Three weeks after a catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the White House has settled on a messaging strategy about the disaster: blame Trump. All it took to arrive at this time-tested response was a trip by the former president to the accident site ahead of any current administration official.
“Congressional Republicans and former Trump Administration officials owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled Obama-Biden rail safety protections as well as EPA powers to rapidly contain spills,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates told USA TODAY on Wednesday afternoon.
Appearing in the disaster-struck town alongside U.S. Senator JD Vance (R-Ohio) and local mayor Trent Conway, Trump told residents that they had been “betrayed” by the federal government’s indifference to their suffering.
Throughout late Wednesday, an array of media carried this message that appeared intended to blunt the attacks leveled by Trump during his Ohio visit.
“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,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said to POLITICO, also in the wake of the Trump visit.
Secretary Buttigieg, had not been to East Palestine to inspect the damage for nearly three weeks, donned a hardhat Thursday morning to talk with recovery workers.
Buttigieg, who is runs the agency that regulates rail lines and airlines, has come under intense scrutiny as the result of crises afflicting both infrastructure networks, with many conservative critics questioning whether he was picked for the job based on competence or other identity-based qualifications.
At the same time the crisis was unfolding in East Palestine, Buttigieg was filmed at an event saying that the chief problem with American infrastructure was the lack of ethnic and racial minorities on construction crews.
Buttigieg has also had sharp conflicts with members of the media who sought questions about his office’s role in the man-made disaster.
While the White House and its surrogates have finally landed on someone to blame for the February 3rd 50-car derailment that led to a fiery blast and the leaking of dangerous chemicals into the surrounding environment of East Palestine and other neighboring communities, the recovery effort has yet to receive the same level of attention — and U.S. taxpayer funding — as the war in Ukraine.
The 2021 infrastructure bill a Democratic Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law made billions of dollars available for rail infrastructure upgrades, but a newer rule on brakes for trains carrying hazardous materials would not have applied to the one that derailed in East Palestine, a federal transportation safety official said. The White House’s blame game is fraught with such inconsistencies.
Now the residents are tiring of blame and want action. Many have complained of headaches, nausea and coughs since the chemical spills, and real estate values in and around the town have plummeted. They will be looking to the transport secretary for more than blame in the weeks and months to come.