But when Trump announced on Wednesday night that he was directing his secretary of state to scrutinise what he said was the targeting of white farmers for land seizures and “large-scale killing” in South Africa, the president waded into a complex and politically charged debate.
And in doing that, he embraced a common talking point among white supremacists who claim white genocide is being perpetrated in South Africa and around the world.
The presidential tweet appeared to be the culmination of a lengthy lobbying effort by a South African group that falsely claims white farmers are being systematically forced off their land and killed in large numbers. Its leaders travelled to Washington this year to press their case.
The debate over land ownership has engulfed South Africa, where a proposal to seize land from white farmers has roiled a country still struggling with the effects of apartheid and widespread economic inequality.
White residents, who constitute about 8% of the population, own about 70% of the private farmland, according to government figures.
And President Cyril Ramaphosa announced this month that the ANC would move ahead with a proposal to change the Constitution and allow the expropriation of some property without compensation.
The government has said that the move was necessary to deal with long-standing inequities.
Only unused land would be subject to seizure, it added, suggesting that land that is being actively farmed would be safe.
But opponents of the plan include groups who have said that forced expropriations were already happening and that white farmers were being killed in alarming numbers.
Trump’s seeming endorsement of that narrative drew rebukes and jubilation on Thursday.
Anti-hate organisations called his tweet racist and irresponsible, while the alternative right and white supremacists said it was an overdue and courageous recognition by the president of a grave injustice.
“This is the president of the United States taking up a narrative and an idea that has extremely strong resonance among white supremacists - that with demographic change all over the world, there is a genocide of whites that is getting worse, where minorities are literally trying to wipe out and dispossess white people,” said Heidi Beirich, who monitors hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
Mike Peinovich, a white supremacist whose podcast is called “The Daily Shoah” called the president’s tweet about South Africa “very big”.
He said on Twitter, “It may seem like a small thing, but this is how we slowly chip away at the all-consuming anti-white discourse. Let’s hope this is followed with action.”
Kallie Kriel, the chief executive of AfriForum, said Trump’s comment had been a “huge step forward” for his organisation.
On a tour of the US this year, Kriel met with representatives of conservative think tanks in Washington, including the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, as well as an aide to Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and officials at the US Agency for International Development.
During the trip, Ernst Roets, the group’s deputy chief executive, appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox - part of Trump’s cable news diet.
There he and Kriel met John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, and snapped a photo with him that Kriel posted on Twitter, marvelling at their “luck”.
He said they had given Bolton a copy of Kill the Boer, Roets’s book that claims the government has been complicit in killing white farmers. It also argues, according to the official website, that “a looming process of ethnic cleansing should be regarded as a serious threat and something to be prevented.”
On Thursday, the White House did not respond to requests for comment on what had prompted Trump to tweet about the issue. But the president’s post came after Carlson broadcast a segment on his show about the land ownership dispute in South Africa.
He reported that land seizures were already well under way and blasted the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, for issuing what he called an “unbelievable” statement that called the matter a “difficult” one without criticising Ramaphosa’s approach.
Minister of International Relations, Lindiwe Sisulu, described the tweet as “regrettable” and “based on false information”. The government said it would seek clarification from the US Embassy.
The State Department confirmed on Thursday that the chargé d’affaires in South Africa - the top-ranking diplomat because Trump has yet to nominate an ambassador - had met with its officials in the wake of Trump’s comment.
Heather Nauert, the department’s spokesperson, laboured to steer clear of the racial overtones of the president’s statement.
She said Trump had discussed the issue with Pompeo and “asked the secretary to look closely at the state of action in South Africa related to land reform”.
“The expropriation of land without compensation, our position is that that would risk sending South Africa down the wrong path,” she said, refusing to say whether the State Department believes it is happening.
Asked whether Pompeo had corrected Trump on the state of affairs in South Africa, Nauert said, “We never get into the private conversations between the secretary and the president.”
Patrick Gaspard, the US ambassador to South Africa during the Obama administration, said that with his tweet, Trump had “walked right smack into some of the most supercharged politics that exist in any of our bilateral relationships anywhere around the globe”.
“Here you have a president of the US who is trafficking in a white supremacist story line and talking point that has caused incredible damage in the country, in the region, and that is easily disproved,” Gaspard said.
“We have seen too many instances where Trump cabinet officials and his administration have shifted policy based on the latest irresponsible, and in this case reprehensible, tweet by the president, and so I hope the State Department resists that in this case,” Gaspard added.
The number of killings of farmers, including farmworkers, in South Africa is at a 20-year low, 47 in fiscal year 2017-18, according to research published in July by AgriSA.
That is down from 66 during the previous fiscal year. The figures were consistent with a steady decline of violence since a peak in 1998, when 153 were killed.
But in an interview on Thursday, Kriel claimed that the killings of white farmers were under-reported and said without evidence that white farmers were “three to four times” more likely than the average South African to be killed.
The AfriForum officials were not the first South Africans to visit the US.
Last year, two members of a white Christian survivalist group called the Suidlanders toured the country for six months, meeting with conservative Christian organisations, politicians and doomsday “preppers” and appearing on talk shows such as Infowars, which circulates conspiracy theories.
The trip was “a concerted strategical campaign” to raise money and “raise awareness of and support for the Caucasian Christian conservative volk of South Africa”, said Simon Roche, a spokesperson, adding, “There’s a natural affinity with conservative white Americans.”
Regarding themselves as the world’s largest non-state civil defence force, the Suidlanders have more than 130 000 members and consider civil war imminent in South Africa.
The group has drawn up plans to evacuate whites to a remote part of the country and “stand and fight and die, if that’s what’s necessary”, Roche said.
Among the Americans whom Suidlanders met with during their trip, Roche said, was David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who has been vocal in his support for Trump, and who recirculated the president’s tweet on Wednesday night, appending a “Thank you!”
Trump’s comment was “a natural result of our campaign, but to some extent also a snowball effect” from other lobbying, Roche said.
The idea that whites face the possibility of genocide in Africa has gained fresh currency in the US in the years since the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 carried out by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who posted a racist manifesto on a website called The Last Rhodesian.
It included photographs of Roof wearing a jacket bearing patches displaying the green-and-white flag of Rhodesia, a formerly white-run colony of Britain now known as Zimbabwe - as well as a South African flag.
The shooting appeared to set off a wave of nostalgia for Rhodesia in alternative right and white supremacist circles, where the notion that white people must wage a violent struggle to beat back an onslaught led by blacks is prevalent.
This year, in interviews about their pro-Rhodesian views, far-right social media personalities brought up the plight of white South African farmers, repeating the false narrative that their land was being forcibly taken and that they were being murdered in large numbers.
They drew a direct line between the fall of Rhodesia and what they believe is happening in South Africa now.
On Tuesday, radio host Michael Savage posted a petition on his website calling on Trump to give immigration priority to white South African farmers fleeing “violent confiscation of their lands”.
“The white South African population currently faces ethnic cleansing and persecutions” at the hands of the ANC government, the EFF party and “various individual anti-white aggressors”, said the petition, which circulated on Stormfront, a white supremacist internet forum. - New York Times News Service