Under fire in Indian Country, Congress and the courts, the Trump administration is finally releasing $8 billion in coronavirus relief funds promised to tribal governments over a month ago.

But rather than distribute the full $8 billion to communities that have been hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of the Treasury only plans to send $4.8 billion to Indian nations at this time. And the federal agency is doing so using completely different criteria than previously announced, when tribal leaders were required to submit certifications to the U.S. government under threat of criminal prosecution.

"We are disappointed by the continued defense of a fundamentally incorrect position put forward by this administration -- one that is resulting in a significant sum being held back, as well as the use of a flawed and murky distribution process," President Kirk Francis of the United South and Eastern Tribes said in a statement, "but unfortunately, Indian Country is not completely surprised."

"We are all too familiar with the myriad of complications and challenges that plague our relationship with the United States," said Francis who also serves as President of the Penobscot Nation, based in Maine.

The dramatic shift in course emerged on Tuesday morning, just hours after Indianz.Com reported on the administration's attempt to capitalize on the release of the $8 billion, whose status has become a major talking point in political circles. Despite repeatedly missing pledges made to Indian Country and the courts, the announcement came only as President Donald Trump was headed to a very public event: A roundtable with tribal leaders in which he touted his efforts to "support" the first Americans as they combat the worst public health crisis in decades.

"We're improving the lives of Native American families and tribes more than any administration has done by far," Trump asserted in Phoenix, Arizona, with leaders and representatives from two Indian nations at his sides, sitting socially distant apart at a table in a factory ramping up the production of masks for the pandemic.

But tribal leaders, while eager to start receiving the funds they were promised weeks ago, aren't losing sight of the bigger picture. Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community thanked Trump for releasing the funds yet said it wasn't enough to honor the U.S. government's trust and treaty obligations.

"Indian tribes can't wait for that litigation to end before additional payments are made to us from the fund," Lewis told Trump at the roundtable, calling on the president to "direct Treasury to make these payments as soon as possible" amid a heated battle in federal court.

"We need to have flexible guidance to allow us to use the funds we receive to keep our governments running, Mr. President," Lewis added. "And the current fund of $8 billion is going to be woefully inadequate to meet our overall needs."

Key members of Congress are also calling on Washington to do more. Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Arizona), whose district covers most of southern Phoenix, told Indianz.Com that the Trump administration's failure to release the $8 billion in a timely manner has contributed to "deadly" consequences in some tribal communities.

"It should have never taken this long," Stanton said in an interview after the event. "It's been an unnecessary delay."

"And that delay has been deadly," Stanton said in reference to toll of the coronavirus on the Navajo Nation, whose homelands span three states: Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The leader of the Navajo Nation also offered a less than positive assessment, as his tribe confirmed another rise in COVID-19 infections. As of Tuesday, the largest reservation in the United States has seen 2,559 positive cases and 79 coronavirus related deaths.

“Today, the federal government announced that they intend to release a portion of funds appropriated by Congress over one month ago to tribes to help fight COVID-19, but I’ll believe it when I see it," President Jonathan Nez said in the evening. "We’ve had to file a lawsuit to get what states received weeks ago."

Earlier in the day, as Vice President Myron Lizer was headed to Phoenix to participate in the roundtable with Trump, Nez was even more critical. He wasn't happy with Treasury's decision to hold back some of the $8 billion.

"That's just a slap in the face for Indian Country, once again," Nez said during a virtual town hall for his people.

During the roundtable, Trump spoke in congratulatory tones about the $8 billion being sent to tribes, even though it won't be distributed all at once as envisioned by Congress. He called the coronavirus relief fund the "largest amount in the history" of Indian Country's government-to-government relationship with the United States.

"This is the single largest investment in Indian Country in our history," Trump said. "And you deserve it."

"And you've been through a lot," Trump added, which could be taken not just as a comment on the coronavirus but on the centuries of neglect and mistreatment caused by inconsistent, uneven and outright destructive acts of federal policy. 

Trump also attempted to joke about the amount going to the Navajo Nation from the COVID-19 relief fund, saying it will be "over $600 million" -- a figure later confirmed by tribal leaders.

"That's a lot," said Trump, again reflecting his desire to boast about large sums of money.

"Should I renegotiate that? Can we renegotiate that?" added Trump, who frequently is impressed with his own prowess at landing deals.

"I don't think so."

And as the day wore on, tribal leaders and advocates struggled to make sense of the Trump administration's purported deal, which was described as an agreement between Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, who is being sued over his handling of the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund in at least four lawsuits, and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who leads the federal agency with the most responsibilities in Indian Country. They said the announcement does little to ensure their communities are being protected, as the White House is insisting.

"FEDS, QUIT MAKING THIS HARDER THAN IT IS!" President Bryan Newland of the Bay Mills Indian Community exclaimed on social media after the criteria was disclosed by Treasury, an agency not known for its expertise on tribal policy.

"This new formula relies on inaccurate tribal enrollment data, allows distribution of funds to non-federally recognized tribes (including ANCs), and short-changes tribes that have fewer housing needs," Newland said in reference to the Alaska Native corporations whose inclusion in the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund remains the subject of the heated court fight.

