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In East Palestine, who 'shows up' isn't necessarily a sign of who's helping

During a visit to East Palestine, Ohio, former President Trump stands in front of a pallet of "Trump"-branded water before delivering remarks at the East Palestine Fire Department station Wednesday.
Michael Swensen
/
Getty Images
During a visit to East Palestine, Ohio, former President Trump stands in front of a pallet of "Trump"-branded water before delivering remarks at the East Palestine Fire Department station Wednesday.

Updated February 25, 2023 at 2:37 PM ET

There have been two train wrecks in East Palestine, Ohio.

One substantive — a train derailment and subsequent chemical burn-off that has potentially jeopardized the health of understandably angered residents of the town.

The other: political. As President Biden took what was by all accounts a daring trip to Ukraine as Russia's war on the country was heading toward its one-year anniversary, Republicans were criticizing Biden for going there instead of East Palestine.

Seeing a political opportunity, former President Donald Trump and a cadre of other conservatives descended on the small town of fewer than 5,000 residents. Trump handed out campaign hats, "Trump"-branded water and Trump-branded insults of the Biden administration. Then, under political pressure, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made his way there, too, met with local leaders and offered his own rejoinders for the former president.

But while political leaders are mired in short-term politics, people in town are concerned about the long-term effects of the air they breathe and the water they drink.

A former president trying to look like the current one

Trump accused Biden of a lack of care for a community of people Trump contends he wouldn't forget.

"You are not forgotten," Trump said. "We stand with you. We pray for you. And we will stand with you and your fight to help ensure the accountability that you deserve."

East Palestine is in a county that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and conservatives have held up the community as something of an example of the kinds of people the political parties value.

"The community has shown the tough and resilient heart of America," Trump said, "and that's what it is — this is really America right here. We're standing in America."

There have been pitched battles in recent years, at a time when the country is in the midst of a political realignment that largely centers on education and geography, over what "real America" is and who "real Americans" are.

The more Republicans have won over white, working-class voters, the more they've been brought into the GOP's fold of who counts.

And Trump's trip was as much intended to highlight that and put Biden's handling of the disaster on the spot as it was a Trumpian piece of political theater designed to reestablish himself as the main figure contending for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.

Trump — with the podium and the red hat and the flags — wanted to remind people, his voters, that he's still the big dog.

The political battle of showing up

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks to the press in East Palestine, Ohio.
Michael Swensen / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks to the press in East Palestine, Ohio.

Under political pressure, Secretary Buttigieg, himself a former Midwestern mayor, made the trip to East Palestine this week, three weeks after the disaster happened.

"Leaders show up," Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, told Fox News ahead of the trip, "and he hasn't been here, and that is sending a big signal to this community that the administration just really doesn't care, and that's the message that they are receiving."

Biden said Friday that he had no immediate plans to visit, but pointed out that administration officials were on the ground within "two hours" of the derailment. The White House has previously notedthat included teams from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who were coordinating with local agencies and first responders and that the president was in communication with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and neighboring Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro.

"I have spoken with every single major figure in both Pennsylvania and Ohio, so the idea that we're not engaged is simply not there," Biden said, noting that he was "keeping close tabs on it."

A White House official said Saturday that federal teams are going door to door in East Palestine this weekend to check on families.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who traveled to East Palestine earlier this month, was sharply critical of Norfolk Southern, the rail company whose train derailed, for not showing up.

"They have to show up, and they have to make amends with this community," Regan told NPR's All Things Considered this week. "They caused this mess. They have to clean it up. And they have to prove to us and to the community that they're genuine in all of the declarations that they've made. Not showing up to public meetings isn't a great way to start."

Asked about a lack of trust in the federal government from the community in the wake of the disaster, Regan invoked the importance of being transparent with residents, providing resources and also being there.

"No. 1, we have to continue to show up," Regan said. "And we have to be in these communities."

So what now?

While in town, Buttigieg called for stronger rail-safety rules, fielded questions from reporters and swatted back at Trump, while trying to stay focused on the substance.

"One thing he can do is express support for reversing the deregulation that happened on his watch," Buttigieg said of Trump.

It's true that Trump reversed an Obama-era rule put in place that required trains carrying hazardous materials to be retrofitted with electronically controlled braking systems.

But there's no evidence that would have prevented this particular derailment. Safety advocates have also said DOT has been slow to respond and and that it could have reinstituted the rules when Biden became president, but didn't.

Even if that particular rule wouldn't have prevented this, other safety measures could have, said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

"I can tell you this much: This was 100% preventable," Homendy said at a news conference this week.

But conservatives, who have descended on the town or called out Biden from afar for not being there in person yet, haven't offered much in the way of real solutions to prevent these kinds of disasters in the future — like any regulations they might support, which the industry has lobbied against.

"Enough with the politics," Homendy said. "I don't understand why this has gotten so political. This is a community that is suffering. This is not about politics. This is about addressing their needs, their concerns. That's what this should be about."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.