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Republicans seize on train derailment to go after Buttigieg

Secretary’s defenders say he is being targeted for reasons unrelated to the accident

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited the site of a toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 23. (Video: Reuters)
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Republicans are seizing on the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, to ramp up their attacks against Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, saying he is promoting his own agenda at the expense of families who are grappling with a toxic chemical accident in their backyard.

The Transportation Department does not have primary responsibility for the cleanup, and Buttigieg and his supporters are firing back, suggesting the GOP has other motives for its focus on him. The secretary, who sought the presidency in 2020, has taken the unusual step of responding directly to some of his critics, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former president Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The result is an unusually personal and, on occasion, vitriolic back-and-forth involving a transportation secretary who is also a rising star in his party, potential candidate for higher office and prominent gay official — far from the usual technocratic and logistical debates that surround the Transportation Department.

“I’ve never heard this level of criticism against another secretary, ever, and I’ve been following this a long time,” said Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman who served as transportation secretary under President Barack Obama. “I’ve never seen it like this before. This is pure politics.”

Buttigieg has faced GOP criticism before, notably during supply chain disruptions early in Biden’s presidency and the failure of a federal aviation safety system in January. But people close to the transportation secretary say the attacks on him since the derailment have risen to a new level, noting that the Environmental Protection Agency, which is in charge of the response to the derailment, has taken far less heat.

Though part of a broader GOP criticism of the administration’s response to the derailment, the attacks on Buttigieg have in some cases been strikingly personal. Rubio tweeted that Buttigieg is “an incompetent who is focused solely on his fantasies about his political future & needs to be fired.” McConnell said on the Senate floor that Buttigieg is “more interested in pursuing press coverage for woke initiatives and climate nonsense than in attending to the basic elements of his day job.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg of focusing on “climate nonsense” instead of his daily responsibilities. (Video: The Washington Post)

Some critics suggest Buttigieg should have been on the scene earlier — he visited East Palestine on Feb. 23, almost three weeks after the accident — but many of the accusations lack specificity, instead taking the secretary to task largely for his broader positions on issues such as the climate.

Buttigieg and White House face backlash

Buttigieg is one of the Biden administration’s most visible messengers, a deft debater who, unlike many Democrats, is often willing to appear on Fox News and other conservative outlets to advocate the White House’s priorities. A surprise star of the 2020 Democratic primaries, he moved last year from deep-red Indiana to the bluer state of Michigan, fueling speculation about further political ambitions.

Jeffrey Shane, a senior Transportation Department official during the presidency of George W. Bush, said that is one reason Buttigieg is receiving this level of attention. “Because his last act was running for president, Secretary Buttigieg is an unusually high-profile person to have the DOT job,” Shane said. “That visibility, together with genuine challenges in transportation and a toxic atmosphere in Washington, have combined to make this a difficult time.”

On Feb. 23, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said criticism of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s handling of the train derailment crisis were “pure po (Video: The Washington Post)

The White House argues that the administration implemented a by-the-book response to the train derailment, quickly dispatching federal experts from numerous agencies. The derailment itself did not harm or kill anyone, but some of the rail cars were carrying hazardous chemicals that leaked and burned in a massive fire.

Three days after the crash, officials decided to release vinyl chloride from five rail cars to prevent them from exploding, a controversial decision that spewed more chemicals into the air and yielded photos of an ominous-looking black plume looming over East Palestine.

The Transportation Department, while concerned with the conditions leading to the crash, did not have a central role in the response. The department did send experts to help the National Transportation Safety Board investigate, and the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, part of DOT, has also visited the scene.

Buttigieg has conceded that he should have spoken out sooner to convey his concern about the accident and the people in the area. “That’s a lesson learned for me,” he told CBS News.

While the Transportation Department is weighing new safety rules in the accident’s aftermath, it is the EPA that is the lead federal agency on the ground, monitoring toxins and overseeing the cleanup effort by Norfolk Southern, the company that operated the train. Still, Republicans have not gone after EPA Administrator Michael Regan or other federal officials in the same way they have targeted Buttigieg.

Some conservatives have tried making a broader argument — that Biden and his team do not care about East Palestine because it is a Republican, rural, largely White town. “Is it because these are not their voters?” Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who agreed.

