It has been more than two weeks since a train derailment and massive chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, began wreaking havoc on the surrounding community, but Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been a no-show.
His absence from the scene of the crisis has triggered a new round of criticism about the performance of the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has been repeatedly shellacked over his handling of emergencies involving railroads, airlines and the nation’s supply chains.
Mr. Buttigieg, touted by President Biden as the first openly gay Cabinet member, waited a full week to respond to the Ohio train derailment. In the meantime, he was ridiculed for his Feb. 13 remarks to the National Association of Counties in which, rather than talking about the derailment, he called for more racial equity in government infrastructure projects.
On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers said Mr. Buttigieg was too focused on semantics and not on improving aviation, railroad safety and other aspects of his job. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, called Thursday for the president to request Mr. Buttigieg’s resignation.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the top Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, called out Mr. Buttigieg during a hearing last week on the failure of NOTAM, an antiquated system that provides essential information to pilots and other flight personnel.
The system’s Jan. 10 outage caused a nearly unprecedented ground stop. All of the nation’s air traffic was temporarily halted for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Mr. Cruz accused Mr. Buttigieg of focusing on political virtue signaling instead of modernizing NOTAM or overhauling the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Now in his third year as Secretary of Transportation, Secretary Buttigieg has failed to deliver any meaningful reform to the FAA,” Mr. Cruz said. “Instead of focusing on safety, the FAA and Department of Transportation were working hard to change NOTAM’s name from ‘Notice to Airmen’ to ‘Notice to Air Missions.’ Shockingly, this ‘reform of NOTAM’ did not prevent an outage.”
It has been a rough ride for the youthful former presidential candidate, who is often mentioned as a possible White House contender in 2024 if President Biden makes the unlikely decision not to seek reelection.
Mr. Buttigieg, 41, has taken hits for transportation-related problems such as canceled flights, missing luggage, a baby formula shortage and a threatened freight railroad strike.
He was lambasted for taking unannounced paternity leave while the Biden administration struggled with a supply-chain crisis that left baby formula shelves empty.
Mr. Buttigieg attracted further scorn when he took a vacation to Portugal while other government officials worked with union negotiators and rail companies to avert what would have been an economically devastating rail stoppage.
Robert W. Mann, an aviation expert and airline industry analyst, said Mr. Buttigieg isn’t fully to blame because he is dealing with a litany of transportation problems “that span administrations.”
NOTAM, for example, has been undergoing a modernization for more than a decade, as have other safety systems under the FAA. Efforts to improve railroad safety have also been underway for years.
“Most of these problems are very long-standing issues,” Mr. Mann said.
Still, many of Mr. Buttigieg’s critics wonder where he is.
His absence from the ground in East Palestine triggered another round of criticism from Republican lawmakers. This time, however, Democrats also piled on.
Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a Democrat, noted that Mr. Buttigieg failed to mention the train derailment during his appearance at the National Association of Counties. At the conference, Mr. Buttigieg demanded racial equity in the construction business and quipped about having to deal with Chinese spy balloons.
“He jokes about balloons while ignoring East Palestine, OH,” Ms. Turner tweeted. “We deserve better than this.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, said it was “unacceptable” to wait nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up. He called on Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg to visit the region.
Mr. Manchin said the administration needs to develop “a complete picture of the damage” and “a comprehensive plan to ensure the community is supported in weeks, months and years to come.”
At a town hall Wednesday night, residents affected by the train derailment demanded to know why Mr. Buttigieg had yet to appear.
“Where’s Pete Buttigieg? Where’s he at?” one resident asked East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway.
“I don’t know. Your guess is as good as [mine],” Mr. Conaway replied. He said Tuesday was the first time he had “heard anything” from the White House.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, Minnesota Democrat, called for a congressional inquiry into the train derailment and its aftermath and urged “direct action by Pete Buttigieg to address this tragedy.”
Ms. Omar posted her comments to Twitter on Feb. 13, the same day that Mr. Buttigieg provided his first response to the train derailment 10 days earlier.
Mr. Buttigieg said he was “concerned about the impacts” of the derailment and added that the Environmental Protection Agency was “onsite and monitoring” air quality.
The next day, Mr. Buttigieg posted a Twitter thread about the Transportation Department’s ongoing efforts to improve rail safety. One of his tweets blamed the Trump administration for rescinding a rule requiring rail cars carrying hazardous flammable materials to use electronic braking systems, which stop trains faster than air brakes installed on most trains.
His comments drew backlash from Sen. J.D. Vance, Ohio Republican. Appearing in East Palestine, Mr. Vance said, “Your Department of Transportation has things it can do. Stop blaming Donald Trump, a guy who hasn’t been president for three years, and use the powers of the federal government to do the things necessary to help people in this community.”
Reporters last week asked whether Mr. Biden was questioning Mr. Buttigieg’s performance. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the president “has absolute confidence” in Mr. Buttigieg, whom she initially identified as “Mayor Pete.”
“This is certainly a priority for the administration — the health and the safety of the community in East Palestine,” she said Friday. “The Department of Transportation is helping get to the bottom of what exactly happened, how — what led to the derailment.”
Mr. Buttigieg did not participate in a White House briefing call with reporters on Friday to update them on the disaster in East Palestine.
Administration officials defended Mr. Buttigieg’s absence from the scene by saying his arrival would interfere with workers who were busy cleaning up the disaster and helping the community.
“They’ve got to watch out for the Cabinet secretary and pay attention to their presence,” an administration official said. “And we want to let the professionals and the experts do their work on the ground.”
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.
• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at email@example.com.
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