toys to play with?” Trump’s tweet broadcasting the operation had also created a safety issue for the officers involved. “No police agency goes out and says, ‘Tomorrow, between four and eight, we’re going to be in these neighborhoods,’ ” the officer said.
The idea for the operation took hold in the White House last September, two months after a federal judge had ordered the government to stop separating parents and children at the border. At the time, the number of families seeking asylum was rising steadily, and Administration officials were determined to toughen enforcement. A D.H.S. official told me that, in the months before the operation was proposed, “a major focus” of department meetings “was concern about the fact that people on the non-detained docket”—asylum seekers released into the U.S. with a future court date—“are almost never deported.” By January, a tentative plan had materialized. The Department of Justice developed a “rocket docket” to prioritize the cases of asylum seekers who’d just arrived in the country and missed a court date—in their absence, the government could swiftly secure deportation orders against them. D.H.S. then created a “target list” of roughly twenty-five hundred immigrant family members across the country for deportation; eventually, the Administration aimed to arrest ten thousand people using these methods.
From the start, however, the plan faced resistance. The Secretary of D.H.S., Kirstjen Nielsen, argued that the arrests would be complicated to carry out, in part because American children would be involved. (Many were born in the U.S. to parents on the “target list.”) Resources were already limited, and an operation on this scale would divert attention from the border, where a humanitarian crisis was worsening by the day. The acting head of ice, Ron Vitiello, a tough-minded former Border Patrol officer, shared Nielsen’s concerns. According to the Washington Post, these reservations weren’t “ethical” so much as logistical: executing such a vast operation would be extremely difficult, with multiple moving pieces, and the optics could be devastating. Four months later, Trump effectively fired them. Vitiello’s replacement at ice, an official named Mark Morgan—who’s already been fired once by Trump and regained the President’s support after making a series of appearances on Fox News—subsequently announced that ice would proceed with the operation.
Late last week, factions within the Administration clashed over what to do. The acting secretary of D.H.S., Kevin McAleenan, urged caution, claiming that the operation was a distraction and a waste of manpower. Among other things, a $4.5 billion funding bill to supply further humanitarian aid at the border has been held up because Democrats worried that the Administration would use the money for enforcement operations. McAleenan had been meeting with members of both parties on the Hill, and there appeared to be signs of progress, before the President announced the ice crackdown. According to an Administration official, McAleenan argued that the operation would also threaten a string of recent gains made by the President. The Trump Administration had just secured a deal with the Mexican government to increase enforcement at the Guatemalan border, and it expanded a massive new program called Remain in Mexico, which has forced some ten thousand asylum seekers to wait indefinitely in northern Mexico. “Momentum was moving in the right direction,” the official said.
On the other side of the argument were Stephen Miller, at the White House, and Mark Morgan, at ice. In the days before and after Trump’s Twitter announcement, Morgan spoke regularly with the President, who was circumventing McAleenan, Morgan’s boss. In meetings with staff, Morgan boasted that he had a direct line to the President, according to the ice officer, who told me it was highly unusual for there to be such direct contact between the agency head and the White House. “It should be going to the Secretary, which I find hilarious, actually, because Morgan was already fired once by this Administration,” the officer said.
Over the weekend, the President agreed to halt the operation. But it’s far from certain whether McAleenan actually got the upper hand. Officials in the White House authorized ice to issue a press release insinuating that someone had leaked important details about the operation and therefore compromised it. “Any leak telegraphing sensitive law-enforcement operations is egregious and puts our officers’ safety in danger,” an ice spokesperson said late Saturday afternoon. This was a puzzling statement given that it was Trump who first publicized the information about the operation. But the White House’s line followed a different script: some members of the Administration, as well as the former head of ice, Thomas Homan, were publicly accusing McAleenan of sharing information with reporters in an attempt to undermine the operation.
For Homan, his involvement in the Administration’s internal fight marked an unexpected return to the main stage. Last year, he resigned as acting head of ice after the Senate refused to confirm him to the post. Earlier this month, Trump announced, on Fox News, that Homan would be returning to the Administration as the President’s new border tsar, but Homan, who hadn’t been informed of the decision, has remained noncommittal. Still, according to the Administration official, Homan and the President talk by phone regularly. Over the weekend, Homan, who has since become an on-air contributor to Fox News, appeared on television to attack McAleenan personally. “You’ve got the acting Secretary of Homeland Security resisting what ice is trying to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, the President spent the weekend trying to leverage the delayed operation to pressure congressional Democrats. If they did not agree to a complete overhaul of the asylum system at the border, Trump said, he’d greenlight the ice operation once more. “Two weeks,” he tweeted, “and big Deportation begins.” At the same time, his Administration was under fire for holding immigrant children at a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas. Two hundred and fifty infants, children, and teen-agers have spent weeks in squalid conditions; they have been denied food, water, soap, and toothbrushes, and there’s limited access to medicine in the wake of flu and lice outbreaks. “If the Democrats would change the asylum laws and the loopholes,” Trump said, “everything would be solved immediately.” And yet, last week, when an Administration lawyer appeared before the Ninth Circuit to answer for the conditions at the facility, which were in clear violation of a federal agreement on the treatment of children in detention, she said that addressing them was not the government’s responsibility. Michelle Brané, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told me, “The Administration is intentionally creating chaos at the border and detaining children in abusive conditions for political gain.” (On Monday, Customs and Border Protection transferred all but thirty children from the Clint facility; it isn’t yet clear where, exactly, they’ll go.)
