EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Former President Donald Trump made a campaign stop here Wednesday, using the aftermath of a train derailment and toxic chemical spill to take shots at President Joe Biden's handling of the crisis.
"They were intending to do absolutely nothing for you," Trump, who is seeking another term in the White House, said of the Democratic administration as he spoke in a firehouse.
Flanked by Sen. JD Vance of Ohio and other local Republicans, Trump bragged about having a strong working relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noting that it initially had not planned to assist relief efforts. Trump claimed, without evidence, that the Biden administration only directed more resources because he announced that he would visit East Palestine.
"They changed their tune," Trump said. "It was an amazing phenomenon."
Trump’s 10-minute speech — loaded with other political finger-pointing — came as the political blame for both the crisis and the response cascades toward both parties. Residents remain worried about air and water safety, long-term health and environmental effects and the compounded impact those fears will have on local businesses.
Republicans have seized on the derailment to hammer Biden and his administration. A number of Republicans — including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential contender — have criticized Biden for not visiting the village, saying his priorities were out of order because he chose to visit Ukraine instead.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has also become a focus of the partisan attacks, with at least one Republican senator calling for his resignation. Buttigieg has also not visited East Palestine since the derailment; he is expected to be here Thursday.
Democrats have rapped the GOP, meanwhile, for lax regulation of the freight railroad industry, including the Trump administration’s 2017 suspension of a requirement that trains carrying flammable liquids be outfitted with faster brakes.
“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 spokesperson Andrew Bates said Wednesday.
East Palestine, Ohio becoming political hotspot after train derailmentFeb. 23, 202301:36
East Palestine, with a population of about 4,700, is tucked in the tricounty Mahoning Valley region in eastern Ohio, which was integral to Trump’s two general election victories in the state.
The village is in reliably Republican Columbiana County, but it is served by the Youngstown media market in neighboring Mahoning County, which, along with Trumbull County to the north, had been solidly Democratic for more than 40 years until Trump came along. No GOP presidential candidate had won either since President Richard Nixon in 1972. Trump carried Trumbull in 2016 and came close in Mahoning before he won both counties four years later.
"What this community needs now are not excuses and all of the other things you’ve been hearing, but answers and results," Trump said Wednesday. "And that’s what I think you’re going to see."
Trump, who rarely campaigns outside of large rally venues, made several quick stops in town and acknowledged a group of more than 100 supporters who had gathered at a muddy lot.
“Have a good time,” he told them, repeating the cheery repartee he has offered when he has responded to other tragedies.
Before he left town, he stopped at the local McDonald's, where he posed for pictures and fielded questions from local media and diners. When he was asked, he rejected Buttigieg's criticisms about Trump-era policies that eased railroad regulations.
At the firehouse, he spoke to a few dozen people, mostly media. He announced he was coordinating efforts involving his company and other private businesses to donate bottled water and cleaning supplies. And in addition to his criticism of Biden, Trump had harsh words for the railroad, Norfolk Southern, calling on it to "fulfill its responsibilities and obligations."
"We have told you loud and clear: You are not forgotten," Trump added. "We stand with you, we pray for you, and we will stay with you and your fight to help [receive] the accountability that you deserve."
Pennsylvania's Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said Tuesday that his office had made a criminal referral to the state attorney general, who will decide whether there was any criminal activity by Norfolk Southern. East Palestine sits along Ohio's border with Pennsylvania.
Area residents expressed hope Wednesday that Trump’s visit would call attention to a post-industrial region that has weathered steel and automotive industry job losses dating to the 1970s.
Joy Mascher, the owner of Flowers Straight From the Heart on North Market Street downtown, said the store struggled through delayed shipments and depressed Valentine’s Day sales after the derailment.
“I don’t think enough has been addressed by the railroad, by the state or the federal government,” she said Wednesday. “If this would have happened somewhere else, things would have gone a lot different, I feel.
“I mean, at least he’s bringing attention,” Mascher added, referring to Trump’s visit. “I haven’t heard anything from Biden.”
Storefronts and signs along the main downtown corridor offered “EP Strong” and “East Palestine Lives Matter” messages. Gorby’s, a convenience store, spelled out “Welcome Trump” beneath its sign advertising beer, wine and cigarettes. Todd Gerhart, a onetime Ohioan who lives in South Carolina, drove to East Palestine this week to sell his “ultra MAGA” honey in bottles crafted in Trump’s likeness. Gerhart said all profits will go toward local relief efforts.
Carolyn Thomas, a Trump supporter from nearby East Liverpool wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” shirt as she hung out near Gerhart’s sidewalk display, said: “I am happy that a politician who has been a president cares about the people so much that he is making an effort to show up. It shouldn’t even be a Republican or Democratic thing. It’s an American thing.”
Another downtown property owner, Don Elzer, said he had offered reduced-rate space in a vacant yoga studio to the Environmental Protection Agency for a short-term local headquarters.
“I had a conversation this morning with some people,” said Elzer, a conservative who was excited for Trump’s visit. “Three weeks ago, if I had predicted what’s going on here, could you ever have imagined this happening in our town of 5,000 people? And everyone said absolutely not.”