GRAND FORKS - Mounting tensions with North Korea, a rupture with a top Republican senator and warnings of World War III have left North Dakota and Minnesota politicians divided on President Donald Trump's leadership.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told the New York Times on Sunday, Oct. 8, he's worried President Donald Trump's style is risking "World War III," and that he behaves "like he's doing 'The Apprentice' or something." The Times, paraphrasing Corker, said the senator believes "nearly every" Republican senator feels as he does.
The remarks come after reports that Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called him a "moron," and the president's insistence on Twitter that, regarding North Korea, "policy didn't work," the latest in a line of assertive remarks stoking fears of military engagement.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he "might use different terminology" than the president, but believes the administration's indication that it will consider military force complements good diplomacy-a signal that "all options are on the table," but that diplomacy is preferred.
"I don't necessarily agree with everything he says or the way he says it. But I think the overall strategy is the right strategy," Hoeven said. Though he said he has not read Corker's remarks in the Times, Hoeven disagreed that the president is risking "World War III."
"I think the president's on the right agenda," he said. "We're trying to do tax relief and tax reform, and so we need Sen. Corker and others to get on board so we can get it done for our economy, job creating, help people keep more of their earnings."
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., also defended Trump, describing him in a Monday interview as superior to Hillary Clinton, "who couldn't handle Libya," and dismissed Corker as a "never-Trumper."
Cramer went on to blame previous policy for North Korea's ascendance, and said he believes "there's a much stronger strategy in play than (Trump is) given credit for." He did express worries about Trump's public treatment of senior officials, however.
"Do I occasionally have some concern about that? Yes I do," Cramer said. "His greatest asset is the people who have supported him to get here."
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., released a statement that outlined her vision for North Korean diplomacy in response to emailed questions from the Herald on Trump.
"The U.S. needs to use an approach that draws on our military, diplomatic, and economic strengths, which is what I've been working to do by pressing on Cabinet secretaries for solutions, urging the administration to appoint a special envoy to the region, working to pass legislation that increases sanctions on North Korea, and maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent at Minot Air Force Base," the statement said.
Across the border
In response to the same emailed questions, Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, both Minnesota Democrats, offered varying responses. Franken lamented that Trump spends time "picking fights on Twitter."
"I'm disappointed that President Trump is continuing to use tweets to spout off divisive rhetoric to criticize my colleagues and recklessly provoke nuclear-armed adversaries like North Korea," he said in a statement.
"We must approach North Korea with calculated strength and resolve. The threat is very serious and something we should not take lightly," Klobuchar said in her statement. "Our strategy should be to use tough sanctions to drive North Korea to the negotiating table. Pressuring China-which accounts for 90 percent of North Korea's trade-is a critical part of that effort."
The office of Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., did not respond to requests for an interview or an offer to email questions.
Brian Urlacher, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Dakota, said previous presidents, such as Nixon and Reagan, have asserted themselves on the world stage. But Trump's messaging is different, he said, in that he is not only willing to be bellicose, but is doing so with a comparative lack of coordination. In April, Trump's declaration that he was "sending an armada" toward North Korea happened just as a large naval strike force was sailing in the opposite direction. Trump was also accused of undercutting his own secretary of state on Twitter last week, advising him not to "waste his time" on talks with North Korea.
"A lot of times, what ends up happening is the bureaucracy ends up reacting to what they see on Twitter in a way that seems to be spontaneous instead of a process," Urlacher said.
Urlacher added that the consequences of a war with North Korea could be significant. North Korea "would certainly lose," but cities in the U.S. and Japan would be at risk of nuclear attacks. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, would likely be "destroyed."
Trump's handling of North Korea has former North Dakota political leaders concerned. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat and North Dakota's congressman from 1993 through 2011, likened the president to a relative at Thanksgiving-one who might "add color" to the evening, but someone who shouldn't be trusted with "grandma's estate."
Former Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat who represented North Dakota from 1987 until 2013, said Trump is not suited for the presidency.
"I think it has become very clear he does not have the right temperament," Conrad said. "He's quick to blame everybody else, but he should maybe look in the mirror. He's the leader. He's the president."