As part of his whirlwind trip to Arizona, President Donald Trump held a roundtable meeting with select state and tribal leaders on Tuesday, talking up several measures his administration is taking to help Native Americans.
Typically, the chat included a few bizarre comments from Trump.
Trump spent more than eight hours on Air Force One for his three-hour Phoenix visit, which was his first break from Washington, D.C., since the coronavirus lockdowns began in March. The White House said the trip was intended to boost the country's morale. But it also resembled a campaign event without a rally. Trump won Arizona easily in 2016, but recent polls show him trailing Biden in the state.
On this recent visit, Trump talked up his leadership and highlighted work by Republican Senator Martha McSally. McSally has been waging a tough campaign with Democrat Mark Kelly, who leads her in polls.
The president also no doubt wants to improve his standing with Native Americans, who some expect to vote in higher numbers in 2020, and who tend to vote Democrat. Native activists have been incensed at Trump during his presidency for advancing the Keystone XL pipeline and repeatedly calling former presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas." Yet it's unknown why so few tribal representatives were at the meeting, or how many were invited. The White House did not respond to Phoenix New Times' messages about the visit earlier in the week.
A public, livestreamed meeting followed a private chat session between Trump and the Arizona leaders. Joining Trump at the meeting were: Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, Second Lady Dottie Lizer, Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Governor Doug Ducey, and McSally.
"The Navajo Nation has been very special to a lot of people" and the state, Trump said, opening up the discussion. "The relationship is extraordinary when you get down to it."
Trump acknowledged that the tribal nation — which spans Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, and is home to about 200,000 people — has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus. Vice President Lizer noted that the tribe expects its infections to peak in mid-May, and that currently about 2,400 residents have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, while 73 have "succumbed."
Some Navajos have fled the tight lockdown and curfew on the reservation to towns near the border, including Flagstaff, he said, but the majority have stayed in their homes as ordered.
Trump asked Lewis how things were going on the Gila River Indian Community.
"That's beautiful territory, isn't it?" Trump gushed.
Lewis agreed. Then he said the tribe has conducted more than 1,100 coronavirus tests, with 44 coming back positive. One tribal member has died of COVID-19, he said. That's out of about 23,000 members who live on the reservation southeast of Phoenix. The tribe is working with the state to obtain five more ventilators that could be needed, he said.
Trump brought up the CARES Act that he signed in late March, which will give $8 billion to the nation's Indian lands. Sixty percent of the money tied to tribal populations will be doled out immediately, while the remaining 40 percent would come later, based on tribal employment figures.
Trump thanked Martha McSally for her "fantastic job" on the bill, without outlining her role in it. McSally told KTAR (92.3 FM radio) last week that she "worked with senators on both sides of the aisle to craft and pass" the $2 trillion bill, which was sponsored by Senator Mitch McConnell. She gave a speech before the bill's passage condemning Democrats, claiming they were using the bill as an "opportunity to score political points and grab power," adding that their actions were "despicable. It is infuriating. It is immoral, and it must stop."
Yet the Daily Beast noted in an article on Tuesday that McSally voted twice for versions of the CARES Act that didn't contain money for Native lands, and has been silent as Trump supports stimulus funds going to Alaska Native corporations. Other tribes don't support a plan to give the corporations money, saying it would be "double-dipping" because Alaskan tribes will already get a portion of the money. The squabble has been tied up in court since a federal judge blocked the corporations from receiving CARES Act funds.
Of the $8 billion, the Navajo Nation will get $600 million, Trump told the group — then said it was "a lot" of money and jokingly asked Lizer if he could "renegotiate."
"Only if we go up," Lizer replied.
The exchange might have been funnier, but Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez put out a statement later on Tuesday evening claiming the money was "far too late," and possibly would have mitigated the tragedy of COVID-19 cases that slammed the Nation. He put the total number of virus deaths on the Nation at 79. He also claimed that the reason the government is holding back 40 percent of the funds is to pay the Alaska Native corporations.
"It's shameful that the first citizens of this country are having to fight over and over for what is rightfully ours," he said in the statement.
Lewis also criticized the amount of the funds later in the talk with Trump, calling the money "critical" but also "woefully inadequate" for the tribes' needs.
Trump told Lewis his tribal community would receive $40 million of the funds, and he knows they will "use it well."
The pandemic should have "never happened," Trump added. "Should have been contained from where it came."
In a short monologue, Trump took credit for working to repatriate "precious Indian artifacts," for returning the discovered remains of indigenous humans back to tribes, and for changing policy last year that allows tribes to keep eagle feathers and other eagle parts found in Indian country by tribal members.
Had they been in attendance, representatives of the Tohono O'odham reservation might have objected to some of this bragging. A Tohono O'odham burial ground called Monument Hill recently was destroyed to make way for the new border wall, a project the tribe strongly opposes because it bisects its ancestral homeland spanning what is now the United States and Mexico.
A "big outbreak" of the coronavirus is occurring in Mexico, Trump said, claiming that "California is calling and saying you've got to help us."
"These are not the calls that the media knows about," Trump said, "but that's the facts."
The government has completed 172 miles of "real wall" at the border, not the little fences that everyone "scoffed at," Trump said, adding that Arizonans were "thrilled" with the progress, which has already made a "tremendous difference" at stopping illegal crossings. The wall will be completed next year, he vowed.
He thanked Ducey, and McSally again for helping direct resources to the stricken Navajo Nation.
"What do you have to say, Doug?" Trump asked Ducey at one point in the meeting, prompting Ducey, who had been silent as the tribal leaders spoke, to say that his microphone was "thankfully working."
Ducey said he was "thrilled" the president had come to Arizona, and was happy at how the state has helped out the Navajo Nation.
Ducey's office told New Times last week that while the governor doesn't have jurisdiction on tribal lands, the state and National Guard have provide much assistance to the Navajo Nation, including emergency shipments of personal protective equipment; a Federal Medical Station in Chinle to support a projected need for "low acuity health care beds"; delivering food from banks; providing liaisons for supply needs; contracting new water sources; and taking other measures.
Trump answered several questions from reporters at the meeting, dodging a specific answer on why he's disbanding a coronavirus task force. However, he indicated that the task force wasn't needed or wanted at this time, when the country was transitioning from lockdowns to a "combination of safety and reopening."
"We can't keep our country closed for the next five years," Trump said, adding the American people "shouldn't accept" that option.
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He repeated that Americans are "warriors," apparently meaning that the country would have to face more attrition in the war on coronavirus.
In opening up Arizona, "you're probably going to have fires here, Doug," Trump said, referring to new flare-ups of COVID-19 cases. "You'll put them out."
The group also spent some time discussing the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, which has been seen as an increasing problem for Native Americans both on reservations and off. Trump touted $273 million in additional funds headed toward the nation's tribes for help on public safety issues, and signed a proclamation designating May 5 as Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day.
While in Phoenix, Trump also briefly toured a Honeywell manufacturing plant that is making N95 masks. Despite saying he would wear a mask if the facility was a "mask facility," the president opted instead to wear goggles.