EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — It evoked the former president’s time in office: a sometimes meandering speech, peppered with self-promotion — his trademark Trump Water — and an undercurrent of grievances.
But when he visited the small East Palestinian town of Ohio on Wednesday, former President Donald J. Trump tried to drive home a message by simply introducing himself: that his successor, and the man he is seeking to replace President Biden, had not been effective in responding to an internal crisis after a train derailed and spewed toxic chemicals earlier this month.
Trump had arrived before Biden or the transportation secretary at a train wreck that many Republicans have turned into a referendum on the lack of federal concern for the needs of America’s red states.
At an East Palestinian fire station where he met with first responders and local elected officials, Trump, speaking from behind a lectern, said that “what this community needs now is not excuses and all the other things you’ve been hearing , but answers and results.”
He suggested the administration had shown “indifference and betrayal” and talked about how truckloads of his brand water would be distributed to residents as local officials referred to him as “President Trump” or “the president.” And while he did reference “fake news,” he praised reporters for their coverage and, for a change, his emphasis on the complaints wasn’t primarily his own.
Mr. Trump traveled with his son Donald Trump Jr. and was joined at the firehouse by two prominent Ohio Republicans: Senator JD Vance and Representative Bill Johnson. One of his goals was to suggest that Mr. Biden and his administration were simply talking back to him. During Mr. Trump’s visit, federal officials announced that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg planned to visit eastern Palestine on Thursday.
Trump called Biden absent after the fallout from the episode, suggesting he was waiting for the president to “come back from a tour of the Ukraine.”
The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio
When a freight train derailed in Ohio on February 3, it prompted evacuation orders, a chemical scare and a federal investigation.
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 clean up and break even. But he had not visited any major official, not even the president, something that Trump and the Republicans have taken advantage of.
Trump was the first Republican to announce a run for the White House in 2024. His visit highlighted an unusual moment in presidential politics: a former president touring an emergency site and coordinating the distribution of water and supplies, as he once did in the post, while aggressively criticizing the current administration’s response.
The former president spent days attacking Biden, suggesting he had turned away from residents in a fiery red state that Trump won in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
But the derailment and its aftermath have also focused attention on Trump’s own environmental policies and his cutbacks in regulations. And while Trump sometimes showed up at disaster sites as president, his ability to be empathetic has never been a strong point. In a famous moment during his presidency, Mr. Trump stunned on a post-hurricane visit to Puerto Rico by hurling rolls of paper towels at people in need of supplies, much like throwing jerseys into the stands at a baseball game. .
Trump’s visit to East Palestine was much more traditional and subdued, though he still seemed to have trouble showing empathy in public as he described the unexpected circumstances facing residents there.
He described the “nightmare” people had suffered because of the “dangerous looking site” he had just toured, saying the tragedy “shocked the lives” of the people there.
On Wednesday morning, more than a dozen people in Trump clothing waited for the former president in the pouring rain on the streets of downtown. Over coffee at a local McDonald’s, Duane Stalnaker, 78, said he drove 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 that?”
In interviews conducted in recent days, several East Palestinian residents have described developing coughs or strange skin rashes, finding sick or dead farm animals, and dealing with stress and anxiety over possible exposure to harmful chemicals. State and federal officials have repeatedly said they have yet to detect dangerous levels of chemicals in municipal air or water. Numerous specialists from various federal agencies have been conducting air and water tests.
In Ohio, where mistrust of government and moneyed 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 state and local Republican leaders had few resources to better handle the spill, but criticized Biden for being too busy with China and Ukraine to pay attention to a tragedy at home.
Over a cup of coffee Monday at Sprinklz on Top, a restaurant in central East Palestine, William Huger, 56, had words for the president. “What is he doing? Blowing up balloons from China,” Huger said, referring to Biden and the downing of a Chinese spy balloon.
On Wednesday, when Trump left the firehouse, dozens of people were standing in the streets with umbrellas waiting for him. Some waved Trump flags and cheered, while others took photos. At least one makeshift tent sold Trump T-shirts.
Down the street at the McDonald’s, Steven Telischak, the franchise owner, called the former president’s visit uplifting. Telischak had spent his days after the accident preparing breakfasts for the emergency services and worrying about the stench of chemicals in the air.
His wife shared photos of the Trumps and Mr. Vance shaking hands with fast-food restaurant employees and handing out Make America Great Again hats.
“We really appreciate people coming to the city and giving us this national recognition,” said Mr. Telischak’s wife, Michele.
As Trump and Republicans in Congress increasingly attack the Biden administration over 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. implemented to avoid episodes such as the derailment of Eastern Palestine.
“Republicans in Congress laid the groundwork for the Trump administration to eliminate requirements for more effective train brakes, and last year most House Republicans wanted to defund our ability to protect drinking water,” said Andrew Bates, White House spokesman, in a statement. statements.
A person close to Trump responded that federal officials said the cause appeared to be an axle, not a problem with the brakes, and that the repealed brake-related regulation had no role in the crash.
The White House also referred to a 2021 letter signed by more than 20 Republican senators who support waivers for the rail industry to limit in-person safety inspections of railroad tracks.
Mr. Buttigieg, the transportation secretary and the focus of much Republican criticism, plans to visit East Palestine on Thursday to hear from officials and residents, and receive an update on the investigation by the National Security Board into Transport, which plans to publish its initial findings on Thursday.
Mr. Buttigieg will be accompanied by two federal officials who have been on the scene: Amit Bose, who heads the Federal Railroad Administration, and Tristan Brown, the assistant administrator of the Pipeline Safety and Hazardous Materials Administration.
Buttigieg has called on the operator of the derailed train, Norfolk Southern, as well as the country’s other freight rail companies, to take immediate steps to improve safety.
He previously said he did not want his visit to be a distraction and would wait until the federal response in eastern Palestine moved beyond the emergency phase.