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Senators divided on Trump's fired secretary of state

GRAND FORKS—Senators from Minnesota and North Dakota are split on the road ahead after President Donald Trump's Monday announcement that he is firing Rex Tillerson, his administration's secretary of state.

Tillerson, who was confirmed by a 56-43 vote in the Senate last year, was removed after months of reported mutual dislike between the two men, with Tillerson also reportedly calling the president a "moron" in private. Tillerson had issued a strong Monday condemnation of Russia for the poisoning of a former spy in the United Kingdom, though it was not immediately clear if this was linked to his dismissal.

"Over the past year I've had issues with how Secretary Tillerson has handled Russia and managed the State Department," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a prepared statement provided by her office. "However, I am concerned that he was fired just 24 hours after taking a stronger stance against Russia. The next Secretary of State must take foreign interference in our elections seriously, fill key positions in the State Department, and use diplomatic efforts to advance our national security and keep our country safe."

Klobuchar, who voted against Tillerson's confirmation last year, did not mention the Trump administration's expected replacement. Trump has named Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA, as his next pick to lead the State Department, with Deputy Director Gina Haspel slated to lead the agency. Both positions require a confirmation vote from the Senate.

Tillerson's departure comes ahead of expected upcoming talks with North Korea, announced last week. In a surprise move, President Trump expressed a desire last week to meet personally with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with a meeting potentially happening within the next several months. Tensions with the Asian nation were some of the top concerns expressed by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

"Unfortunately, today's transition disrupts steady communications with the regime, especially since we lack a nominee for ambassador to South Korea and recently lost the top career official handling North Korea," she said in a prepared statement provided by her office. "It's tough to carry out good foreign policy when nobody's at the office back home."

Heitkamp voted to confirm the now ex-secretary last year, and said she hopes Pompeo "will seriously address" the lack of top State Department officials assigned to the Korean peninsula. She did not mention Haspel.

Sen. John Hoeven, D-N.D., complimented "good work" from Tillerson, whom he also voted to confirm, in a prepared statement provided by his office. Hoeven said it's important, especially with upcoming talks with North Korea "that the president has the team in place that he feels will best rise to the challenge."

As for a replacement, he expressed confidence in Pompeo and an expectation that he'll soon hear more from Haspel during confirmation proceedings.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., took office earlier this year, well after Tillerson's confirmation vote. Her office did not provide a statement before press time.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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