Did No White House Officials Visit East Palestine Before Trump?

What started as a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has transformed into a political battleground with President Joe Biden's choice to visit Ukraine ahead of the embattled town deemed "a slap in the face" by its local mayor.

The arrival of Donald Trump to the crash scene too, delivering goods to the town and ordering fast food, may well have proved a fruitful visit for the former president who is battling for a 2024 election run.

According to one senior advisor of Trump, the White House had not, by contrast, made any outreach since the derailment, claiming they sent no officials to visit the embattled northeastern residents.

A tweet by Jason Miller, posted on February 22, 2023, seen more than 84,000 times, claimed that Donald Trump had visited East Palestine before any White House official.

Pete Buttigieg in East Palestine
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg delivers remarks to the press as he visited the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment on February 23, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. Michael Swensen/Getty

Miller wrote: "Trump heads to East Palestine before ANY senior White House official to donate water and supplies: Ex-President will visit toxic train derailment site amid fury over Biden administration's lack of response."

Although the White House has publicly communicated its response to the East Palestine crash, its strategy has left some critics wanting.

It also wasn't until Tuesday this week that Biden acknowledged the incident publicly, having relied on other officials and spokespeople to communicate the White House response thereto.

Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has also been met with remonstration, having delayed his visit by a number of weeks, leading to one viral encounter in which he was approached and asked about his lack of appearance on camera.

However, the claim that no White House official visited East Palestine up until Buttigieg's arrival is debatable.

In particular, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan has been in East Palestine since February 16, 2023, Reuters reported, releasing regular communications about his work and the situation on the ground.

While Regan may not have the same public profile as Buttigieg or other senior members of the White House, as stated on the EPA's website, the EPA Administrator is "a cabinet-level political appointee nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

"EPA's administrator is responsible for managing and enforcing the nation's environmental laws and regulations, preparing the annual budget of the agency, leading U.S. government efforts related to the environment at home and abroad, and other responsibilities."

As the head of the EPA, which has been working directly in East Palestine, one could argue that Regan was the most directly suitable appointee for a disaster involving hazardous chemicals threatening to damage U.S. ecosystems.

Moreover, as a cabinet-level appointee, chosen directly by Biden, one could argue that Regan's appearance did represent a visit from a White House official.

The view that Regan is a White House official was supported by three U.S. political experts Newsweek spoke to including Steve Israel, former House Democrats chief political strategist and congressman.

Israel, who now heads the non-partisan Cornell University Institute of Politics and Global Affairs in New York City, said referring to someone as a White House official was merely a "semantic distinction."

"The EPA Director has Cabinet status, and is therefore an Administration official," Israel said. "It's like saying that Tony Blinken is not a White House official because he doesn't work in the White House."

Jeffrey Winters, professor of political science at Northwestern University, echoed these comments, adding that the term "White House official" had "long been synonymous with membership in the president's cabinet" and that despite Regan's office being outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it didn't prevent him from being deemed as such.

"The director of the EPA is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate," Winters added. "Having an office on the White House grounds is not a basis for referring to someone as a White House official.

"The Vice President's office is not at the White House. And all of the other cabinet members have offices at their respective departments or agencies.

"Meanwhile, there are dozens of staff in the White House who have offices in the buildings but would not be viewed as White House officials.

"One of the few cabinet members to have an office in the White House is the Chief of Staff, who happens not to be confirmed by the Senate.

"The main defining consideration is membership in the cabinet. Thus, it is fully legitimate to refer to Michael Regan as a White House official."

Professor Stephen Farnsworth, a director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, added that the term was "routinely used to cover the cabinet and other people close to the president."

"That they work for Biden is what matters - not whether they are based in the White House, OEOB, NEOB, etc..." Farnsworth added. "Top Biden administration official would be a better term. But the terms mean the same thing in common usage."

However, not all the experts Newsweek spoke to agreed; Mary Kate Cary a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and senior fellow at the University of Virginia's The Miller Center, said the distinction "boils down to a difference between 'the administration' and 'the White House.'"

"Most people in Washington would define the White House to include the personal staffs of the president and the vice president and their spouses," Cary said.

"Their offices are in the West Wing, the East Wing, and the Eisenhower Office Building, and they are presidentially appointed. This would include obvious offices like speechwriting, public liaison, and the political affairs office, but also the National Security Council, and the President's Council of Economic Advisors.

"Back in the day we also had the 'Drug Czar' and the Points of Light office as part of the Executive Office of the President, or EOP. As far as I know, none of those EOP offices have/had Cabinet rank.

"Since EPA is not considered part of the personal staff of the president, is not housed on the White House grounds, and does have Cabinet rank, I would put it in the same category as, say, the Department of Justice.

"It's certainly part of the Administration, but not generally considered part of the White House itself."

It may be that the conversation does boil down to semantics and distinctions between the White House and other government offices, which are evidently not distinguishable enough even among those who have worked there or studied it.

Claims that no White House official visited the town are therefore not cemented by fully agreed definitions. Whether someone like Regan represents the level of political presence the White House should have sent to East Palestine is a matter of debate.

Former President Donald Trump shakes hands with
Former President Donald Trump shakes hands with residents of East Palestine after delivering remarks at the East Palestine Fire Department station on February 22, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. Michael Swensen/Getty Images

The conversation about the derailment has started to take on an even greater political turn since the arrival of Donald Trump.

Christopher Devine, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, previously suggested Trump's visit to Ohio could help him boost a 2024 campaign.

"Trump's handling of this situation could influence whether voters—particularly, wary Republicans—see him as a serious contender for the presidency again, in 2024, or someone who is just seeking publicity wherever he can find it," Devine told Newsweek.

Newsweek has contacted the White House, Donald Trump's press office, and the EPA for comment.