Buttigieg pushes back on East Palestine criticism, calls Trump's trip there 'somewhat maddening'

The transportation secretary said he should have made his own visit sooner.

March 5, 2023, 2:11 PM

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Sunday had sharp words for the chorus of Republican-led critics to his response to the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in February.

In an interview with CNN, Buttigieg offered his most vociferous defense to date, seeking to rebut claims that the Biden administration doesn't care about the blue-collar town by casting his detractors as the ones truly out of touch.

"It's really rich to see some of these folks -- the former president [Donald Trump], these Fox hosts -- who are literally lifelong card-carrying members of the East Coast elite, whose top economic policy priority has always been tax cuts for the wealthy, and who wouldn’t know their way around a T.J. Maxx if their life depended on it, to be presenting themselves as if they genuinely care about the forgotten middle of the country," Buttigieg said.

The transportation chief, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who also ran for president in 2020, took specific aim at Trump, who visited East Palestine last month.

While in East Palestine, Trump praised local responders and said, "What this community needs now are not excuses ... but answers and results."

Trump also said his trip pressured Buttigieg to subsequently make his own appearance.

"That's bull----," Buttigieg told CNN. "We were already going to go."

He said it was "somewhat maddening" that Trump would visit East Palestine after easing environmental and rail regulations during his time in the White House "and then show up giving out bottled water and campaign swag."

Buttigieg has been the target of a fusillade of conservative attacks since last month's train derailment and concerns over the spread of the noxious chemicals that were on board.

He conceded to CNN that he should have gone to the site of the crash sooner, saying, "Sometimes people need policy work, and sometimes people need performative work. And to get to this level, you’ve got to be ready to serve up both.”

PHOTO: FILE - Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during a news conference, Feb. 23, 2023, near the site of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during a news conference, Feb. 23, 2023, near the site of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Matt Freed/AP, FILE

Transportation secretaries do not typically visit train derailments, as some Biden administration supporters have noted. But being there in person was valuable, Buttigieg said: "I think it was important to hear and see how the community was responding, what they were worried about it just a different way that you can sense on paper."

But Republicans have kept up their scrutiny, which follows past criticism of how the secretary handled issues like Southwest's holiday season flight meltdowns.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and others have said Buttigieg should resign. Some have personally targeted the first openly gay Cabinet member to be confirmed by the Senate, with attacks on his sexuality.

Donald Trump Jr. insisted that Buttigieg was only tapped for his job because he was "that gay guy,” while Fox News host Tucker Carlson has referred to him as "flamboyantly incompetent" to the point of "evil."

Buttigieg's Democratic defenders say those attacks are off base and that while Buttigieg could have made the trip earlier, Republicans are overestimating his ability to ameliorate the issue while using his past presidential bid as low hanging fruit for attacks.

"Maybe they think that because he ran for president, he’s an easy target to hit," outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told CNN. "People always say, 'What's Secretary Buttigieg going to do next? What's Buttigieg going to do next?' We've talked. What he's going to do next is be secretary of transportation."

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