Burgess in the News

'Someone on the staff blew it': Biden and Buttigieg's bad week in East Palestine

By: Naomi Lim | The Washington Examiner

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, are reeling from a train derailment and chemical spill that poisoned their water, soil, and air.

But President Joe Biden and his administration's uneven response to the health, environmental, and economic disaster may have undermined the president's reputation for compassion and competence.

The response to the derailment from Biden and his administration, particularly the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency, has been "pathetic," according to Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the EPA.

"It took 20 days for the secretary of transportation to visit the derailment site, and the president of the United States has yet to address the citizens of East Palestine," Weber told the Washington Examiner. "The American people deserve the basic support, not to mention more responsive and timely assistance, from the federal government that their taxpayer dollars pay for.”

This tragedy has created a serious environmental disaster affecting thousands, added Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), another energy and commerce House Republican.

"[Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg should have personally been on the scene to survey damage and risks to Americans promptly," he said. "Instead, the Biden administration's message to the residents of East Palestine is: 'You're on your own.'"

East Palestine residents are grappling with perceived "government indifference," said David Cohen, applied politics program director for nearby University of Akron.

"And perception is reality in politics," he said. "Part of a president’s job — any president — is to be 'consoler in chief' and to go to places where a disaster or tragedy has occurred and to look people in the eye and let them know you hear them and care."

In fact, Biden campaigned on that exact character trait in 2020, encouraging comparisons between himself and former President Donald Trump amid a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

"His going there would change absolutely nothing in terms of federal aid or help, but it is important symbolically," Cohen said of Biden. "This should have been a quick and easy decision to get POTUS on Air Force One and on the ground within a few days. Someone on the staff blew it because this really is presidential disaster management 101."

White House staff have been similarly dinged for not earlier advising Biden to address, for example, the Chinese spy balloon, waiting until pressure had mounted before organizing for the president to speak formally on the matter.

For Republican strategist Douglas Heye, Biden should still travel to East Palestine, despite his Cabinet officials, specifically Buttigieg and EPA Administrator Michael Regan, having "boxed" him in with their responses to the derailment.

"Part of it goes against what Biden's core promise was, which was essentially, 'I'm a professional and I'm going to hire professionals, unlike Donald Trump and the Addams Family staff that he brought on,'" he said. "Those are the fixers; the president's not the fixer."

Heye did dismiss criticism of Biden's trip to Europe for the first anniversary Russia's war in Ukraine, but the former Republican National Committee communications director had concerns regarding how the president would be received in East Palestine after Mayor Trent Conaway called it "a slap in the face."

"Because this has gone on so long, it's put Biden in a very difficult position," Heye said. "If he doesn't go, that's a problem. If he does go, he could have problems."

Buttigieg, who is believed to still harbor presidential aspirations after his failed campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination, has been especially scrutinized for his response, touring East Palestine last Thursday, almost three weeks after the derailment.

"First, it was 'happens all the time' — then, in less than 24 hours, Buttigieg went from 'Trust me, I was a mayor' to 'planning to come' to 'could’ve spoken sooner' to 'followed the norm' to 'taking some personal time' to announcing a visit to Ohio," RNC spokesman Jake Schneider told reporters this week. "Of course, Buttigieg isn’t alone in his failure to act. Biden’s first public comments, in the form of a tweet almost certainly sent by his staff, came 18 days after it happened."

Buttigieg, too, has come under pressure from Democrats, including from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has urged him to reinstate former Obama-era railway safety regulations and hold "greedy transportation corporations accountable for putting profit over safety."

The White House has defended its "robust" "multi-agency" response to the derailment, detailing on Friday trips to Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Baltimore next week but not one to East Palestine. Biden himself told reporters on the South Lawn on Friday he was not going to East Palestine "at this point."

"The idea that we're not engaged is just simply not there," he said. "Initially there was not a request for me to go out even before I was heading over to Kyiv. So I'm keeping very close tabs on it. We're doing all we can."

At the same time, the White House and Democratic National Committee have argued Trump dismantled transportation and environmental safety regulations. Trump traveled to East Palestine last Wednesday.

“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 spokesman Andrew Bates said this week. “Congressional Republicans laid the groundwork for the Trump administration to tear up requirements for more effective train brakes, and last year most House Republicans wanted to defund our ability to protect drinking water."

"There is only one way they can prove that they are finally disowning their long history of giveaways to rail industry management at the expense of communities like East Palestine: work across the aisle with us to put Obama-Biden protections back in place and go further, including with higher fines for rail pollution and properly equipping the EPA,” Bates added.

Biden was briefed again Friday by Regan, Buttigieg, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell on the derailment.