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Trump’s Real Record on Rail and Chemical Safety
And an alleged arms trafficker claims he was targeted over Hunter Biden
Programming note: Tim, Amanda, and I will discuss the Republican response to President Biden's visit to Ukraine and the early weeks of the House GOP with Barbara Comstock, former Republican congresswoman from Virginia, followed by Bulwark+ member questions. Tonight’s edition of Thursday Night Bulwark will begin at 8:00 p.m. ET.
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass. Today we are looking at recent political excursions to the site of the train derailment/chemical disaster in Ohio, as well as a peculiar story about a Hunter Biden–obsessed professor who was arrested abroad last week.
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Trump’s real record on rail and chemical safety
Donald Trump visited East Palestine, Ohio on Wednesday, greeting residents, going to McDonald’s, and handing out “Trump Water,” along with additional bottles of “a much lesser quality of water.”
The trip was a by-the-book photo-op meant to burnish Trump's political brand. His administration’s actual record on rail and chemical safety tells a different story: It was highly preferential towards Norfolk Southern and similar companies.
Politico painted a pretty bleak picture of how the Trump administration handled the issues in ways that may have worsened this major derailment:
Trump’s administration withdrew an Obama-era proposal to require faster brakes on trains carrying highly flammable materials, ended regular rail safety audits of railroads, and mothballed a pending rule requiring freight trains to have at least two crew members. He also placed a veteran of the chemical industry in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical safety office, where she made industry-friendly changes to how the agency studied health risks.
These were Norfolk Southern’s rewards for extensive lobbying efforts. The rail company regularly pushed lawmakers and regulators to ease safety standards and regulations they deemed inconvenient to business.
It’s not just Trump, though. The rail and chemical industries have benefited from the actions of presidents in both parties. The Lever, which has done some valuable reporting on lobbying and corporate influence, detailed how under President Barack Obama, regulators caved to corporate pressure by exempting certain materials from new safety measures for rail transport:
The sequence of events began a decade ago in the wake of a major uptick in derailments of trains carrying crude oil and hazardous chemicals, including a New Jersey train crash that leaked the same toxic chemical as in Ohio.
In response, the Obama administration in 2014 proposed improving safety regulations for trains carrying petroleum and other hazardous materials. However, after industry pressure, the final measure ended up narrowly focused on the transport of crude oil and exempting trains carrying many other combustible materials, including the chemical involved in this weekend’s disaster.
Norfolk Southern has spread its influence far and wide. Their corporate PAC makes donations to candidates from both parties. During the last election cycle, the Norfolk Southern PAC donated to nearly a third of the candidates running for House and Senate seats. Most of the House campaign recipients were Democrats while among the Senate candidates most of the recipients were Republicans.
Here’s a snapshot. Among politicians from Ohio who ran last fall, the following candidates received Norfolk Southern PAC’s donations in the most recent election cycle.
Several Republican candidates for the House picked up Norfolk Southern PAC money, and four out of five of them are now members of the 118th Congress:
Troy Balderson - $10,000
Mike Carey - $10,000
Dave Joyce - $6,000
Steve Chabot (lost House re-election) - $1,000
Bob Latta - $1,000
But Democrats also benefited:
Shontel Brown - $7,500
Joyce Beatty - $5,000
Tim Ryan (lost Senate race) - $1,000
Influence operations on behalf of regulation-averse industries are ubiquitous in Washington, and if the pressure is maintained, they can produce big payoffs. Major incidents like the East Palestine derailment show the real risks of that influence.
Hunter Biden-obsessed Israeli professor arrested for arms trafficking wants Congress to help
Gal Luft, an Israeli professor, was arrested at Larnaca International Airport in Cyprus over the weekend after Interpol issued a warrant alleging his involvement in arms trafficking—and he has turned to Washington for help.
According to the Jerusalem Post, in addition to being accused of illegally selling weapons to China and Libya, Luft is “further suspected of conspiracy to commit serious felonies, as well as making false statements and other unspecified offenses he has allegedly committed since 2015.”
Luft is claiming the U.S. government requested Interpol arrest him in retaliation for allegedly handing over incriminating information to the FBI and DOJ that supported a corruption case against Hunter Biden in 2019. Luft tweeted about his arrest, invoking the Bidens:
An author of several books on economics and security issues, Luft has many connections in Washington, where he is still apparently associated with the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington think tank he co-founded two decades ago that hasn’t been particularly active for the last few years. Luft also has connections with a variety of other think tanks in Washington, and has made frequent cable news appearances to comment on global affairs, including regular hits on CNBC and CNBC International. His commentary on Hunter Biden has mostly been limited to his Twitter account and quotations he’s given to Fox News reporters.
Luft’s attorney Mordechai Tzivin told an Israeli news outlet that his evidence could “bury Hunter Biden, [and] that's why they’re trying to bury him first.” According to local media in Cyprus, Tzivin also said, “If it were Russia, this would’ve already been a diplomatic collision” and “it’s not unreasonable to think that the Democrats or some of their peers would like him gone.” The nature of the evidence or information on Biden Luft actually turned over to investigators is unclear.
To help fight his extradition to the United States, Luft is looking for allies on Capitol Hill. He has enlisted the help of former Justice Department prosecutor Robert Henoch to lobby members of Congress and raise awareness about his legal situation.
According to a recent Foreign Agents Registration Act filing, Henoch is tasked with drafting a letter to members of the House and Senate to “bring attention to his arrest.” In an email, Luft’s wife authorized Henoch to begin working on the professor’s behalf, including sending the letter to Congress and writing an affidavit to help his extradition lawyers in Cyprus.
Henoch did not respond to a request for comment.