Sen. Marco Rubio urged President Biden Thursday to request the “immediate resignation” of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, calling him incompetent and disengaged.
In a letter to Mr. Biden, the Florida Republican wrote that Mr. Buttigieg has repeatedly demonstrated a “gross level of incompetence and apathy” that harms the “safety and prosperity” of the American people.
“For two years, the transparency and accountability that you promised to obsessively uphold during your inauguration has been nowhere to be found. The incompetence and failure within your administration cannot continue to be ignored when Americans’ health and safety are at risk,” Mr. Rubio wrote. “I hope you will change course in order to uphold your so-far-unmet promise to the American people by requesting the immediate resignation of Secretary Buttigieg.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday that Mr. Biden “absolutely” is satisfied with the government’s response to a toxic train derailment in eastern Ohio and has confidence in Mr. Buttigieg’s ability to do the job.
Mr. Rubio accused Mr. Buttigieg of downplaying and ignoring national emergencies related to the country’s transportation system while “prioritizing topics of little relevance” to his job.
“It is painfully clear to the American people that Secretary Buttigieg has little regard for the duties of the Secretary of Transportation,” Mr. Rubio wrote.
“At no time has that been more apparent than the past two weeks. Secretary Buttigieg refused to acknowledge the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, until his intentional ignorance was no longer tenable,” he said, referencing the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that carried toxic chemicals.
Authorities ordered the chemicals to be burned at the derailment site, which caused a plume of heavy smoke to envelop the region. Residents, their livestock, pets and wildlife started to become ill despite reassurances from the Environmental Protection Agency that the drinking water and the air quality were safe.
Mr. Buttigieg addressed the disaster early this week, following an appearance at the National Association of Counties where he told attendees that government infrastructure projects should be done by teams of workers who look like the neighborhood of color in which they work.
He did not mention the derailment in East Palestine until he was criticized for ignoring the issue and released a statement in a series of tweets on Monday.
“USDOT has been supporting the investigation led by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Our Federal Rail Administration and Pipelines and Hazardous Materials teams were onsite within hours of the initial incident and continue to be actively engaged,” he said.
He added that federal partners at the EPA were “onsite and monitoring indoor and outdoor air quality.”
The following day, Mr. Buttigieg responded to criticism about his delayed response, blaming the tragedy on the Trump administration.
“We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation (like the braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015), but we are using the powers we do have to keep people safe,” he said.
However, residents of the embattled town of East Palestine at a town hall on Wednesday night asked why Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Biden were nowhere onsite to answer questions about the derailment.
Mr. Rubio wrote in his letter to Mr. Biden that even after acknowledging the tragedy, the former South Bend, Indiana Mayor “continues to deflect any accountability for the safety of our nation’s rail system.”
“The circumstances leading up to the derailment point to a clear lack of oversight and demand engagement by our nation’s top transportation official,” Mr. Rubio said and it is part of a “two-year long pattern” of the Transportation Secretary.
Mr. Rubio listed Mr. Buttigieg’s absence during the “historic” maritime and surface supply chain disruptions in 2021, the secretary’s vacation in Portugal during a potential rail strike last year, and near collisions and system failures in commercial aviation, including a shutdown of air travel last January.
The Florida Republican said these examples “indicate that serious and persistent problems across the DOT are not being sufficiently remedied. I do not have confidence that Secretary Buttigieg is capable of keeping the American people safe.”
He notes in his letter that Mr. Buttigieg “abused taxpayer dollars by chartering private jets that are costlier than allowed in federal employee travel regulations, including for international travel,” which in previous administrations in similar circumstances have led to resignations.
The Washington Times reached out to Mr. Buttigieg’s office but did not hear back.