Biden Administration Lands on Strategy for Train Fiasco: Finger Pointing

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks in East Palestine, Ohio / Getty Images
February 23, 2023

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the White House are pointing fingers at everyone but themselves as they defend the Biden administration's handling of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Buttigieg visited East Palestine on Thursday amid blistering criticism of his absenteeism in the three weeks since a train derailed and "basically nuked" the town with toxic chemicals. Speaking to reporters near the crash site, Buttigieg blamed Congress, the Trump administration, rail industry lobbyists, and the train's operator, Norfolk Southern, for the crash. Buttigieg also blamed his partners at the National Transportation Safety Board for his delayed response in publicly addressing the crisis.

He then closed the press conference with an impassioned plea to his critics to stop playing politics with the disaster.

"The country should be wrapping their arms around the people of East Palestine, not as a political football, not as an ideological flashpoint, not as a gotcha moment," said Buttigieg, who didn't mention the crisis during 23 media interviews he conducted in the 10 days after the derailment, according to Politico.

The East Palestine train derailment is the latest disaster to unfold on Buttigieg's watch. The beleaguered transportation secretary was on paid child leave and "mostly offline" during the 2021 supply chain crisis. He also presided over the airline industry as tens of thousands of flights were canceled, stranding passengers during the 2022 holidays. Buttigieg's track record has led critics to question whether it was prudent of Biden to appoint the small-town mayor with presidential aspirations to lead the transportation department.

READ MORE: Is the Trump Administration To Blame for the Ohio Train Derailment?

Buttigieg conceded Thursday that he should have spoken sooner about the crisis in East Palestine, but he said he was just following the norm set by his predecessors by letting the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the independent federal agency responsible for investigating civil transportation accidents, take the lead on the matter.

"What I tried to do is balance two things—my desire to be involved and engaged and on the ground, which is how I am generally wired to act, and my desire to follow the norm of transportation secretaries, allowing NTSB to really lead the initial stages of the public-facing work," Buttigieg said.

The NTSB on Thursday issued a preliminary report that found an overheated wheel bearing caused the derailment. NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homendy, a Biden appointee, said the train was already in the process of braking when it derailed.

Still, Buttigieg insisted on blaming the Trump administration and rail lobbyists for scrapping rules that would have required new electric braking technology on trains carrying large quantities of hazardous materials.

"This is their entire business model," Buttigieg said at Thursday's press conference. "In the last few years, they have gone into a business model that is about cutting and cutting and cutting and cutting. And what has happened is it's a concern from a safety perspective."

The rule in question, which the Biden administration has thus far failed to reinstate, would not have applied to the derailed train. Homendy warned on Feb. 16 that anyone seeking to connect the derailment to the regulation is guilty of "spreading misinformation."

The White House has taken Buttigieg's argument a step further and demanded that Republicans apologize to East Palestine residents for "selling them out to rail industry lobbyists" by scrapping the braking rule.

Buttigieg has also mischaracterized an October 2021 letter signed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) that questioned why the Federal Railroad Administration was allowing automated track inspection procedures to expire. Rubio called for Buttigieg to be fired for wrongfully characterizing the letter, which called for more track inspections, as a call for deregulation.

"He is an incompetent who is focused solely on his fantasies about his political future & needs to be fired," Rubio said Tuesday.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended Buttigieg on Thursday, saying the attacks against the transportation secretary are "pure politics."

In private, some Democrats say that Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan should be the one facing the music in the aftermath of the chemical spill.

"There's a plume, and there's a chemical spill. If anyone should have been there right away, it's Regan," an unnamed senior Democrat told Politico. "But he's not a political target. And so what's happened here is they've picked a political target. And they've just beaten that drum as often as they can, despite facts."