Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday visited the site of a train derailment, criticizing President Joe Biden’s administration’s handling of the railway disaster that spewed toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, 19 days earlier.
His trip to one of the most conservative regions of the deep-red state came with many of the hallmarks of a presidential visit, as Trump sought to contrast himself with Biden – who on Monday made a historic war zone trip to Ukraine’s capital.
As he visited Little Beaver Creek, an Ohio River tributary near the derailment site, Trump said he thinks it is “terrible” that Biden has not yet visited the site of the February 3 derailment.
“You are not forgotten,” Trump said as he stood alongside a small group of local officials, including Republican Sen. J.D. Vance, and first responders after a briefing at a fire station.
The former president’s Ohio trip came as the 2024 GOP presidential race begins to take shape, with intra-party rivals lining up to take on Trump. Other Republicans have also criticized Biden’s response to the derailment near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
“During any time of crisis, go to your people immediately,” former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley said Tuesday at a campaign stop in Iowa.
Amid the increasingly pitched battle between Democrats and Republicans over whether the government has done enough to help the Ohio town, Trump sought to take credit for the escalating federal response, saying Wednesday that the announcement of his visit “opened up the dam.”
He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s announcement last week that it was deploying teams to the area should have come “two weeks earlier, or at least a week earlier.”
Trump also said he had helped coordinate the delivery of thousands of water bottles to the area – some with “Trump” logos on them, coming from the former president’s hotel properties. He said some of the water had come on the plane he had flown from Florida on Wednesday.
“If they don’t come back and give you the treatment that you need, we will come back,” Trump said.
The derailment of the Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals has become a political flashpoint – and Trump’s decision to travel to East Palestine has also focused new attention on his own administration’s policies that encouraged the deregulation of the rail industry.
Trump ended a 2015 Obama-era regulation mandating for trains carrying “large volumes of flammable liquids” like crude oil to have advanced brakes and speed restrictions – put in place after a number of deadly derailments.
“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,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who announced Wednesday he will visit the site of the derailment Thursday. “If people are going to find religion about rail regulation, sometimes for the first time, I welcome that.”
Experts told CNN that the regulations likely would not have impacted the derailment in East Palestine because the train did not meet the criteria laid out by the Obama administration-era regulation.
Republicans have largely ignored this argument, and instead bashed the slow response from the federal government, with some conservative commentators insinuating the pace was because residents in East Palestine are GOP voters.
Some have also contrasted Biden’s visit to Ukraine, where he traveled to Kyiv by train, with his absence in Ohio.
“That was the biggest slap in the face that tells you right now he doesn’t care about us,” East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, a Republican, said of Biden’s trip to Ukraine earlier this week on Fox News. “I found that out this morning in one of the briefings that he was in the Ukraine giving millions of dollars away to people over there and not to us and I’m furious.”
Trump’s team coordinated the former President’s trip with a number of officials on the ground, including Conway.
Trump and his advisers have sought to take credit for the federal response seen in recent days.
“Since Trump announced the trip, the EPA administrator changed his schedule and went [to East Palestine], all the sudden FEMA changes course and provides federal help – enough things have happened that we’ve already accomplished a lot of what we had hoped before even being on the ground,” one Trump adviser told CNN.