President Biden has yet to visit East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a train derailment more than one month ago that has resulted in severe health and environmental concerns for the area.
Biden has come under heavy pressure from Republicans and voices in conservative media to visit the area but has not committed to going. The president said a week ago that he would go “at some point,” while the White House has mostly brushed aside questions about a trip.
White House allies say some Republicans are trying to lure them into a political fight over the visit and they aren’t going to walk into that trap. They also suggest Biden will go to East Palestine when the time is right for him.
“Are we going to be suckered into this because Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are pissed off? Or are we going to go when we feel the time is right?” one Biden ally said, referring to the Florida and Georgia House Republicans.
“The White House has been on top of the situation from the start. Their priority was making sure they were on top of the response, and they have been,” the ally said.
All the same, a number of Democrats want Biden to go to East Palestine.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) told The Hill this week that he “would certainly encourage” Biden to visit the site of the train derailment.
“My understanding is that he hopes and plans to in the not-too-distant future. As you know, he’s got more on his plate than I could ever imagine dealing with,” the senator said.
Some don’t entirely understand why he has yet to visit.
“I am very frustrated by this and wonder who actually advised him to stay away,” said one Democrat who asked to speak on background to speak candidly about the issue.
Trump showed up
Trump’s visit to East Palestine fit into the GOP narrative about liberal elites in politics and media ignoring the challenges of people in the middle of the country. (Getty Images)
Days after Biden made a surprise trip to Ukraine, former President Trump showed up in East Palestine to criticize the president. Trump accused the Biden administration of “indifference and betrayal” over their response to the train derailment.
The mayor of East Palestine had also said at the time that Biden’s visit to Ukraine was the “biggest slap in the face” as his town was dealing with the chemical fallout from the train derailment.
The person who advised Biden to stay away “should be fired,” the Democrat said.
“He let Trump steal a march on him, even with the cheesy water stunt,” the source said. “Politically, it’s no way to prove to already-reticent rust belt voters that he gives a damn about them.”
GOP arguments about East Palestine have fit into a larger Republican narrative about coastal elites in politics, media and corporate America forgetting and not caring about people in the middle of the country even as money and focus goes overseas.
“No time to visit East Palestine but plenty of time for this,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote on Twitter following Biden’s visit to Ukraine last month.
Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) also piled on at the time, saying, “If you want to understand why so many Americans are frustrated right now: Biden is in Ukraine before Ohio.”
Pomp and circumstance
President Biden returns to the White House following an event in Philadelphia, Pa., to discuss his newly released fiscal 2024 budget. (Greg Nash)
Sources familiar with the White House decisionmaking point to a few reasons why Biden has yet to go to East Palestine.
One involves the pomp and circumstance around a presidential visit to a small town.
“The president going certainly has a much larger footprint than the secretary of Transportation and the EPA administrator,” said this source, referring to trips to East Palestine by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan.
The Democratic source said that with the cooperation and coordination it takes with state and federal agencies on the ground to get Biden there, the president thinks it’s better to monitor the situation from afar.
“Rather than distract all these critical personnel by a POTUS visit, Mr. Biden believes their time is better spent dealing with the derailment and its aftermath,” the Democrat said.
Others say the trips by Buttigieg and Regan are meaningful. “He sent Regan and Pete down on his behalf. He’s confident with them,” said one source.
Biden has defended his approach.
“The idea that we’re not engaged is just simply not there. And, initially, there was not a request for me to go out, even before I was heading over to Kyiv,” Biden said on Feb. 24. “So, I’m keeping very close tabs on it. We’re doing all we can.”
The president has gone on other trips recently.
Since returning from his Ukraine and Poland trip, Biden has traveled to Virginia Beach, Va., Baltimore, and Selma, Ala. He traveled to Pennsylvania on Thursday to unveil his budget and he will go to California next week for talks with the British and Australian prime ministers.
No real advantage
The cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
White House allies argue there’s no real advantage to making a trip to East Palestine — at least right now.
“At this point, the timing seems off, so why give Republicans the upper hand on this?” one Biden ally said.
Another ally also worried if going to East Palestine would cause a spectacle because it’s “staunch MAGA land.”
“I don’t think they’d be rolling out the red carpet for him,” the ally said.
Even some Republicans say there is little to gain from Biden being on the ground, weeks after the derailment.
“There’s not a lot at this point that he can do,” said Republican strategist Susan Del Percio.
“They don’t want to look like they were forced to go. “If he goes in now, frankly it’s just talk. At this point if he visits, he’s got to deliver something. He’s got to say ‘Here’s what we’ve done.’”
The president is in touch with senior state officials in both Ohio and Pennsylvania and is kept informed regularly, said a source familiar.
“He has kept his eye on the ball when it comes to crises that have popped up during his presidency and I think he’s been very hands on with those and sometimes hands on means empower other folks to have their hands on the issue,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.
Zach Budryk contributed to this report.