This month’s toxic derailment in a small Ohio village has put Pete Buttigieg under pressure like never before — leaving him scrambling to contain a public health and transportation crisis only partially under his purview while absorbing the brunt of attacks from the Biden administration’s adversaries.
Publicly and privately, signs are growing that the Transportation secretary’s usual Eagle Scout patience is giving way to frustration.
He has gotten into Twitter spats with U.S. senators. His curt brush-off of a Daily Caller reporter who ambushed him during a walk turned into a viral video that has drawn more than 3 million views since Tuesday night. And on Wednesday, Buttigieg’s allies were complaining that he’s taking an unfair pounding over the disaster — all because of his perceived ambitions as a one-time and future presidential hopeful.
“Pete Buttigieg has taken a lot of bullets for the president on this,” one senior Democrat said Wednesday, insisting on anonymity to talk about a crisis that the person was not authorized to discuss.
Still, Buttigieg acknowledged in a CBS News interview Tuesday that he “could have spoken sooner about how strongly I felt about this incident, and that’s a lesson learned for me.”
For Buttigieg, a former Indiana mayor and one of the Biden administration’s most avid political communicators, what began as a rail and ecological calamity has mushroomed in just 20 days into his most serious test yet as leader of the sprawling Department of Transportation.
Three people in Buttigieg’s orbit admit to being exasperated by the furor, saying nobody asked him about the derailment in any of the 23 media interviews he conducted during the first 10 days after the accident. Then critics lambasted him for not speaking sooner.
Since then, conservative media outlets have used images of the Feb. 3 wreck — including the flames, plumes of black smoke and piles of dead fish — to lambaste his oversight of rail safety. They’ve also criticized his failure to visit the crash site, a chorus of “Where’s Pete?” that didn’t let up even after he announced he would be visiting East Palestine on Thursday.
The “effort by Fox News and Republicans” to use the pain of the East Palestine community “as a political weapon is both enraging and demeaning,” the senior Democrat said.
Buttigieg first tweeted about the disaster on Feb. 13, when he said he continued to be “concerned about the impacts” to those living in the area. He pledged to use all “relevant authorities to ensure accountability and continue to support safety.”
The White House said Wednesday night that it’s standing behind Buttigieg, rejecting calls from some GOP lawmakers for him to resign or be fired. It also echoed Buttigieg’s criticisms of past Republican actions that rolled back Obama administration rail safety regulations.
“These are bad faith attacks from Republicans who have been in lockstep with the rail lobby to unravel safety protections,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said.
The Ohio derailment comes after a series of other transportation-related snarls that have happened on Buttigieg’s watch, including a threatened nationwide rail strike, airline scheduling meltdowns and a Federal Aviation Administration computer failure that grounded flights nationwide. These have brought him unsparing criticism from GOP lawmakers and conservative media outlets, which have portrayed him as overwhelmed by or detached from the job — and mocked his interest in issues such as racial justice and climate change.
Fox News’ prime-time coverage of the derailment on Tuesday included a Photoshopped image portraying him as a suit-wearing bicyclist grinning in front of the wreckage. Former President Donald Trump weighed in during a visit to East Palestine on Wednesday, telling reporters, “Buttigieg should’ve been here already.”
That criticism could just as easily be aimed at other Biden appointees, the senior Democrat who discussed the attacks on Buttigieg said. Those could even include Environmental Protection Agency chief Michael Regan, who first visited the disaster site last week — the first trip there by any of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet-level leaders.
Regan, whose agency is overseeing the cleanup of toxic chemicals in East Palestine, returned to the village Tuesday. There, he sipped tap water with Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Rep. Bill Johnson to reassure residents that it’s safe to drink. On Wednesday night, he appeared during a CNN town hall about the disaster.
Employees of both DOT and EPA were at the scene within hours after the derailment, as were crash investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board. The heads of DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration and the department’s hazardous materials agency visited East Palestine on Wednesday, though their trip was upstaged by Trump’s appearance.
Still, “there’s a plume, and there’s a chemical spill. If anyone should have been there right away, it’s Regan,” the senior Democrat said. “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.”