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Others have taken it further, taking the opportunity to wrap Buttigieg’s sexual orientation into their criticism, leading to allegations that the post-derailment criticism stems in part from homophobia.

Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, said late last month that Buttigieg got his job solely because Democrats wanted to give a role to “the gay guy.” Long before the derailment, some Republicans mocked Buttigieg’s decision to take paternity leave after his twins were born and to bring his husband, Chasten, with him on a military jet.

“Whether it’s sickening attacks on his family or disrespecting a community’s pain with failed attempts at exploitation as a political prop, nothing saps credibility like following debunked smears with even more debunked smears,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement.

In East Palestine last month, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani cited Buttigieg’s paternity leave as he criticized him for purportedly taking too long to visit the town. Giuliani, a Trump ally, referred to his own experience leading New York at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“One of the main rules in investigating a murder is: Every day you miss is one more day inactive,” Giuliani said in an interview. “It’s quite obvious that this mayor, who accomplished nothing as the mayor of a tiny town not much bigger than a New York City apartment building, seems to have no expertise.” Buttigieg was mayor of South Bend, Ind., when he launched his presidential bid in 2019.

Buttigieg has hit back directly against many of the attacks, an unusual approach for top officials, who often seek to remain above the fray. He has coupled that with invitations to his critics to help craft new rail safety guidelines, arguing that Republicans are at fault for blocking previous safety rules related to railways and chemical spills.

He accused Rubio of sending out a letter two years ago that was drafted by railway lobbyists. The senator responded that Buttigieg was “m.i.a. on the derailment” and was lying about the letter.

Buttigieg retorted, “The facts don’t lie. The 2021 letter you signed was obviously drafted by railroad industry lobbyists. It supports waivers that would reduce visual track inspections. Now: will you vote to help us toughen rail safety accountability and fines, or not?”

After McConnell’s floor speech accusing Buttigieg of pursuing “woke initiatives” and “climate nonsense,” Buttigieg cited a bridge in Kentucky that had benefited from the bipartisan infrastructure law, which the Transportation Department is helping implement.

“Respectfully, the Brent Spence Bridge we’re funding in Kentucky is hardly a ‘woke initiative.’ Fighting climate change isn’t ‘nonsense,’” Buttigieg tweeted. “And Leader McConnell could be enormously helpful by joining us in standing up to the railroad industry lobby to make hazardous trains safer.”

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee, meanwhile, said they were opening an investigation into the derailment and sent a letter seeking records from Buttigieg. “[Y]ou ignored the catastrophe for over a week,” the letter said, accusing DOT leadership of “apathy in the face of this emergency.”

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and other Democrats fired back that the letter “failed to ask a single legitimate question” about the cause of the derailment.

“If Committee Republicans are serious about uncovering the truth, it must do so by conducting thorough, fact-based oversight, which includes seeking answers from Norfolk Southern about its potentially harmful policies and ongoing efforts to influence federal railroad safety measures,” they wrote.

Biden administration officials note that the United States experiences about 1,000 derailments a year. They say they responded almost instantly to this one.

EPA personnel arrived at the crash site in the middle of the night on Feb. 4, a few hours after the train derailed, and began monitoring the air and water. The next morning, the NTSB, an independent agency, announced its investigation and was set to meet with local officials; the agency held two news briefings in East Palestine in the first three days of the crisis.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has praised the administration’s response, telling reporters on Feb. 14 that Biden had offered federal help but that he had not taken the president up on it because the situation was under control.

As media attention on the derailment exploded that week, DeWine moved to secure more aid, and the administration sent teams from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In the past, transportation secretaries have sometimes visited disaster scenes, most often after incidents involving fatalities. In those cases, they have often waited several days to avoid causing a distraction and impeding the on-the-ground response.

Federico Peña, transportation secretary under President Bill Clinton, said he went to several accident scenes, adding that seeing the trauma firsthand enabled him to better push for improved safety measures.

Both Peña and LaHood also used disasters as springboards for efforts to overhaul transportation safety regulations, a playbook Buttigieg now seems to be using. Some Republicans, despite their criticism of his performance, have signaled a willingness to take part in such a push.

On Wednesday, Vance and Rubio sponsored bipartisan legislation that would advance many of the rail safety initiatives supported by the Transportation Department.

Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.

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.