EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — As East Palestine continues to endure the aftermath of a train derailment that exposed the community to multiple hazardous chemicals, Mayor Trent Conaway is lamenting what he believes has become "a political pawn game."
While most of the blame has been levied at the Norfolk Southern Railway, select politicians on both sides of the aisle have looked to hold opponents liable for the crash, whether it be related to past actions or the current response. During a press conference with state and federal officials Tuesday, Conaway attempted to distance himself from the bickering, but may have already waded into those waters beforehand.
In an interview Monday evening with Fox News host Jesse Watters, Conaway took aim at President Joe Biden, who had just made a surprise visit to Ukraine amid the country dealing with Russia's invasion. Conaway called Biden's trip to the war-torn region "the biggest slap in the face."
"That tells you right now he doesn't care about us," the mayor, whose office is officially nonpartisan, said. "He can send every agency he wants to, but I found that out this morning in one of the briefings that he was in the Ukraine giving millions of dollars away to people over there and not to us, and I'm furious.
"On Presidents' Day in our country, he's over in Ukraine, so that tells you what kind of guy he is."
Conaway's comments echo some other members of the community, although Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has previously said the Democratic president had pledged him "anything you need" following the derailment, with DeWine admitting earlier he did not feel additional federal help was necessary. The governor later requested assistance from the CDC as well as the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Biden administration swiftly acquiesced while also sending a team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Oddly, Conaway had struck a very different tune just four days ago, when he told MSNBC a visit from Biden "would actually be more harm than good" due to security concerns.
"I think it would just be a burden on our residents, honestly," Conaway explained to Katy Tur while also commending the quick response of the Environmental Protection Agency. "If he would like to come, I mean, I'm not going to stop him, you know, but what we really need is we need people who are going to come here and do something for us, help us out."
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, echoed those earlier sentiments in a conversation with 3News' Isabel Lawrence and believes most East Palestine residents agree with him.
"I’ve gotten to know the mayor and the [Columbiana County] sheriff and the commissioners, I believe all Republicans, because it's a Republican community," Brown said. "I didn't hear anybody say that [Biden should come]. They want to focus on what they need to do, especially on holding Norfolk Southern accountable."
U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan was with Conaway on Tuesday, along with DeWine, Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, and Republican Ohio U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson. The mayor told reporters he "stand[s] by" his criticism of Biden but somewhat walked back his remarks, saying he was "very frustrated" during the interview and that the president was "more than welcome to come, if he wants to come."
"We don't want to be political pawns," Conaway added. "We don't want to be a soundbite or a news bite. We just want to go back to living out lives the way they were."
Conaway did not address Wednesday's impending visit of Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, which will lead to East Palestine schools being closed for the day. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has also said he will be journeying to the village "soon."