President Trump addressed a rally of cheering supporters in Huntington, West Virginia, Thursday evening with a familiar campaign-style spiel: promises to bring jobs back to the U.S., a warning to Congress for their inability to pass a healthcare bill, and even a call for prosecutors to search Hillary Clinton’s emails.
What Trump didn’t mention, however, was the biggest crisis facing the state: the opioid epidemic.
West Virginia has the highest overdose rate in the country, and Huntington, the city in the northwest of the state where the rally was held, is one of the worst affected.
The city’s mayor, Steven Williams, has long advocated for drug policy reform in Washington, and hoped Trump would use the rally as an opportunity to declare a national state of emergency — a step that would give states more freedom to take their own action against the opioid epidemic. Moreover, it’s a step that was recommended by Trump’s national task force, formally known as the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.
Instead, the formerly Democratic governor of West Virginia Jim Justice, who introduced Trump, announced he was switching parties, and Trump used the remainder of the time to run through his greatest hits.
Mayor Williams spoke to VICE News after the rally, calling Trump’s speech “a huge missed opportunity.”
“We thought that this would be an ideal opportunity coming into the heart of where the problem is,” said Williams. “Coming in and not even addressing it once in his speech is highly disappointing.”
Huntington sees hundreds of deaths from opioids every year — at its worst point in 2016, 27 people died from overdoses in four hours. But it’s not the only city battling opioids, and West Virginia is not the only state. Between 59,000 and 65,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2016, according to an analysis by The New York Times, and the rate of drugs deaths is surging faster than ever.
The bipartisan White House task force, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, released a report Monday urging the president to declare a federal state of emergency on the opioid epidemic — prompting some, including Williams, to speculate he might announce it in West Virginia.
His failure to do so was yet another opioid-related misstep for Trump on the same day— in a leaked transcript of a call between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump called New Hampshire a “drug-infested den,” prompting politicians in the state on both sides of the aisle to call his comments “wrong,” “unacceptable,” and “disgusting.”