Was Donald Trump’s trip to the site of a train derailment – as some had claimed – a political stunt? Almost certainly.
Did he used it to attack Joe Biden relentlessly, and accuse him of abandoning the people of the American heartland to chase off to Ukraine? Without a shadow of a doubt.
A day after Biden earned widespread plaudits for covertly travelling to Kyiv and appearing with Ukraine’s wartime leader ahead of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, he and Democrats were reminded again both of Trump’s opportunism, and his skills as a pugilistic on-the-ground campaigner.
“In too many cases, your goodness and perseverance were met with indifference and betrayal,” Trump said in East Palestine, where nearly three weeks ago a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and ignited a fire that covered the town of East Palestine in smoke.
The Biden Administration has defended its handling of the crisis, that saw the authorities carve out an evacuation zone and carry a controlled release of toxic fumes. Some Democrats sought to put the blame on Trump, for his loosening of regulations during his time in office.
But critics say the government has been slow to act, and left people feeling anxious about everything from the safety of drinking water to the chance of further similar incidents.
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Shortly before Trump arrived in Ohio, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced he would visit on Thursday after also facing criticism for not coming earlier. He also has urged Congress to raise the $225,455 limit on railroad safety fines at least tenfold.
What message did Trump have for Biden, reporters asked the former president? “Get over here.”
Rust belt states such as Ohio are a perfect stomping ground for Trump. Once a genuine battleground state, it has become increasingly controlled by Republicans, in part as a result of redistricting, but also because of the decline of heavy industry.
In 2016 in particular, Trump’s message of grievance and anti-establishmentism found a ready audience among a working class than had in recent decades seen jobs shipped overseas as a result of globalisation. He beat Hillary Clinton 51 to 43, while in 2020 he similarly bettered Biden, by a margin of 53 to 45.
Last year, Trump backed the writer JD Vance as his pick for the Senate battle, helping him overcome Democrat Tim Ryan in what proved to be an easy win.
On Wednesday, as Trump showed up in a local McDonald’s and gladly posed for photos, he was accompanied by Vance, Mayor Trent Conway and other state and local leaders, giving the visit the look of an official trip.
Trump was wearing a black trench coat and a trademark red Make America Great Again cap.
He donated Trump-branded water bottles and cleaning supplies, and spoke at fire station. Some of the supporters chanted, “We love you, Trump” and “USA”.
“We’re standing in America … your goodness and perseverance are met with indifference and betrayal in some cases” he said. “When I announced that I was coming, they changed their tune. It was an amazing phenomenon.”
While many observers predicted Biden would get a domestic bump from his trip to Ukraine, Trump will be hoping for something similar from his visit to Ohio, as he campaigns to try and win the White House again.
“What this community needs now are not excuses … but answers and results,” Trump said. He promised the residents of East Palestine “won’t be forgotten”.