EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Donald Trump visited this tiny Ohio town on Wednesday, escalating a political showdown in the wake of a fiery train derailment that left some residents fearful of contaminated air and water.
Yet Trump has also faced criticism for his administration’s rollback of rail safety rules and moves to downsize the Environmental Protection Agency, which Democrats have cited as they seek to direct some of the heat toward the 45th president in the aftermath of the derailment. And some residents of East Palestine — including Trump supporters — said they saw little value in his visit.
Trump made a brief reference to Biden’s holiday weekend trip to Ukraine. Earlier this week, the former president suggested residents of the town “were abandoned,” echoing a chorus of Republicans who have chastised Biden for not coming to Ohio. “This is really America right here. We’re standing in America. Unfortunately, as you know, in too many cases, your goodness and perseverance were met with indifference and betrayal in some cases,” Trump said Wednesday.
The rhetoric and hastily arranged visit by a presidential candidate reflect how a train crash that filled East Palestine with smoke this month has set off a partisan dispute that encapsulates some of the country’s political divisions.
Republicans have pointed to the derailment’s aftermath to advance their broader case that Democrats have neglected the concerns of many Americans, particularly in rural communities like East Palestine. The town is a microcosm of the White, working-class voters key to their base, Trump’s political rise and the popularity on the right of his “America First” agenda. GOP leaders seized on Biden’s surprise trip to Kyiv to suggest he was prioritizing a foreign conflict over the situation in Ohio.
The Biden administration has sought to reassure the public it is in control of the situation and hit back at Republicans, pointing to their support for deregulation. But Democrats have also criticized the federal response, creating a complicated political dynamic as Biden has long pitched himself as a steady hand in a crisis. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — a centrist from a red state who could face a tough reelection in 2024 — called it “unacceptable” last week that a senior administration official did not visit until two weeks after the crash.
Biden tweeted Tuesday that he wants residents “to know that we’ve got your back,” and said that the EPA had ordered the train company, Norfolk Southern, to “pay for the clean-up and disposal of hazardous materials.” He also called out the Trump administration directly, saying, “For years, elected officials — including the last admin — have limited our ability to implement and strengthen rail safety measures.”The rule that was rolled back that has received the most scrutiny — one involving braking technology — would not have applied to this derailed train, however, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Unlike the mass casualty events that typically draw a president, the derailment did not cause deaths. State and federal officials say tests so far have shown that East Palestine’s air and water are safe. But the incident forced temporary evacuations and left many residents fearful, and some complained of headaches and nausea.
At a diner near East Palestine’s Main Street, 56-year-old Bill Hugar said he appreciated the media attention around Trump’s visit. “With Trump being here, that’s going to pressure Washington, D.C.,” said Hugar, who voted for Trump twice and will do so again in 2024.
John Petrich, another two-time Trump voter who said his eyes have been watering ever since the derailment, was also skeptical of officials’ promises to clean up the mess and make Norfolk Southern pay. “I have this much faith in the federal government,” he said, setting down his menu and holding up his hand shaped into a zero. But he didn’t think Trump’s arrival would help much and called it a “circus.”
Bill Sobona, a 73-year-old garlic farmer, said the Biden administration’s aid to war-torn Ukraine showed it valued the victims of Russia’s invasion over East Palestine’s residents. But he, too, was cynical about Trump.
“He’s here to get elected,” said Sobona, who once supported Trump but decided he would not vote for him again after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The White House said Biden made calls Tuesday evening from Warsaw to reaffirm federal support after the train derailment to the governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio).
EPA officials arrived at the site the morning after the crash, and administration officials have argued that an earlier appearance by senior officials could have interfered with emergency efforts.
The political fight over the rail disaster comes as state leaders in both parties dealing with the situation have sought to project unity. Appearing Tuesday alongside Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) said they were working with the Biden administration to “make sure we draw down whatever federal resources there are” and have “put any kind of partisan politics aside.”
Conaway also said at the event, “This has been made into a political pawn game.” But he stood by his comments Monday — when he criticized Biden’s visit to Kyiv ahead of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion. Biden has not visited East Palestine, nor has Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who just announced plans to visit on Thursday.
Conaway, who did not respond to an interview request, echoed Republicans who increasingly object to U.S. support for the war in Ukraine and accuse Democrats of prioritizing it over domestic issues important to the GOP base. “That was the biggest slap in the face,” Conaway said of Biden’s Kyiv visit on Fox News on Monday. “That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us.”
A mostly White town of fewer than 5,000, East Palestine is part of a county where more than 70 percent of voters backed Trump in 2020. Trump beat Biden by eight points in Ohio that year, and he helped turn the onetime swing state more reliably red in 2016 while arguing that Democrats and the political establishment had failed working-class voters.
