Speaking to reporters on the White House’s South Lawn in late July, President Donald Trump revealed that he was “looking at” a stop in Denmark after an upcoming trip to Poland to attend a World War II commemorative ceremony.
For officials in Copenhagen, the comment came as a surprise. Although it is customary in Denmark for there to be a standing invitation for the U.S. president—and though officials in both countries had been discussing the possibility of an American delegation visiting—no formal invitation had actually been extended to Trump, according to two senior Danish officials and an individual who works closely with the Trump administration in Copenhagen.
By the next day, Queen Margrethe II had issued the invite, and the White House had officially announced the president’s plans to visit the country.
Over the subsequent days, much planning went into preparing for the president’s visit, which was supposed to include meetings with high-level officials from Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. It was designed to be a decadent affair: the Queen’s staff was in the midst of ordering the crystal for the tables and flowers for the palace for the big state dinner with Trump. Danish business leaders had finalized plans for roundtable discussions with White House officials about increasing investments in the U.S. Officials in the country’s ministry of foreign affairs were preparing talking points to promote increased cooperation between the U.S. and Denmark in the Arctic.
The cancellation set off a round of largely critical commentary within the Danish press and among Danish officials, angry that the president canceled a trip he proposed. Some took to social media, saying the president had “invited himself” to the country. Even the former U.S. ambassador to Denmark posted about the invite situation.
The White House did not return a request for comment about how the Denmark trip came to be. The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
The fallout from this most bizarre of geopolitical affairs has raised the possibility of tangible diplomatic riffs between two countries that have historically had strong working relations. Before Trump cancelled the trip, there was a growing likelihood that his arrival in Denmark would have been met with protests over his administration’s climate policies.
But while those hotspots were anticipated, officials in Copenhagen were caught off guard by Trump’s suggestion the U.S. buy Greenland, following a report last week by the Wall Street Journal that revealed the idea. Greenland was never supposed to be a part of the talks during the president’s visit, Danish officials say, and they weren’t sure how to respond to questions from the country’s press about it, two senior officials told The Daily Beast.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told one reporter, in Danish, that Trump’s proposal “Det er en absurd diskussion,” or, in English, “It is an absurd discussion.”
The word “absurd” set off a fire inside the White House, the president getting so frustrated that he took to the South Lawn, telling the press pool that Frederiksen’s words were “nasty.”
“All she had to do was say no," Trump said Wednesday, explaining why he was scuttling the trip.
Officials in Copenhagen were sent scrambling. As of Thursday afternoon U.S. diplomats said they were fielding calls from Danish officials who—in an attempt to smooth things over—offered up the explanation that “absurd” in Danish doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in English.
Individuals who work regularly with the U.S. State Department in Copenhagen said the line from officials in Denmark is that the word “absurd” can have a less severe meaning in Danish, including “it makes no sense” or “it is out of place in the context.”
“It looks like we have a lost-in-translation situation on our hands,” one Danish diplomat told The Daily Beast.
Back home, Trump’s decision to scrap the visit was met with a mix of confusion, derision, and post-hoc rationalizations. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) told a local television station that he had been the one who had originated the idea of purchasing Greenland in conversations with Trump months back. Cotton called it patently obvious that the administration would seek to purchase the country from Denmark’s stewardship.
Other lawmakers were less convinced. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), a member of both the House Ways and Means Committee and Budget Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday requesting an accounting of the funds spent by the State Department in preparation of Trump’s trip.
“Knowing the extensive background work that goes into planning any presidential travel, especially overseas, this action by the President raises important fiscal questions for Congress,” the letter reads. “Our country is already suffering a nearly $1 trillion budget deficit as a result of the tax cuts pushed through by Republicans in the last Congress, while many Americans cannot afford their medicine or have access to safe drinking water. The President’s reaction underscores his weakening of American credibility around the world as well as his carelessness with taxpayer dollars and resources.”
Though Trump has cancelled his trip to Denmark, there have been no changes to his plan to head to Poland, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, officials and business leaders in Denmark said they were briefing their staff about how to talk about Trump and his Greenland proposal and have asked them to use softer language.
“We just need to be extra careful how we frame this story and this issue because we are in such a delicate time period now,” one official said.
Two Danish officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said their administration was walking a fine line between apologizing to the U.S.—which would anger some constituents who oppose Trump—and maintaining strong diplomatic ties. The U.S. is Denmark’s largest trade partner outside of Europe and Danish companies have increased their investment in the American technology and health sectors. According to State Department data, Danish investment supports about 75,000 jobs in the U.S.
“At the end of the day the U.S. being an ally of Denmark is a big deal. We need to maintain the relationship,” one official said. “We can have a discussion about the Arctic. We were planning on doing that.”
Despite the warnings, Danish officials have continued to use “absurd” in press interviews. Denmark’s minister of foreign affairs, who held a call with Pompeo Wednesday, said on Danish television the same day that it was “absurd to discuss something that is not a reality.”
The press in Denmark has questioned Danish officials, including Frederiksen, about their use of the word “absurd” and if they would continue to use it in the face of diplomatic tensions between Copenhagen and Washington.
“I’m not going to get into a war of words with anyone, including the American president,” Frederiksen said. “Kim Kielsen has made it clear Greenland is not for sale and I support that.”