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East Palestine mayor says Biden’s visit to Ukraine is a slap in the face

By Sarah May on
 February 22, 2023

Weeks after a Norfolk Southern train derailment left the citizens of East Palestine, Ohio fearing for the safety of the air they breathe and the water they drink, President Joe Biden continued to keep his distance, preferring instead to travel to Ukraine in a move that the beleaguered town's mayor described as the “biggest slap in the face,” as The Hill reports.

Trent Conaway's comments came during a Monday appearance on Fox News' Jesse Watters Primetime, and the mayor made it clear that he believes the president's priorities are all wrong.

Biden's absence slammed

When asked by Watters to weigh in on Biden's decision to drop in on Kyiv while local residents are still grappling with the disaster in their own backyard, Conaway's reaction was far from favorable.

“That was the biggest slap in the face that tells you right now, he doesn't care about us,” the mayor began.

Conaway continued, “So...he can send every agency he wants to but I found that out this morning and one of the briefings that he was in the Ukraine giving millions of dollars away to people over there, not to us, and I'm furious.”

In a biting observation highlighting what he viewed as the irony of the timing involved, Conaway concluded, “Yeah, Presidents Day in our country. He's...over in Ukraine. So, that tells you what kind of guy he is.”

GOP lawmakers join in criticism

It was not just Conaway who publicly condemned Biden's actions, with a number of prominent GOP legislators adding their voices to those frustrated by the president's seeming lack of urgency when it comes to East Palestine.

As Fox News noted, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz (FL-01) opined, “When our border is in crisis, Joe Biden goes home to nap in Delaware. When Ohio burns with toxic chemicals, Biden's admin says everything is fine. So on Presidents Day, I'm not surprised that Biden is ditching America for Ukraine. He ditched America's interests since the start of his presidency. They can keep him!”

Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA-14) said on Twitter, “This is incredibly insulting. Today on our President's Day, Joe Biden, the President of the United States chose Ukraine over America, while forcing the American people to pay for Ukraine's government and war.”

Underscoring the apparent lack of interest in the potential contamination in the Buckeye State was Republican Rep. Nancy Mace (SC-01), who tweeted, as Fox News noted, “I hope [on the way] back from Kyiv, the President pays a visit to East Palestine, Ohio. Maybe take the Secretary of [the Transportation Department] and Governor with him...”

Buttigieg visit announced

After ongoing scrutiny over the apparent lack of interest from top-level Biden administration officials about the crisis in East Palestine, it was announced Wednesday that at long last, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg would indeed pay a visit to the area on Thursday, as Fox News reported separately.

Earlier in the week, Buttigieg was non-committal about when he might travel to Ohio, saying only that he would do so “when appropriate,” but the unfolding public relations disaster that was the administration's noteworthy absence from the scene may well have forced his hand.

Perhaps adding pressure on the secretary was a widely circulated video showing him walking on the street while dodging questions from the Daily Caller's Jennie Taer about possible travel to Ohio, explaining that he was "taking some personal time” at present, and then, somewhat menacingly, snapping a photo of the reporter.

During his Thursday stop in East Palestine, Buttigieg is reportedly expected to meet with local citizens impacted by the derailment and receive an update from representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board on the ongoing probe of the disaster.

Trump to Ohio

With Biden and Buttigieg having yet to lend in-person support and encouragement to the people of East Palestine, word came that former President Donald Trump would travel to the town on Wednesday, bringing drinking water and cleaning supplies with him, as Fox News noted.

An adviser to the former president told Fox News Digital, “President Trump is meeting with the citizens of East Palestine and will never forget them and what they are going through. Contrast that with Biden and the federal government who has failed them from the beginning.”

Stuart Varney of Fox Business observed, “The train disaster in Ohio has given Donald Trump a political opportunity, and he's jumping on it,” adding, “[i]t's obvious what he's doing: Trump is showing up the Biden team's weak response. Neither the president nor the transportation secretary have visited. But Trump is going to be there, handing out supplies to people in need.”

Given Buttigieg's belated announcement of plans to visit Ohio as well as a blitz of Tuesday night phone calls made by Biden to a host of officials involved in managing the situation on the ground, it appears that the administration finally grasped just how bad the optics have been and decided that Trump could not be allowed to steal the spotlight. Whether the residents of East Palestine will receive real help as a result of the political imaging battle or will simply be used as pawns, however, remains an open question.