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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
“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.
“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.