EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Former President Donald J. Trump will visit on Wednesday afternoon the site of a train derailment that spewed toxic chemicals in this Ohio town, stepping into an intensifying battle between Republicans and Democrats over environmental regulations and who has — and who hasn’t — shown up on the ground.
Mr. Trump, the first Republican to announce a 2024 presidential campaign, plans to appear alongside two top Ohio Republicans, Senator J.D. Vance and Representative Bill Johnson, people familiar with his plans said. He is expected to help provide relief materials to people affected by the disaster.
The former president has spent days attacking President Biden over his administration’s handling of the disaster, suggesting Mr. Biden had walked away from residents in a deep-red state that Mr. Trump won in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
But the derailment and its aftermath have also focused attention on Mr. Trump’s own environmental policies and his cuts to regulations, including an Obama-era effort to put in place more advanced brakes on trains that are carrying certain dangerous materials. Mr. Trump, who has made only two other major appearances since declaring his candidacy on Nov. 15, is trying to draw a contrast with Mr. Biden, who recently traveled to Ukraine’s capital by train, a historic trip to a war zone.
But while Mr. Trump sometimes showed up at disaster sites as president, his ability to be empathetic has never been a strong suit, and how he interacts with residents beyond criticizing Mr. Biden is an open question. In one famous moment during his presidency, Mr. Trump raised eyebrows on a visit to Puerto Rico after a hurricane, by tossing rolls of paper towels at people in need of supplies, as if throwing T-shirts into the stands at a baseball game.
The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio
When a freight train derailed in Ohio on Feb. 3, it set off evacuation orders, a chemical scare and a federal investigation.
In interviews in recent days, several residents in East Palestine have described developing coughs or odd rashes on their skin, finding farm animals sick or dead and coping with stress and anxiety over concerns about their possible exposure to harmful chemicals.
In Ohio, where distrust of the government and wealthy corporate interests are common sentiments, many have focused their criticism not on state and local Republican leaders, but on the Biden administration and federal officials. They said local and state Republican leaders had few resources to better manage the incident, but criticized Mr. Biden for being too consumed with China and Ukraine to pay attention to a tragedy at home.
“What’s he doing? Popping balloons from China,” said William Huger, 56, referring to Mr. Biden and the downing of a Chinese spy balloon as he drank a cup of coffee on Wednesday at Sprinklz On Top, a diner in downtown East Palestine.
Mr. Huger, a loyal Trump supporter, said he had been watching news videos on YouTube on Feb. 3 when he heard the thundering crash of railroad cars in his backyard. He stepped outside to see a giant, fiery plume of smoke.
“Now the Democrats are going to get all jumpy because the Republicans are showing them up,” he added, citing Mr. Trump’s expected visit.
Not everyone agreed with Mr. Huger’s assessment. Some residents said they believed Mr. Trump had his own motives for visiting East Palestine. As Mr. Huger spoke, Teresa Sprowls, the restaurant’s owner, gave him a calm, serious look and gently told him to “stop it.”
“Donald Trump does not have that job right now,” she said, referring to the presidency. “He is just out for votes, so he will be here.”