Republicans are continuing to criticize President Biden for not visiting East Palestine, Ohio, where a train carrying toxic, cancer-causing chemicals derailed Feb. 3.
Biden has yet to make a trip to the area, sending Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and federal officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency to the disaster site in his stead.
Biden’s visit to Ukraine last week was “the biggest slap in the face,” East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, a Republican, told Fox News. “That tells you right now, he doesn’t care about us,” Conaway added, saying he was “furious” the president was in Ukraine “giving millions of dollars away to people over there, not to us.”
“My message to congressional Republicans: you can either be the party of Ukraine & the globalists or you can be the party of East Palestine & the working people of America,” Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, tweeted Friday.
Biden said the same day that has no plans to visit the village, but emphasized that he has been in close contact with elected officials in the region.
“The idea that we are not engaged is just simply not there,” Biden said. “Initially, there was not a request for me to go out even before I was heading over to Kyiv. I am keeping very close tabs on it. We are doing all we can.”
On Friday, House Republicans launched an oversight investigation into the Department of Transportation’s handling of the disaster.
Biden’s decision to avoid the site stands in some contrast to his brand as “comforter-in-chief.” Biden’s experience has “forged an empathic sensibility that enables him to connect deeply with other Americans through shared grief and pain,” according to a 2021 study by Dan P. McAdams of Northwestern University.
But disaster response is about more than the president personally appearing on scene, the Biden administration has insisted. The president has received multiple briefings on the disaster over the past several weeks, dispatched high-level officials including the head of the EPA to the town, and talked to the governors of Ohio and neighboring Pennsylvania while visiting Eastern Europe this week, White House officials note.
“I think offering the assistance, offering the help is doing it directly,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “When you are seeing the federal government on the ground, providing the assistance that is needed, that is doing it directly. They are doing it on the direction of the president.”
Republican criticism of Biden’s response to the disaster — and failure to visit East Palestine — mounted after former President Trump stopped by the village Wednesday to distribute Trump-branded water and campaign hats to residents. Trump, who is running for president, criticized the government’s handling of the disaster, which he characterized as “indifference and betrayal.”
As president, Trump worked to deregulate the freight railroad industry, and scrapped several Obama-era safety protocols.
Republicans have trained much of their criticism of the administration’s response to the disaster on Buttigieg, who visited the site Thursday, a day after Trump. Earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote to Biden requesting the transportation secretary’s resignation. “The circumstances leading up to the derailment point to a clear lack of oversight and demand engagement by our nation’s top transportation official,” he argued.
Buttigieg, who has acknowledged he “could have spoken up sooner” about the disaster, has accused Republicans of taking “political advantage of this situation.”
Fox News has devoted significant airtime to the issue. “It’s just horrible because they deserve better,” former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who left the Democratic Party in October, told the network Thursday. “They deserve people like Secretary Buttigieg and President Biden and others to wake up, thinking about, ‘What can I do for these people who are hurt and are afraid and concerned for their children and their future?’ And unfortunately, they are not getting that.”
The public has long expected presidents to play a hands-on role in responding to major disasters. “Disaster management has a place in every president’s White House and personal legacy,” the authors of a 2012 study on the subject concluded. “Disaster management is gradually coming to define an increasing share of [the] presidential image.”
But presidents have tended to stay away in the immediate aftermath of a disaster to prevent their presence and the immense security they require from distracting local officials and first responders.
More than three weeks have passed since the 38-car freight train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed near the Ohio town. Preliminary investigations have found that the accident was “100% preventable.”
After the train derailed, the company conducted a controlled burn of the chemicals on board to prevent a massive explosion. More than 40,000 aquatic animals have died in waters near the site of the disaster, officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources have said.
The president was scheduled to spend the weekend in his personal home in Delaware. He will travel to Virginia on Tuesday to give a speech about affordable healthcare. But so far, his public schedule includes no plans to visit East Palestine.