Bates, the White House spokesperson, also called it misguided for Republicans to expect Buttigieg to personally rush to the site of a train wreck.
“It’s like them pretending they think the State Department takes point on rescuing people in the water during hurricanes instead of the Coast Guard,” Bates said. “Case in point, under the last administration EPA was also in the lead on similar derailments.”
Buttigieg’s critics include Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has accused him of being “m.i.a. on the derailment” and urged Biden to fire him last week.
“For two years, Secretary Buttigieg downplayed and ignored crisis after crisis, while prioritizing topics of little relevance to our nation’s transportation system,” Rubio wrote.
During his visit to East Palestine on Thursday, Buttigieg plans to meet with community members, NTSB officials and DOT employees.
“During the initial response phase, I’ve followed the norm of staying out of the way of the independent NTSB,” he tweeted Wednesday. “Now that we’re into the policy phase, I’ll be visiting.”
The department separately announced a series of policy actions the department planned to take in response to the disaster as well as calls for railroads and Congress to make their own changes. “[W]e hope this sudden bipartisan support for rail safety will result in meaningful changes in Congress,” DOT said in a statement.
Buttigieg also sent a scathing letter to the CEO of Norfolk Southern, the railroad involved in the disaster, for what he called the “vigorous resistance by your industry to increased safety measures.”
Buttigieg’s supporters have accused Republicans of showing only newfound interest in rail safety, noting that Trump’s administration had shelved an Obama-era rule that would have required faster brakes on trains carrying highly flammable materials. (The rule would not have applied to the train that derailed in Ohio, NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy wrote on Twitter last week.) Trump’s DOT also ended regular rail safety audits of railroads and killed a pending rule requiring freight trains to have at least two crew members.
More than 1,000 train derailments happen in the U.S. during a given year, and Transportation secretaries don’t normally go to the scene. Rail safety veteran Bob Lauby said that in his 23 years at the NTSB and the Federal Railroad Administration, he remembers just one time when a secretary visited the site — and it was 30 years ago, when the deadliest incident in Amtrak’s history killed 47 people near Mobile, Ala.
But the East Palestine disaster has generated a much fiercer, longer-lasting backlash than usual.
A senior DOT official said department leaders were satisfied during the days after the derailment that the situation was in good hands, with a dozen staff members assisting the NTSB investigation, as well as officials from EPA and other government agencies.
Buttigieg was prepared to speak about the incident if asked, according to the DOT official — but for 10 days, no interviewer asked him.
Then on Feb. 13, “we started to see a large uptick in mentions on the secretary’s social media accounts, particularly on Twitter,” said a spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe behind-the-scenes events. “That afternoon we began to see stories on television and get inquiries about the DOT and secretary’s role in this derailment.”
It has kept going since then.
On Tuesday, a Daily Caller reporter approached Buttigieg while he was out walking with his husband, Chasten, and asked him about the derailment. Buttigieg referred her “to about a dozen interviews I’ve given today” and suggested she contact his press office. The exchange generated even more headlines in conservative media.
A host of factors could explain why the Ohio wreck has stayed in the headlines long past the point when national media have lost interest in similar disasters, including those with equally striking footage of smoke and flames and equally valid fears of contamination.
For one thing, the derailment comes months after last year’s threatened rail strike, which put freight rail on the front pages given a work stoppage’s potential to kneecap the U.S. economy. An incident Feb. 8 in which police arrested a reporter covering a DeWine news conference in East Palestine also stoked more headlines about the derailment’s aftermath — despite conspiracy theories on social media accusing news organizations of covering up the disaster.
Beyond that, “anytime air and water are involved, communities feel extremely anxious and vulnerable, for good reason,” said former FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg, who dealt with several high-profile derailments during the Obama era.
Relatedly, she said, “we are in an era of severe corporate and government distrust.” So when Norfolk Southern or EPA tell communities the air and water are safe, people don’t believe them.
That skepticism hasn’t kept Regan, the EPA chief, from getting the warm welcome from Republicans that has eluded Buttigieg. Those include DeWine and others who have met Regan during his two trips to East Palestine.
“Thank you, administrator, for this partnership,” DeWine told Regan at a news conference Tuesday.
Alex Guillén contributed to this report.