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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump visits East Palestine, seeking to draw contrast with Biden

Former President Donald Trump looks on as Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) delivers remarks at the fire station in East Palestine, Ohio on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

By Jazmine Ulloa, Maggie Haberman and Mark Walker

It was evocative of the former president’s time in office: an at-times meandering address, punctated by self-promotion — his brand-name Trump Water — and an undercurrent of grievance.

But as he visited the small Ohio town of East Palestine earlier this week, former President Donald Trump sought to hammer home a message just by showing up — that his successor and the man he’s seeking to replace, President Joe Biden, had been ineffective in responding to a domestic crisis after a train derailed and spewed toxic chemicals early this month.

Trump had arrived on the ground before either Biden or the transportation secretary to a train derailment many Republicans have turned into a referendum on a lack of federal concern with the needs of red-state America.

At an East Palestine firehouse where he met first responders and local elected officials, Trump, in remarks behind a lectern, said that “what this community needs now are not excuses and all of the other things you’ve been hearing, but answers and results.”

He suggested the administration had shown “indifference and betrayal,” and he talked about how truckloads of his name-brand water would be distributed to residents as local officials referred to him as “President Trump” or “the president.” And while he made reference to the “Fake News,” he praised reporters for their coverage, and, for a change, his emphasis on grievances was not primarily about his own.

Trump traveled with his son Donald Trump Jr. and was joined at the firehouse by two top Ohio Republicans, Sen. J.D. Vance and Rep. Bill Johnson. One of his goals was to suggest that Biden and his administration were simply responding to him. During Trump’s visit, federal officials announced that the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, planned to visit East Palestine on Thursday.

Trump knocked Biden as absent after the episode’s fallout and suggested he was waiting for the president to “get back from touring Ukraine.”

In reality, the Biden administration has had officials from key agencies on the ground since the derailment, the president has spoken to the governor, and the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the railroad to perform a cleanup and cover expenses. But no major official, or the president, had visited, which Trump and Republicans have seized on.

Trump was the first Republican to announce a 2024 run for the White House. His visit highlighted an unusual moment in presidential politics: a former president touring the scene of an emergency and coordinating the distribution of water and supplies, as he once did in office, while aggressively criticizing the current administration’s response.

Trump’s visit to East Palestine was traditional and subdued — though he still appeared to struggle with showing empathy in public as he described the unexpected circumstance residents there were facing.

He described the “nightmare” that people had suffered because of the “dangerous-looking site” he had just toured, saying the tragedy “rocked the lives” of people there.

On Wednesday morning, more than a dozen people in Trump gear waited in the pouring rain for the former president along the city’s downtown streets. Grabbing coffee at a local McDonald’s, Duane Stalnaker, 78, said he drove in from nearby Salem for a chance to see Trump.

“Personally, I think the response has been pretty good,” Stalnaker said. “This is something you just don’t experience every week. How do you really prepare for it?”

In interviews in recent days, several East Palestine residents have described developing coughs or odd rashes on their skin, finding farm animals sick or dead, and coping with stress and anxiety about possible exposure to harmful chemicals. State and federal officials have said repeatedly that they have yet to detect dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or municipal water. Numerous specialists from several federal agencies have been conducting tests of the air and water.

In Ohio, where distrust of the government and wealthy corporate interests are common sentiments, many have focused their criticism not on state and local Republican leaders, but on the Biden administration and federal officials. They said local and state Republican leaders had few resources to better manage the spill but criticized Biden as being too consumed with China and Ukraine to pay attention to a tragedy at home.

As he drank a cup of coffee Monday at Sprinklz on Top, a diner in downtown East Palestine, William Huger, 56, had words for the president. “What’s he doing? Popping balloons from China,” said Huger, referring to Biden and the downing of a Chinese spy balloon.

On Wednesday, by the time Trump left the fire station, dozens of people were standing in the streets with umbrellas waiting for him. A few waved Trump flags and cheered, while others snapped photos. At least one makeshift tent was selling Trump T-shirts.

As Trump and Republicans in Congress increasingly attack the Biden administration for its response to the derailment, the White House responded Wednesday by accusing both the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers of dismantling Obama-era rail safety measures put in place to prevent episodes like the East Palestine derailment.

“Congressional Republicans laid the groundwork for the Trump administration to tear up requirements for more effective train brakes, and last year most House Republicans wanted to defund our ability to protect drinking water,” Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the White House, said in a statement.

A person close to Trump countered that federal officials said the cause appeared to be an axle, not a brake issue, and the repealed brake-related regulation had no bearing on the crash.

The White House also referred to a 2021 letter signed by more than 20 Republican senators supporting waivers for the rail industry to limit in-person safety inspections of railroad tracks.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the focus of much of the Republican criticism, is planning to visit East Palestine on Thursday to hear from officials and residents and to receive an update on the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which plans to release its initial findings Thursday.

Buttigieg will be joined by two federal officials who have been at the scene: Amit Bose, who leads the Federal Railroad Administration, and Tristan Brown, the deputy administrator for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Buttigieg has called on the operator of the train that derailed, Norfolk Southern, as well as the nation’s other freight rail companies, to take immediate steps to improve safety.

Buttigieg previously said he did not want his visit to be a distraction and would wait until the federal response in East Palestine moved past the emergency phase.

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