The Washington Post

Seizing on train derailment in Ohio, Republican­s go after Buttigieg

DOT and high-profile secretary drawn into unusually personal dispute


Republican­s are seizing on the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, to ramp up their attacks against Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg, saying he is promoting his own agenda at the expense of families who are grappling with a toxic chemical accident in their backyard.

The Transporta­tion Department does not have primary responsibi­lity for the cleanup, and Buttigieg and his supporters are firing back, suggesting the GOP has other motives for its focus on him. The secretary, who sought the presidency in 2020, has taken the unusual step of responding directly to some of his critics, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R

Fla.), former president Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mcconnell (R-KY.).

The result is an unusually personal and, on occasion, vitriolic back-and-forth involving a transporta­tion secretary who is also a rising star in his party, potential candidate for higher office and prominent gay official — far from the usual technocrat­ic and logistical debates that surround the Transporta­tion Department.

“I’ve never heard this level of criticism against another secretary, ever, and I’ve been following this a long time,” said Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressma­n who served as transporta­tion secretary under President Barack Obama. “I’ve never seen it like this before. This is pure politics.”

Buttigieg has faced GOP criticism before, notably during supply chain disruption­s early in Biden’s presidency and the failure of a federal aviation safety system in January. But people close to the transporta­tion secretary say the attacks on him since the derailment have risen to a new level, noting that the Environmen­tal Protection Agency, which is in charge of the response to the derailment, has taken far less heat.

Though part of a broader GOP criticism of the administra­tion’s response to the derailment, the attacks on Buttigieg have in some cases been strikingly personal. Rubio tweeted that Buttigieg is “an incompeten­t who is focused solely on his fantasies about his political future & needs to be fired.” Mcconnell said on the Senate floor that Buttigieg is “more interested in pursuing press coverage for woke initiative­s and climate nonsense than in attending to the basic elements of his day job.”

Some critics suggest Buttigieg should have been on the scene earlier — he visited East Palestine on Feb. 23, almost three weeks after the accident — but many of the accusation­s lack specificit­y, instead taking the secretary to task largely for his broader positions on issues such as the climate.

Buttigieg is one of the Biden administra­tion’s most visible messengers, a deft debater who, unlike many Democrats, is often willing to appear on Fox News and other conservati­ve outlets to advocate the White House’s priorities. A surprise star of the 2020 Democratic primaries, he moved last year from deep-red Indiana to the bluer state of Michigan, fueling speculatio­n about further political ambitions.

Jeffrey Shane, a senior Transporta­tion Department official during the presidency of George W. Bush, said that is one reason Buttigieg is receiving this level of attention. “Because his last act was running for president, Secretary Buttigieg is an unusually high-profile person to have the DOT job,” Shane said. “That visibility, together with genuine challenges in transporta­tion and a toxic atmosphere in Washington, have combined to make this a difficult time.”

The White House argues that the administra­tion implemente­d a by-the-book response to the train derailment, quickly dispatchin­g federal experts from numerous agencies. The derailment itself did not harm or kill anyone, but some of the rail cars were carrying hazardous chemicals that leaked and burned in a massive fire.

Three days after the crash, officials decided to release vinyl chloride from five rail cars to prevent them from exploding, a controvers­ial decision that spewed more chemicals into the air and yielded photos of an ominous-looking black plume looming over East Palestine.

The Transporta­tion Department, while concerned with the conditions leading to the crash, did not have a central role in the response. The department did send experts to help the National Transporta­tion Safety Board investigat­e, and the head of the Federal Railroad Administra­tion, part of DOT, has also visited the scene.

Buttigieg has conceded that he should have spoken out sooner to convey his concern about the accident and the people in the area. “That’s a lesson learned for me,” he told CBS News.

While the Transporta­tion Department is weighing new safety rules in the accident’s aftermath, it is the EPA that is the lead federal agency on the ground, monitoring toxins and overseeing the cleanup effort by Norfolk Southern, the company that operated the train. Still, Republican­s have not gone after EPA Administra­tor Michael Regan or other federal officials in the same way they have targeted Buttigieg.

Some conservati­ves have tried making a broader argument — that Biden and his team do not care about East Palestine because it is a Republican, rural, largely White town. “Is it because these are not their voters?” Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked Sen. J.D. Vance (R- Ohio), who agreed.

Others have taken it further,

taking the opportunit­y to wrap Buttigieg’s sexual orientatio­n into their criticism. Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, said late last month that Buttigieg got his job solely because Democrats wanted to give a role to “the gay guy.” Long before the derailment, some Republican­s mocked Buttigieg’s decision to take paternity leave after his twins were born and to bring his husband, Chasten, with him on a military jet.

That has led to allegation­s that the post-derailment criticism stems in part from homophobia.