President Obama was never popular among ice’s rank and file, but the detailed list of enforcement priorities he instituted, in 2014, which many in the agency initially resented as micromanagement, now seemed more sensible—and even preferable to the current state of affairs. The ice officer said, “One person told me, ‘I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the Obama rules. We removed more people with the rules we had in place than with all this. It was much easier when we had the priorities. It was cleaner.’ ” Since the creation of ice, in 2003, enforcement was premised on the idea that officers would primarily go after criminals for deportation; Trump, who views ice as a political tool to showcase his toughness, has abandoned that framework entirely. “I don’t even know what we’re doing now,” the officer said. “A lot of us see the photos of the kids at the border, and we’re wondering, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” The influx of Central American migrants, the officer noted, has been an issue for more than a decade now, spanning three Presidential administrations. “No one built up the infrastructure to handle this, and now people are suffering at the border for it. They keep saying they were caught flat footed. That’s a bald-faced fucking lie.”
Prosecutors claim Representative Duncan Hunter and his wife spent over $250,000 of campaign funds on personal items. Here is an explanation of the indictment filed on Tuesday.
Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, and his wife, Margaret Hunter, were indicted on Tuesday, accused of spending more than $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses — including a vacation to Italy, family dental bills and plane tickets for a pet — and then lying to the Federal Election Commission.
.. Prosecutors said the two were reckless spenders, living beyond their means and racking up steep debts before deciding to use the campaign’s bank account.
.. 6. Throughout the relevant period, the HUNTERS spent substantially more than they earned. They overdrew their bank account more than 1,100 times in a seven-year period resulting in approximately $37,761 in “overdraft” and “insufficient funds” bank fees.
.. Their credit cards were frequently charged to the credit limit, often with five-figure balances, resulting in approximately $24,600 in finance charges, interest, and other fees related to late, over the limit, and returned payment fees.
.. 17. By virtue of these delinquencies — as well as notifications of outstanding debts and overdue payments from their children’s school, their family dentist, and other creditors the HUNTERS knew that many of their desired purchases could only be made by using Campaign funds.
.. In the fall of 2015, the family went to Italy, where they tried to use the United States Navy to justify their spending, prosecutors said. When that failed, prosecutors claim Mr. Hunter — a former Marine — had sharp words for the military.
On or about November 19 to 29, 2015, the HUNTERS spent $14,261.33 (including airfare) in Campaign funds to pay for a family vacation to Italy.
On or about November 23, 2015, in an attempt to justify the use of Campaign funds to pay for the family’s trip to Italy, DUNCAN HUNTER attempted to set up a day tour of a U.S. naval facility in Italy. After Navy officials responded that they could only provide a tour on a particular date, DUNCAN HUNTER said he would discuss the proposed date with MARGARET HUNTER, then subsequently told his Chief of Staff, “tell the navy to go f*** themselves [no alteration in original],” and no tour occurred.
.. 116) On or about March 20, 2015, when DUNCAN HUNTER told MARGARET HUNTER that he was planning “to buy my Hawaii shorts” but had run out of money, she counseled him to buy the shorts at a golf pro shop so that they could falsely describe the purchase later as “some [golf] balls for the wounded warriors.”
.. To conceal and disguise his illegal activity, he misled his Chief of Staff by describing his regular golf outing with Individual IA as “a Christian thing” with a supporter.
.. The Hunters even used campaign funds to buy plane tickets for a family pet so it could come on vacation with them, prosecutors say. (Reports indicate that the pet in question is a rabbit.)
98) On or about July 9, 2014, the HUNTERS spent $250 in Campaign funds at United Airlines to fly a family pet to Washington, D.C. for a family vacation.
.. the indictment point to a family struggling with debt and straining to maintain an upper middle class lifestyle.
.. But prosecutors said the family also spent campaign funds to keep their heads above water, using some of the money to keep their utilities from being shut off and to partially pay off overdue dental bills and tuition payments for their children.
.. 7) On or about August 5, 2015, in La Mesa, California, MARGARET HUNTER spent $700 in Campaign funds at a local dentist to continue to pay down the family’s overdue balance. In order to conceal and disguise this illegal payment, she told the Treasurer that part of the payment was a charitable contribution for “Smiles for Life.”
.. 139) On or about August 12, 2015, in El Cajon, California, MARGARET HUNTER spent $3,500 in Campaign funds to pay the family’s tuition bill at Christian Unified Schools- one of three different dates in 2015 that MARGARET HUNTER spent a total of $6,150 in Campaign funds to pay tuition. To conceal and disguise these illegal payments, the HUNTERS provided a number of conflicting explanations, including that the payments were charitable contributions.
With sanctimony having replaced humor, the only thing left to laugh at is the farce of politics itself.
.. watching on YouTube the comedian Bill Maher talk about Donald Trump’s marriage. If you don’t share Mr. Maher’s politics, you are likely to find him an odious, even loathsome character, for he doesn’t really exist outside politics. His standard tone is mockery, his modus operandi to lacerate his targets with obscenities, flash a nervous smile, and then bask in applause from his audience.
.. Yet to have taken what I think of as the Trumpian option in their comedy has rendered these comedians charmless while strikingly limiting their audiences to those who share their politics.
.. I asked a great many people to name five persons in public life they thought charming. No one could do it.
.. That the late-night talk-show hosts are ready to give up a large share of the audience to indulge their politics is something new in American comedy.
.. when Bob Hope found himself, because of his support for the Vietnam War, aligned with Richard Nixon, many of his most steadfast fans deserted him.
.. Enough people must share the views of these hosts to keep the careers of Maher, Colbert, Kimmel & Co. afloat, which is to say to keep their ratings high enough to be commercially viable. Yet these insufficiently funny comedians, with their crude political humor, do little more than add to the sad divisiveness that is rending the country. Something, surely, has been lost if one can no longer turn to comedy as a relief from the general woes of life and the greater farce that has for some years now been playing out in our everyday politics.