Out Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has recently admitted to making mistakes with the February 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that leaked hazardous materials. However, he has also clapped back at right-wing critics who attacked him over the derailment while ignoring other lethal and important transportation issues.
Right-wing lawmakers have called for Buttigieg’s resignation and impeachment, saying that he was unqualified and only appointed to his cabinet position because of his sexual orientation. Conservatives have also blamed him for supply chain breakdown and airline flight cancellations that caused troubles before his cabinet appointment in 2021.
Buttigieg recently told CNN that he feels he should’ve visited East Palestine sooner after the derailment to reassure locals that he was hearing their concerns, but he also noted that former Transportation Elaine Chao never visited derailment sites during the last presidential administration. Regardless, he said the government’s response to the derailment wouldn’t have changed, even if he had visited earlier.
He said his department had paid close attention to the derailment in the time between its occurrence and when Republicans began citing it as proof of his failure. No one asked him about the derailment in 23 interviews that happened immediately after it occurred, his office said.
When House Oversight Chairman Rep. Jim Comer (R-KY) sent a February 24 letter to Buttigieg demanding answers about the derailment and mentioning issues with the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency that Buttigieg’s department doesn’t oversee, Buttigieg doubted Comer’s true intentions.
“It’s hard to believe this is motivated by an interest in the finer points of transportation policy when its authors make abundantly clear that they don’t even know how transportation policy works,” Buttigieg wrote.
After being blasted by right-wing figures like Donald Trump Jr., Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Buttigieg told CNN, “It’s really rich to see some of these folks — the former president, 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.”
Former President Donald Trump (R) visited East Palestine on February 22 (a day before Buttigieg visited) to give out Trump-branded water bottles and other campaign gear. Buttigieg told the aforementioned news outlet that Trump’s visit didn’t pressure him to finally visit the derailment site.
“That’s bullsh**t,” Buttigieg said. “We were already going to go.”
Buttigieg also pointed out that Trump’s administration rolled back railway policies and environmental protections that helped citizens of similar accidents. However, analyses by both PolitiFact and The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” found that the Obama-era regulations rolled back during the Trump Administration wouldn’t have applied to the derailment.
CNN also pointed out that Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation has successfully pressured airlines to compensate passengers for canceled flights, months before winter storms and outdated personnel software caused Southwest Airlines to cancel 17,000 flights around New Year’s Day. More recently, his department has also successfully pressured at least three major airlines to revise policies ensuring that families sit together on planes without being charged additional fees.
Buttigieg’s department has also helped resolve some supply chain issues through innovations in data sharing between retailers, shipping /trucking companies, and other transport hubs. He has also drawn attention to roadway deaths which, according to his data, kill 40,000 Americans per year, about 100 per day — an issue that has received little political attention.
In light of the derailment, Buttigieg is spearheading bipartisan legislation to change standards on train brakes and adjust rules on transporting hazardous materials; holding hearings with clean-up workers on personal protective equipment and the health problems they’ve faced; and helping instate a voluntary safety reporting system that the nation’s top seven railroad companies have already agreed to follow (including Norfolk Southern, the company whose train derailed in East Palestine).
“I want to be able to say, ‘We did everything within our power to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, that we made major strides in the level of rail safety and anything that the people of East Palestine came to us and needed, we addressed,’” Buttigieg told CNN. “All of those require being in it for the long haul.”
Conservatives have also tried to whip up outrage and disgust over Buttigieg raising children with his husband, Chasten Buttigieg. Outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said he thinks Buttigieg has attracted such attacks because he was a former Democratic presidential candidate who may one day run for president again.
Discussing the attacks on Buttigieg, White House spokesman Andrew Bates said, “Whether it’s sickening attacks on his family or disrespecting a community’s pain with failed attempts at exploitation as a political prop, nothing saps credibility like following debunked smears with even more debunked smears.”