After the announcement, several tribal leaders and advocates contacted Indianz.Com and questioned Treasury's decision to utilize data collected by an entirely different federal agency. They pointed out that the Indian Health Block Grant Program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is just that -- a program based on population statistics that don't always reflect the reality that tribal governments provide services, employment and benefits not just to their own citizens, but to a wide range of people in their communities and even to those in urban areas.

For example, one tribe in Minnesota receives a housing grant tied to a population that is only about half of its overall citizen base. Another in the Midwest gets money based on a set of data that is missing several hundred of its people.

According to Trump, the Gila River Indian Community will receive "$40 million" in COVID-19 relief, an amount tied to a housing population in Arizona that is far below its citizen count as well. During the roundtable on Tuesday, funding disparities were brought up.

"We need to spread the limited resources currently available as far as we can, and to avoid allocating to a very few tribes and under-allocating to most others," Lewis told Trump at the session. "And this means that you should include a limit or cap on the total funding any one tribe receives."

The $4.8 billion being distributed by Treasury accounts for 60 percent of the coronavirus relief fund. The department is making awards based on population, according to an explanatory document released after the initial announcement.

"Tribal population is expected to correlate reasonably well with the amount of increased expenditures of Tribal governments related directly to the public health emergency, such as increased costs to address medical and public health needs," the document reads.

"This population data is based on Census Bureau data, and Tribal governments are familiar with it and have already been provided the opportunity to scrutinize and challenge its accuracy," Treasury continues, without explaining that that time to challenge the data already passed -- it was on March 30, only three days after Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, into law.

At the time, tribal leaders could not have known that future allocations from the CARES Act would be based on housing data kept by a different agency. That's largely because Treasury, following two consultation calls, told them to submit certifications with four pieces of information: citizen count, land base, employees and expenditures.

The certifications were due by 11:59pm Eastern on April 17. A copy of the data tribes had submitted through the middle of that day ended up leaking to the public domain after Treasury emailed it to one official at the White House and to two employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an ongoing investigation by Indianz.Com has found.

The official at the White House who received it, Tyler Fish, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, has since been moved out of the Executive Office of the President. Trump administration officials have described the move as a promotion even though he was stripped of his role and title as Senior Policy Advisor and Tribal Liaison.

As of Monday, Fish began serving as executive director of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, which despite its name, is being run out of the Department of the Interior. He was relinquished of his White House email and his White House phone number last Friday.

"I consider it a blessing to be the conduit for your voice within the administration and the federal government," Fish said in an email obtained by Indianz.Com. He addressed the May 4 message to "Tribal Leaders and Dedicated Indian Country Professionals."

Treasury has not responded to request for comments in connection with what it is doing about the leak. Tribal leaders have demanded an investigation, as have key members of Congress.

"This is a breach of the trust responsibility," Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is the first Native person to serve as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, the legislative panel with jurisdiction over Indian issues.

"We have to get to the bottom of this to save lives, ensure economic stability, and protect tribal sovereignty," Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and one of the first two Native women in Congress, said of the leak of "sensitive proprietary tribal information" that had been submitted to the CARES Act portal maintained by Treasury.

Even though the information has been compromised, Treasury still intends to use it -- but not until it releases the rest of the $8 billion. Relief awards from the remaining 40 percent will be based on "employment and expenditures data of Tribes and tribally-owned entities," the explanation document reads.

But Treasury and Interior on Tuesday threw up yet another hurdle for tribes. According to their agreement, the CARES Act process is far from over, as the next round of awards will be tied to "further data to be collected" in addition to the information already submitted.

"Every tribe could have turned in their actual expenses by now," one advocate said of a process that seems just as unresolved as it was when the fund was still missing in action.

Democrats have seized on the dispute not only as a sign of the Trump administration's missteps but those of the Republican party as a whole. Mark Kelly, a U.S. Senate candidate for Arizona, is using it as part of his campaign against Sen. Martha McSally (R-Arizona), who was present for Tuesday's events in her home state but was largely hidden from the scenes that played out in public.

"The coronavirus relief funding coming from Washington today for tribal governments is inadequate and weeks-delayed,” said Kelly, a former astronaut whose campaign treasurer is a Navajo citizen.

“Big businesses and pro sports teams have managed to get federal relief in the past few weeks, but not the Navajo Nation, which is combatting one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks anywhere in the country," added Kelly.

Polls collected by RealClearPolitics show McSally badly trailing Kelly as the 2020 campaign continues. Her coronavirus relief efforts are playing heavily into her re-election campaign.

“I went to the mat for Arizona’s native communities during the Senate’s coronavirus relief negotiations to ensure our tribes receive critical relief dollars amid the ongoing pandemic,” McSally said on Tuesday, insisting that she was the "first" in the chamber to publicly call for a tribal government relief fund, a position she announced along with a Republican colleague in a March 20 letter to their GOP leader.

“The federal government has a responsibility to meet the health care and economic needs of tribal nations and I’m pleased to see the administration doing just that," said McSally, who sat at the table during Trump's meeting with tribal leaders on Tuesday but did not make any public remarks. She also did not speak at a subsequent event at the factory in Phoenix though the president praised her by name at both.

"I hear things are very good. You’re doing great. Thank you, Martha," Trump said at the roundtable.