Kevin Washburn’s influence on the Biden White House, and their mutual attempt to downplay it
No one is alleging any wrongdoing, begging the question why Washburn is being circumspect.
WASHINGTON – Something is not adding up for people closely watching Kevin Washburn’s portrayal of his power and influence with the current White House and Biden administration.
The former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs during the Obama administration’s second half has deep clout with the administration over a variety of tribal issues, so that he is downplaying it to some associates is curious, they say.
“It’s an open secret that Kevin is a conduit to the administration,” a source with close ties to the U.S. Interior Department told Indigenous Wire. “He’s a friend to many serving in the administration right now, and that’s not a bad thing for Indian Country.”
The same associate, who asked for anonymity due to fear of retaliation, went so far as to warn people who might be or have ever been on Washburn’s “bad side” to “be cautious” if they want to reap the benefits of a positive relationship with the current administration.
At the same time, there’s apparently nothing shocking or wrong with his influence, observers say, so some are surprised he’s being circumspect about it, at least to some audiences.
He’s reportedly told associates, including ones who attended the “Wiring the Rez” conference this week at the We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort in Arizona, that he has to be careful about the perception of influencing the White House on any and all tribal affairs.
It’s unclear if that’s a personal ethical guideline he’s set for himself, or one that the White House has required.
What’s known for sure is that everyone in the loop knows that Kevin Washburn is a strong Democratic political champion, having served on the Biden transition team, and his wife, Libby Washburn, went on after his transition service to become Special Assistant to the President for Native Affairs in the White House, a position she currently holds.
Few people in the world of politics would be surprised if the supportive husband somehow helped his wife secure her position during his time on the transition team – not that she needed any assistance, given her own noteworthy and lengthy legal and political bonafides. She’s even served at Interior before, as chief of staff and deputy commissioner, when her husband was serving as assistant secretary.
Kevin Washburn led the Biden team on Interior-related transition matters, and Libby Washburn’s name would have likely been in play for several leadership positions at Interior had she not been selected for the White House job. The Biden White House in particular has been known to closely consult with Interior, including its transition team, on all things Indian-related, so even though people close to the White House insist that Kevin Washburn recused himself and/or had no role in the selection of his wife, that’s just a step too far for many to credibly believe. In short, nepotism happens in D.C. – just look at any number of layers of the Trump White House for easy evidence of that.
Libby Washburn’s current position is now making her husband especially sensitive to perceptions of undue sway, associates who attended the “Wiring the Rez” conference told Indigenous Wire.
Which, they say, is rather silly, since everyone, including the White House, sees him posting on social media about the progress of the Biden administration, championing its first year in office and his wife’s accomplishments, as he did at the “Wiring the Rez” conference with a bullet-point presentation.
Even while currently serving as the dean of the University of Iowa College of Law, he’s been well known to also work behind the scenes in both supporting the Biden administration’s agenda and the goals of his wife.
There’s nothing wrong with that; still, there is at least some desire on the parts of both Kevin Washburn and the White House to want his role to appear limited, some Indian affairs lawyers say – possibly on gaming-related issues, but also on matters involving the recently announced $665 million tribal government opioid settlement with major pharmaceutical companies and distributors.
“Kevin has been selected to oversee the distributions and data collection from tribes involving the major proposed opioid settlement,” a separate source involved in that case noted. “The White House probably does not want to appear connected in any way with the distribution of funds to tribes from non-governmental corporations.”
Washburn’s strong reputation in Indian Country was one reason he was chosen for that duty, Lloyd Miller, an Indian affairs lawyer with Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Miller & Monkman, LLP, recently told Indigenous Wire. Miller has served as a negotiator on the opioid case and settlement.
“We thought it was important that the tribal trust be controlled by tribal people of impeccable credentials,” Miller previously said regarding Washburn’s involvement.
As part of his duties in the settlement, Washburn, as well as Mary Smith and Kathy Hannan – both politically-connected and savvy Indian Country politicos in their own rights – will be in charge of collecting enrollment data and other information from tribes, but not for deciding any allocation issues, Miller said.
The three will be responsible for sending out final, approved checks to tribal governments that accept settlement.
Tribal leaders – even if they personally have strong relationships with Washburn and his wife – may be hesitant to provide sensitive tribal data to him for a corporate settlement, because this information could potentially go straight to the federal government and subvert tribal sovereignty and control over such data, Indian affairs experts say.
Tribes have reasons for keeping some data private from the federal government, and no matter how upstanding a person Washburn is, some believe the potential is too great for information to get in hands they don’t want to have it, as happened during the Trump administration’s CARES Act pandemic distributions to tribes.
Because of Washburn’s involvement, there’s also the perception – reality based or not – that tribal officials who have been more friendly to Democratic administrations, or to the Biden and/or Obama administrations in particular, could achieve a better settlement.
Washburn did not respond to a request for comment about his role in the opioid settlement.
However, his sensitivity was readily apparent when Indigenous Wire asked him about an unrelated matter, regarding his previous and current positions on tribal disenrollment and related human rights issues.
When asked for comment about the significance of Interior's recent publicly expressed commitment to Indigenous individuals’ human rights, potentially over and above tribal sovereignty claims, he clammed up, despite having been transparent on a number of controversial issues with this reporter over a number of years. “Transparency” has been a key mantra of Washburn, and his new-found secrecy is another reason eyebrows in both Washington, D.C. and in Indian Country are being raised.
“I am not going to comment on the actions of Interior,” Washburn told Indigenous Wire by email. “I recommend Gabe Galanda on such matters. He's very interested in these issues.”
Indigenous Wire had already spoken with Galanda, the Seattle-based Indian affairs lawyer representing several Nooksack tribal citizens who say their human and civil rights have been trampled upon due to what they say are arbitrary and political decisions of its tribal government to disenroll them.
Galanda had expressed concern that Washburn was perhaps shifting course from opinions he had expressed in the not-so-distant past that appeared supportive of tribal disenrollees and the federal government’s potential policy-based ability to intervene in egregious instances.
Galanda’s worry stemmed from the fact that Washburn had told USA Today in an article published Jan. 22 that he is “a tribal sovereignty absolutist.”
People who have proclaimed themselves to be tribal sovereignty absolutists in the past have often not viewed Native individuals’ claims of civil and human rights abuses toward tribes who have disenrolled them as outweighing the sovereign rights of a tribe to disenroll, Galanda said.
“It’s a concern. You should ask Kevin about that,” Galanda said.
In response, Washburn told Indigenous Wire by email that he “missed the USA Today article,” which seemed strange on its face because the article was widely talked about in Indian Country and by United Nations officials who are monitoring the disenrollment situation at tribes in the United States.
“I truly doubt that very many people are losing sleep about what a mid-level academic bureaucrat in the Midwest thinks about any of this,” Washburn added. “If so, they can call me.”
The truth is, some people – including hundreds of disenrolled Indigenous citizens – are indeed losing sleep (and their homes) over disenrollment matters. They certainly want to know what officials, like Washburn, who are closely connected to the White House and current Interior leadership think on this topic and a variety of other tribal matters, Galanda said.
That Washburn has the ear of the White House and Interior is important, and that he is downplaying its significance is “weird,” people who know him say.
“Don’t underestimate the power of a so-called mid-level academic bureaucrat,” an official who attended the “Wiring the Rez” conference told Indigenous Wire. “No one in Indian Country is underestimating his influence.”
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