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Obama-era officials say Trump administration hasn’t delayed new $20 bill, despite Harriet Tubman firestorm

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said July 15 that delaying the release of the Harriet Tubman $20 bill was "not a political issue." (Video: Reuters)
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Correction: This story previously stated that three current or former officials appointed by President Obama said the Trump administration didn’t delay the new $20 bill. In fact, two officials appointed by Obama, and a third appointed by President George W. Bush who served in the Obama administration, made the comments about the $20 bill. This story and its headline have been updated.

Congressional Democrats have been hammering the Trump administration for delaying the introduction of 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called it an “insult to the hopes of millions,” while Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said the delay sends an “unmistakable message to women and girls, and communities of color.” The Treasury Department’s inspector general, under pressure from Democratic lawmakers, recently said it will investigate the timing of the new currency.

But the rollout of the new currency has a more complicated backstory. Three current or former high-ranking government officials who served in the Obama administration, and were involved in the design and release of currency, said the Trump administration has not delayed the release of a new $20.

Instead, they say, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — while expressing indifference about Tubman’s placement on the currency, whereas his predecessor backed the change — has followed a timeline set under the Obama administration for the introduction of the new $20 bill.

In 2016, President Obama’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said a “final concept design” of the Tubman $20 would be released in 2020. He asked the government to accelerate the process of the redesign, saying the new look would be released by 2020, the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote.

But inside the agency, some government officials doubted that deadline could be met. A confidential 2013 report by the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence committee, an interagency group that oversees the redesign of U.S. currency, said the $20 would not enter circulation until 2030, similar to the timeline announced by the Trump administration, according to Larry R. Felix, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing from 2006 to 2015.

Felix and other senior officials believed it would not be possible to release a “concept” design of Tubman on the $20 in 2020, given that these designs are never released several years — much less an entire decade — before they enter circulation.

The Treasury can release “concept” designs before the currency enters circulation in the economy, but it has never done so more than a year in advance, according to a spokesperson for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The spokesperson said the precaution is aimed at depriving hackers and other counterfeiters from having additional time to prepare for new denominations.

Felix said he told Treasury officials before leaving in 2015 that their plans to introduce a new $20 design in 2020 were not feasible, given how much security work still had to be done.

“Those announcements were not grounded in reality. The U.S. had not at the time acquired the security features to redesign and protect the notes,” Felix said of Lew’s announcement that a design of the $20 would be released in 2020.

Another former government official appointed by Obama, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak about internal government deliberations, also said the new $20 had always been scheduled for release toward the end of next decade. A current high-ranking government official appointed by Obama confirmed this account.

Still, Mnuchin has not shown the enthusiasm for putting Tubman on the $20 that his predecessor did — and Trump has previously dismissed the effort. Mnuchin has told lawmakers he has not made a decision on whether he supports Tubman being on the $20, unlike Lew, who publicly supported the effort.

But Mnuchin has also said he is not focused on the decision because it is unlikely to be his to make under “even the most optimistic scenarios,” given that the government’s timeline does not call for production to begin on the new $20 until after the end of a potential second Trump term.

According to the Treasury, production on the new $20 will begin in 2028, with its release coming in 2030.

The history of the redesign has been convoluted, feeding into the current political fracas.

Initially, Lew eyed replacing Alexander Hamilton on the $10 with women’s voting rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony, as the $10 was scheduled for redesign before the $20. But the Obama administration faced public pressure not to replace Hamilton on the $10, due in part to the popularity the Founding Father enjoyed from the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

Former Fed chair Ben Bernanke is ‘appalled’ Alexander Hamilton is coming off the $10 bill

In 2016, Lew announced that Hamilton would remain on the $10, and that a vignette of women, including Susan B. Anthony, would appear on the back of that currency. (The BEP has said the redesigned $10 will not enter circulation until 2026.)

As he announced Hamilton would stay on the $10, Lew also said Tubman would replace Jackson on the front of the new $20. It was clear to currency officials working at the time that the bill would not enter circulation until late in the following decade, according to two former senior government officials in the Obama administration.

Through a spokeswoman, Lew declined to comment on the record or answer questions sent in an email. Spokespeople for congressional Democrats also did not respond to the remarks by Felix and the other former Obama officials.

Lew has said publicly that the new $20 would have to be decided by a future presidential administration, and has been silent on the recent accusations about Mnuchin delaying Tubman’s appearance on the $20.

A fourth Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said in an email: “While Secretary Lew directed the BEP to accelerate the process for the $5, $10 and $20 notes, he always put security first and acknowledged that the ultimate timing and sequence would be based on security features. ”

Appearing on Capitol Hill in May, Mnuchin said the new design of the $20 with Tubman would not be unveiled in 2020. Citing anonymous current and former Treasury officials, the New York Times also reported in June that Mnuchin delayed the new $20 design to avoid antagonizing Trump, who has compared himself favorably to Jackson, and causing the president to scrap the redesign entirely and inviting additional public outcry.

Jackson was a slaveholder and slave trader who enabled the aggressive persecution of Native Americans and curtailed political and economic rights of black Americans. Tubman, a leader in the Underground Railroad, is one of the great antislavery heroes of American history. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump called replacing Jackson with Tubman “pure political correctness.”

But the Treasury Department has denied delaying designs of the new $20, with Mnuchin saying he has not interfered in the process. Monica Crowley, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, said in a statement that “the suggestion that the process is being delayed is completely erroneous.” A spokesperson for the BEP said Mnuchin has not interfered with the process of producing a new $20 design.

“The timeline for issuing a new $20 note remains consistent with the prior Administration’s,” a Treasury Department spokesman said in a statement. “As the Department and Bureau of Engraving and Printing have consistently stated, the only consideration with regard to the redesign schedule of our Nation’s currency has been security and potential counterfeiting threats.”

Last month, the New York Times published what it termed a “conceptual design” of the Tubman $20, but the former Obama officials said its existence does not suggest a public release was imminent. In congressional testimony last fall, BEP director Leonard R. Olijar also said the ACD decided in 2013 that the $20 bill would not be released until 2030. Olijar was also appointed by President Barack Obama.

“BEP was never going to unveil a note design in 2020,” Olijar said in a recent statement. “No Bureau or Department official has ‘scrapped’ anything. ”