“The worst of times often create the best opportunities to make good deals,” reads Donald J. Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal,” his ghost-written, self-promotional business memoire — and arguably the only close encounter the president has ever had with literature.
Despite all that we can say about his book, this premise has turned out to be the basis of much of Trump’s strategy as president.
And Puerto Rico is sad proof of that.
The president considered the idea of selling the entire island in 2017 after Hurricane Maria devastated the entire territory, the former interim secretary of homeland security told The New York Times in an interview published Friday.
“The President’s initial ideas were more of as a businessman, you know,” said Elaine Duke, who was serving as the DHS acting secretary when the hurricane hit the island in September 2017.
“‘Can we outsource the electricity? Can we sell the island? You know, or divest of that asset?'” Trump reportedly said, according to Duke in the newspaper interview. “(She said the idea of selling Puerto Rico was never seriously considered or discussed after Mr. Trump raised it.),” the paper reported.
Duke recalled “a humid August 2017 afternoon” in the Roosevelt Room, where a meeting had been scheduled to discuss the president’s intentions to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Instead, she said, it was “an ambush.”
“The room was stacked,” she told the Times. Stephen Miller, the architect of the president’s assault on immigration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other White House officials demanded that she sign a memo ending the program, which they had already concluded was illegal. She did not disagree, but she chafed at being cut out of the real decision-making.
“President Trump believes that he can’t trust,” Duke said in a wide-ranging interview about the 14 months she spent working for him and the consequences of the president’s suspicion of what he calls the “deep state” in government. “That has affected his ability to get counsel from diverse groups of people.”
Following the transfer of John F. Kelly, Trump’s first secretary, to the position of White House chief of staff, Duke held “the highest position in the department” until late 2017 when she was replaced by Kirstjen Nielsen, the face of the administration’s zero tolerance policy against immigration.
Although Duke agreed with “stricter enforcement” of immigration laws and strategies, she told the Times that the administration “is often driven by ideology” instead of deliberation, values politics over policy and is dominated by a president who embraces “hate-filled, angry and divisive” language.
Despite her staunch Republicanism, Duke was overwhelmed by presidential comments such as when Trump described Haiti as “a shithole,” — the same day he added: “We should have more people from Norway,” and less from countries like El Salvador and Africa — and finally by the possibility of “divesting” or “selling” Puerto Rico as it struggled to recover.
This was not the first time that the U.S. president had proposed buying and selling territories as if they were Manhattan condos.
In August 2019, The New York Times also reported Trump’s attacks on the Danish prime minister for her refusal to sell Greenland to him in exchange for Puerto Rico, which even led to the suspension of a diplomatic meeting.
“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.”
The president’s intention, as transparent as his comments, seems to be to get rid of “colored” territories and get closer to white nations that make him feel more comfortable.
But it is one thing to make a fool of yourself in international diplomacy, and quite another to pretend to get rid of an entire nation because it does not represent a major asset in the administration’s interests.
Duke added that as Hurricane Maria approached Puerto Rico and she argued for an emergency declaration before its landfall, Mick Mulvaney, then the president’s budget director, resisted.
“Quit being so emotional, Elaine, it’s not about the people, it’s about the money,” she said Mulvaney told her.