OPINION | Trump wanted asylum and US citizenship for white South African farmers

US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the BOK Center on 20 June in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the BOK Center on 20 June in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP

Much of the world wants America to abandon its role as the world’s policeman. Perhaps they did not expect it to happen in this way.

US President Donald Trump wanted white South African farmers to receive asylum and US citizenship, after a lobbying trip by South Africa's AfriForum led him to believe they were being killed on a large scale and their land confiscated.

In his newly released book, "The room where it happened", former US national security adviser John Bolton described the interchange in a national security council meeting on 15 May 2018, as one of many examples of Trump's shambolic decision-making process. 

Trump's foray into South Africa arose in the middle of a briefing by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford on a range of military actions the US might target in response to an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabian oil installations.

"Dunford kept trying to get Trump to focus on specific options on a graduated ladder of possible responses, but somehow we veered off to South Africa and what Trump was hearing about the treatment of white farmers, asserting he wanted to grant them asylum and citizenship," Bolton wrote.

Bolton and other White House insiders described occasions like this as requiring them to "talk him off the ledge", an example of what he called the "existing policy-making roulette". The discussion, Bolton reports, then returned to Iranian targets.

Trump’s lack of preparation was institutionalised when he cut the normal daily presidential intelligence briefing to only two per week, at which he frequently did most of the talking, repeating anecdotes from his campaign and relaying his grievances, much as he does in public.

This undermines the work of the 18 intelligence agencies and 854 000 people in the intelligence community with top secret clearances, whose job is to produce intelligence to be filtered up to the president so he can make informed decisions.

The intelligence "product" is sifted by countless people for the precious 15 minutes they have to ensure all threat contingencies are covered.

For Bolton the Trump White House is beyond dysfunctional. "At most, the internal National Security Council structure was no more than the quiver of a butterfly's wings in the tsunami of Trump's chaos," he wrote.

Bolton's insider revelations support press reports the White House continues to deny, that cabinet members and advisers agree among themselves that they must contain his worst instincts and his worst decisions, by being the so-called "adults in the room".

Though few Republican senators have been willing to turn against Trump in public, these descriptions of the president's governing style in the face of the global health, economic and policing crises are coming up in opinion polls as significant factors in his declining support.

At this stage in the election campaign, images of the two candidates are normally being defined in the voters' mind. Attacks by Bolton and other Republicans, including several anti-Trump Republican ad campaigns, are being reinforced at a time Trump has failed to find a winning strategy to address the three major crises.

After two months without a public briefing, the president's Covid 19 task met the media this week to claim it had "flattened the curve". But official published data shows a sharp surge in infections, especially in Republican-controlled "red states" where masks were treated with disdain, economies were opened up, and in two states Trump held public indoor rallies against the advice of health experts.

As states like Texas, Florida and Arizona experienced record case volumes, Trump focused on trying to turn the focus to preventing the removal of statues of Civil War generals who were on the side of slavery, and popularising the description of Covid 19 as "Kung flu", widely seen as an ethnic slur.

Just as confusing, this week the administration went to court to try to end the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, which would take away about 20 million Americans' healthcare in the midst of the pandemic. 

Democrats were appalled. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slammed the action to "rip away" healthcare protections in the "dead of night" and in the "middle of a pandemic".

In the Congress, a prosecutor testified that under the Attorney-General William Barr, prosecutors were expected to interfere in prosecutions in the interests of the president's friends.

Democratic representatives said they did not intend to impeach Barr only because it is so close to the presidential election. Meanwhile, two of the top White House economists resigned in the middle of the worst depression in a century.

They followed the recent departure of Andrew Olmem, special assistant to the president for economic policy and deputy director of the White House National Economic Council; Eric Ueland, who served as the White House director of legislative affairs and played a key role in negotiations with Congress over the stimulus; and Joe Grogan, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

The stakes are unusually high for America's standing in the world.

The European Union is planning to close its doors to US visitors because of the failure to contain the pandemic. Even Spain and Italy, Europe's least successful countries at containing the pandemic earlier this year, have reduced new infections enough to be able to open their economies with reasonable safety.

Domestically, the Democratic Party controlled states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, having brought their death rates down from the highest to among the lowest, through strict social distancing and mask-wearing. They have announced they plan to stop visitors from high-infection, Republican-controlled states entering without quarantine.

These developments are taking a toll on Trump's support. Older voters who supported Trump in 2016 fear for their health and safety. The elderly vote in high proportions, and they are acutely aware that the US has the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world.

America's rising infection rate seems to be linked to Trump's decision to encourage states to open their economies, and to do less testing.

The next few weeks should see greater clarity on the impact of opening up, and of Trump's campaign rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Phoenix, Arizona, against the advice of doctors.

Bolton's book strengthens the view that Trump does not value America's alliances, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), America's allies in the G7, and tried several times to abandon military commitments without a proper evaluation of local circumstances or obligations undertaken by his predecessors.

Much of the world wants America to abandon its role as the world's policeman. Perhaps they did not expect it to happen in this way.

Bolton reported that Trump's former chief of staff, General John Kelly, was so concerned about Trump that he asked, "What if we have a real crisis like 9/11 with the way he makes decisions?"

That question is now being answered.

- John Matisonn is the author of CYRIL’S CHOICES, Lessons from 25 years of freedom in South Africa.

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