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Politics chat: The East Palestine train derailment raises questions

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

A train derailment and a controversial decision about a toxic payload is now part of the 2024 presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: To the people of East Palestine and to the nearby communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, we have told you loud and clear you are not forgotten.

PERALTA: To help explain how politics gets heaped on top of questions about safety, the environment and commerce, we turn to NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

PERALTA: So as we know, the train had five cars carrying vinyl chloride, and rather than risk an explosion. Authorities decided to release and burn it. That was three weeks ago. How do we get from that to, as we just heard, former President Trump making a splashy visit this past Wednesday?

KEITH: This incident has grown in political significance over time, in part because Republican politicians have seen an opportunity to criticize President Biden, accusing him of not caring about the people in this overwhelmingly white, rural Republican community. And they've been pretty explicit about the demographics, too. This really hit a fever pitch when, on Monday, President Biden made a surprise trip to Kyiv, Ukraine. And hard-right Republicans like Congressman Matt Gaetz said that he was ditching America for Ukraine. Donald Trump Jr. and others tweeted criticism that Biden was going to Ukraine before East Palestine.

And then, of course, on Wednesday, the same day Biden was returning from Poland, former President Trump flew his plane, delivered Trump-branded water and gave a speech. He bought McDonald's for first responders. And this has been described by many as a campaign-style event. But in many ways, it was - it really had the feel of the sort of cheerleading after a disaster that President Trump did in his role as consoler-in-chief when he was president.

PERALTA: So is this insinuation that the federal government forgot the people of East Palestine - is that fair?

KEITH: President Biden was asked on Friday whether he would go to East Palestine, and he said he had no plans to. He also pointed out that federal officials were there on the ground assisting with response within hours of the derailment. Yesterday, White House officials sent me a timeline of federal actions related to it, and that includes meetings, calls, teams on the ground to test the water and air, efforts to make the railroad company, Norfolk Southern, pay for all of it. It's this very long list, and that includes a call from President Biden to the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania back in the very early days right after the accident. Here's how Governor DeWine of Ohio described the call in a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MIKE DEWINE: He was - wanted just to assure me that anything I needed from the federal government they would supply and told me to call him personally if there was anything that we needed at any point.

KEITH: According to the White House, this weekend, FEMA, the CDC and EPA are going door to door in East Palestine to check on each family personally. But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has become a real focus of the GOP ire, didn't visit the site until late last week. And in politics, sometimes, perception can be more important than reality.

PERALTA: So now Donald Trump is trying to draw a contrast here, and he's doing it on the assumption that President Biden runs for reelection. But Biden is still technically not a candidate, right?

KEITH: Correct - though Biden and everyone around him are sending signals about his intentions that are about as subtle as a flashing neon billboard. And that includes First Lady Jill Biden, who, in an interview with the Associated Press, said that he was ready to run and had every intention of running, despite not yet making it official. And there was this quote - "how many times does he have to say it for you to believe it?" - which is a fair question. And the reality is, although Trump declared he was running for reelection as soon as he was sworn in and then declared again this past fall, typically, a president doesn't make it official until spring in the odd year.

PERALTA: House Republicans are also very interested in East Palestine. Members of the oversight committee sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. What did it say?

KEITH: Yeah - asking for a lot of documents. And Buttigieg responded, saying that his agency would review the request and respond appropriately. But this is just the latest in a flurry of requests for documents from numerous federal agencies and the White House. House Republicans have the majority, and they are using that power to launch investigations into everything from the Afghanistan withdrawal to President Biden's son, Hunter Biden, and his business dealings with China. And in fact, this week, the select committee on China has a hearing set for 7 p.m. It's on Tuesday. Evening hearings are rare, and the select committee on China is trying to draw attention to its work. And this committee has perhaps the greatest chance to do serious bipartisan work. Its focus is on probing China's role in the world and how the U.S. could counter its aggression and business practices.

PERALTA: That's NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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