Other local officials said they do not fault Biden. Roy Paparodis, a Republican commissioner for the county that includes East Palestine, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that Biden is “a busy guy” and that “I’m sure he has a reason” he has not made it to Ohio.
Trump said Wednesday he brought thousands of water bottles for residents — “Trump water, actually,” along with some other water of “much lesser quality,” he added.
Vance, who is a close ally of Trump and his “America First” agenda, has criticized Buttigieg’s response, suggesting he has not prioritized the train derailment and deriding his discussion last week of racial diversity in construction.
His Senate colleague Brown, a Democrat up for reelection next year, did not criticize authorities’ response in a statement but said it’s his job to “hold everyone accountable for making this right for the people of East Palestine — from state and federal officials, to the corporation that created this tragic mess.”
Nationwide, many prominent Republicans have weighed in. Campaigning in Iowa on Tuesday night, presidential candidate Nikki Haley noted Biden’s trip overseas and said, “Shouldn’t he be with those people in Ohio?” Fox News host Tucker Carlson also highlighted the Ukraine visit while falsely claiming that East Palestine’s water is “glowing.”
Nina Turner, a former Democratic state senator from Ohio, on Tuesday accused Trump and others in the GOP of using the derailment for political ends, blasting regulatory rollbacks on Trump’s watch. Yet Turner, who has in the past been a blunt critic of Biden, also faulted the current president for visiting Ukraine but not planning a trip to East Palestine. Trump’s “faux populism speaks to their pain,” Turner said.
Trump supporters began to line up Wednesday morning in anticipation of his visit as a cold rain fell. Some carried Trump signs, wore red baseball caps and flew flags emblazoned with his name. “I’ll lose a pinkie toe for Trump,” declared one woman wearing flip-flops.
As the former president’s motorcade prepared to leave the fire station, the crowd chanted “We want Trump!” until it had pulled away. “We want more,” one man said quietly. And then a Norfolk Southern train blew its horn as it passed.
The NTSB investigation into the derailment is in its early stages, making it difficult to assess whether regulatory changes contributed to the incident. Information released so far indicates the train had an overheated wheel bearing in the moments before it derailed.
Some have already called for changes to rail safety regulations, however, and criticized actions taken during Trump’s watch.
Trump’s Transportation Department rolled back railroad safety rules, often arguing that new technology meant that existing standards could be relaxed without increasing risk, and concluding on some others that the costs were not worth the benefits.
In practice, the Trump administration’s approach often meant siding with railroad executives who sought changes to the federal rule book despite warnings from labor unions about safety risks.
Greg Hynes, the national legislative director for SMART Transportation Division, a labor union, said the Trump administration’s record on railroads was “horrible.”
Biden administration officials say they have been taking steps to tighten oversight of the rail industry, reviving proposals for new regulations and restoring an audit program that had been halted under the Trump administration.
Asked about Trump’s visit during a briefing for reporters on the proposals Monday, Buttigieg said that as a sitting federal official, he didn’t want to comment specifically on a presidential candidate.
“Whether we’re talking about elected officials or anybody else showing up, there is a chance for everybody who has a public voice on this issue to demonstrate whether they are interested in helping the people of East Palestine or using the people of East Palestine,” Buttigieg said. He added, “A lot of the folks who seem to find political opportunity there are among those who have sided with the rail industry again and again and again, as they have fought safety regulations on railroads and hazmat tooth and nail.”
The Trump administration’s deregulatory push continued into the waning months of his presidency. In December 2020, the administration finalized changes to brake inspection rules that had been requested by the railroad industry and opposed by unions.
Duncan and Knowles reported from Washington.
A previous version of this story said that on Wednesday night, the White House said Biden made calls from Warsaw to reaffirm federal support after the train derailment to the governors of Pennsylvania Ohio’s governors, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio). The calls were made Tuesday evening, according to the White House.
The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill
The latest: DOJ is also suing Norfolk Southern over the toxic train derailment. Senators questioned Norfolk Southern’s CEO on rail safety records as Ohio is suing the freight company. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the Ohio train derailment.
What are the health risks of the chemical spill? One toxic gas, vinyl chloride, was burned after the derailment, sending various toxins and chemicals into the air. The EPA is handling the disaster response.
The politics: Amid a partisan divide over the disaster response, former president Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the derailment site.
Who is impacted? The Biden administration is taking heat for not doing enough to help, while Ohio residents are angry after Norfolk Southern backed out of a town hall addressing the response. The derailment also killed more than 43,000 aquatic animals in the area. Here’s what to know about the derailment’s toxic plume.