Before last night, Donald Trump had not tweeted the word “Africa” since becoming president. That changed with this unexpected missive:
“I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers. ‘South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.’ @TuckerCarlson @FoxNews”
It turns out, Trump actually tweeted this twice. The first tweet was deleted because he misidentified Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Twitter handle, while the second one got it right.
As for why the president mentioned Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and his network by name, Trump received his lesson on international affairs from the conservative host, rather than the many actual foreign policy experts who would be happy to brief the president on any subject that interests him.
In this case, Trump chose poorly. As the Washington Post noted, the Fox News segment that piqued the president’s interest echoed talking points “used by white-nationalist groups, including an organization that has referred to ‘the so-called apartheid’ and the ‘so-called ‘historical injustices of the past.’”
All of which meant that Trump directed the State Department to launch an investigation into racially charged conspiracy theories, based entirely on something he saw, not in a White House policy briefing, but on a conservative cable-news program.
The result is another international incident fueled by Trump’s confusion over something he saw on TV.
NBC News added this afternoon that the South African government accused Trump of peddling “false information” and reflecting a “narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.” The government said it would seek clarification of Trump’s misssive from the U.S. Embassy.
That will be of limited utility: after a year and a half in office, Trump still doesn’t have an ambassador to South Africa who might be able to help in a situation like this. (Even if we did have an ambassador to South Africa, I’m hard pressed to imagine what he or she would tell officials in a situation like this one.)
To be sure, the South African debate over land reform is complex, and some of the proposed solutions are the subject of intense deliberations. If Trump genuinely wanted to contribute something useful to the debate, he could’ve read up on the subject.
But he didn’t. Trump saw a television segment that echoed conspiracy theories, which inspired him to pick up his phone and direct U.S. officials to take action.
This isn’t how a modern superpower should ever try to execute a foreign policy, especially toward an allied nation.
Given the American president’s troubled history on race, and his lack of familiarity with the subject matter, it was unlikely he’d play a constructive role in the discussion anyway. But trying to conduct foreign policy through tweets – featuring provocative claims for which there’s little evidence – adds insult to injury.