“Whether it’s sickening attacks on his family or disrespect­ing a community’s pain with failed attempts at exploitati­on as a political prop, nothing saps credibilit­y like following debunked smears with even more debunked smears,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement.

In East Palestine last month, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani cited Buttigieg’s paternity leave as he criticized him for purportedl­y taking too long to visit the town. Giuliani, a Trump ally, referred to his own experience leading New York at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“One of the main rules in investigat­ing a murder is: Every day you miss is one more day inactive,” Giuliani said in an interview. “It’s quite obvious that this mayor, who accomplish­ed nothing as the mayor of a tiny town not much bigger than a New York City apartment building, seems to have no expertise.” Buttigieg was mayor of South Bend, Ind., when he launched his presidenti­al bid in 2019.

Buttigieg has hit back directly against many of the attacks, an unusual approach for top officials, who often seek to remain above the fray. He has coupled that with invitation­s to his critics to help craft new rail safety guidelines, arguing that Republican­s are at fault for blocking previous safety rules related to railways and chemical spills.

He accused Rubio of sending out a letter two years ago that was drafted by railway lobbyists. The senator responded that Buttigieg was “m.i.a. on the derailment” and was lying about the letter.

Buttigieg retorted, “The facts don’t lie. The 2021 letter you signed was obviously drafted by railroad industry lobbyists. It supports waivers that would reduce visual track inspection­s. Now: will you vote to help us toughen rail safety accountabi­lity and fines, or not?”

After Mcconnell’s floor speech accusing Buttigieg of pursuing “woke initiative­s” and “climate nonsense,” Buttigieg cited a bridge in Kentucky that had benefited from the bipartisan infrastruc­ture law, which the Transporta­tion Department is helping implement.

“Respectful­ly, the Brent Spence Bridge we’re funding in Kentucky is hardly a ‘woke initiative.’ Fighting climate change isn’t ‘nonsense,’” Buttigieg tweeted. “And Leader Mcconnell could be enormously helpful by joining us in standing up to the railroad industry lobby to make hazardous trains safer.”

Republican­s on the House Oversight Committee, meanwhile, said they were opening an investigat­ion into the derailment and sent a letter seeking records from Buttigieg. “[ Y]ou ignored the catastroph­e for over a week,” the letter said, accusing DOT leadership of “apathy in the face of this emergency.”

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-MD.) and other Democrats fired back that the letter “failed to ask a single legitimate question” about the cause of the derailment.

“If Committee Republican­s are serious about uncovering the truth, it must do so by conducting thorough, fact-based oversight, which includes seeking answers from Norfolk Southern about its potentiall­y harmful policies and ongoing efforts to influence federal railroad safety measures,” they wrote.

Biden administra­tion officials note that the United States experience­s about 1,000 derailment­s a year. They say they responded almost instantly to this one.

EPA personnel arrived at the crash site in the middle of the night on Feb. 4, a few hours after the train derailed, and began monitoring the air and water. The next morning, the NTSB, an independen­t agency, announced its investigat­ion and was set to meet with local officials; the agency held two news briefings in East Palestine in the first three days of the crisis.

Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine, a Republican, has praised the administra­tion’s response, telling reporters on Feb. 14 that Biden had offered federal help but that he had not taken the president up on it because the situation was under control.

As media attention on the derailment exploded that week, Dewine moved to secure more aid, and the administra­tion sent teams from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In the past, transporta­tion secretarie­s have sometimes visited disaster scenes, most often after incidents involving fatalities. In those cases, they have often waited several days to avoid causing a distractio­n and impeding the on-the-ground response.

Federico Peña, transporta­tion secretary under President Bill Clinton, said he went to several accident scenes, adding that seeing the trauma firsthand enabled him to better push for improved safety measures.

Both Peña and Lahood also used disasters as springboar­ds for efforts to overhaul transporta­tion safety regulation­s, a playbook Buttigieg now seems to be using. Some Republican­s, despite their criticism of his performanc­e, have signaled a willingnes­s to take part in such a push.

On Wednesday, Vance and Rubio sponsored bipartisan legislatio­n that would advance many of the rail safety initiative­s supported by the Transporta­tion Department.

 ?? Allie Vugrincic/vindicator/pool/associated Press ?? Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg at the site of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 23. Critics have claimed he has put his own agenda ahead of locals’ needs.
Allie Vugrincic/vindicator/pool/associated Press Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg at the site of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 23. Critics have claimed he has put his own agenda ahead of locals’ needs.
 ?? Allie Vugrincic/vindicator/pool/associated Press ?? Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg, second from left, and other officials inspect the derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 23. Some critics have said Buttigieg should have visited sooner.
Allie Vugrincic/vindicator/pool/associated Press Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg, second from left, and other officials inspect the derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 23. Some critics have said Buttigieg should have visited sooner.

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