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The Puerto Rico-Greenland Trade and the Fate of US Territories

A new book, The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, claims that President Trump had to be told by staff that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens and that the Island was a territory belonging to the United States. He asked whether the United States could “divest” itself of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the Island and suggested selling it.

Swap for Greenland

The authors report that Trump had been talking about acquiring Greenland for the United States from the beginning of his term of office. An old friend, Ron Lauder, offered to negotiate with Denmark to secure the territory.

President Harry Truman had offered to buy Greenland in 1946 for $100 million but was refused. Trump became fascinated with the idea. A team of advisors held secret meetings with the Danish Ambassador and came up with a list of options: “Should they offer to buy Greenland as Trump wanted? Lease it? What about concepts like ‘shared sovereignty’ or ‘pooled sovereignty’?”

“According to Miles Taylor, the former Homeland Security chief of staff…the president asked aides in August of 2018, before a disaster recovery trip to Puerto Rico, whether they could just trade the American commonwealth outright for Greenland,” wrote Baker and Glasser. The book references MSNBC’s report of this revelation in 2020.

In 2019, Trump suggested taking money that had been allocated for disaster recovery in Puerto Rico and using it to purchase Greenland. “How much hurricane disaster relief are we giving to Puerto Rico?” he asked John Bolton. “Can we just take that and use it for Greenland?”

Greenland never considered the possibility.

An attitude problem

Trump confided in his staff that he wanted to get rid of Puerto Rico because “Puerto Rico was dirty and the people were poor.” The book’s authors also claim that Trump was miffed at Puerto Rico because of criticism of his administration’s handling of the federal response to Hurricane Maria.

Trump’s staff never brought his plans for Greenland to Congress, but instead tried to keep them secret and cover them up.

Yet, there are no U.S. laws forbidding the sale of a U.S. territory. Congress could also rescind the statutory citizenship of the people of Puerto Rico at any time. This cannot be done to a state, but it is possible for a territory.

El Nuevo Dia recently reported that Congressman Chuy Garcia (D-IL) voted against HR 8393 because he was dissatisfied with the definition of US citizenship under free association in the proposal, under which continued U.S. citizenship to children of a Puerto Rican parent is not guaranteed. This issue, too, is under control of Congress.

While the suggestion of trading Puerto Rico for Greenland was an unusual event, it reminds us that a territory is always subject to the whim of the federal government. A state can never be sold or traded for another property and its people can never lose their U.S. citizenship or the protection of the U.S. Constitution. A territory is in a very different position.

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