Harriet Tubman $20 bill design could never have been ready for 2020 intro, officials say: Report

Key Points
  • Earlier reports said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin delayed the introduction of the $20 bill featuring Harriet Tubman, but some current and former officials tell The Washington Post it was never going to be ready for 2020.
  • In 2016, then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the government would release a "final concept design" for the bill in 2020. In May, Mnuchin said the new design would not be unveiled until 2028.
In this file photo, Secretary Jack Lew looks at a rendering of Harriet Tubman during a visit to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Chris Taylor | Department of Treasury

Contradicting earlier reports that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had delayed the introduction of a new $20 bill featuring Harriet Tubman, current and former officials told The Washington Post that the bill was never going to be ready for a 2020 introduction.

In 2016, then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the government would release in 2020 a "final concept design" for a $20 bill featuring the former slave who helped free dozens of other slaves to mark the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage.

In May, Mnuchin said the new design would not be unveiled until 2028.

According to the Post, which cited three current or former high-ranking government officials appointed by President Barack Obama who were involved in the Tubman $20 bill project, the bill's release remains on schedule. Larry Felix, former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, spoke on the record to the newspaper, while the other officials declined to be named.

The Post reported that Mnuchin has been following the timeline set forth under the Obama administration. Felix told the Post that the 2020 release date Lew announced was never feasible.

"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 told the newspaper.

NiQuan Energy, which lists Felix on its website as its group chairman, did not respond to a request for comment from Felix. Lew did not respond to a request for comment.

Felix also said that, per a 2013 report by the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence committee, which oversees currency redesigns, a new $20 bill could not enter circulation before 2020. Felix and other officials said that the Treasury could not have released a "concept" design in 2020, as Lew promised, because it would have given counterfeiters a decade to replicate the bill, according to the Post.

In a news conference Monday, Mnuchin echoed the Post's reporting.

"There's a lot of misinformation on this issue," he said. "This is a nonpolitical situation where the primary objective of changing the currency is to stop counterfeiting."

He noted that the $100 bill took 10 years to redesign and that releasing any new currency requires new machinery and a new manufacturing process. He said that "even in the most optimistic scenario" the currency would not be complete before the end of a second Trump term.

The Post's reporting aligns with a statement Obama appointee and current BEP Director Len Olijar gave to CNBC in June. "No Bureau or Department official has 'scrapped' anything; it is too early to develop an integrated concept or design until security features are finalized," he said.

In a statement Monday, Olijar said: "Not only is it a mistake to give counterfeiters a look at potential security features, currency designs undergo a number of iterations and can change during testing. Moreover, as U.S. currency is a world currency, it is important not to confuse the public with design changes."

Mnuchin's comments Monday are consistent with what he has said previously.

"The suggestion that this process is being stalled is completely erroneous," Mnuchin said in June.

The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment on the Post's report.

The Treasury Department's internal watchdog is investigating the matter after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter asking whether the altered release date was prompted by political considerations.

A spokesman for Schumer did not respond to a request for comment.

The New York Times previously reported that design and production work for the bill was well underway when Mnuchin announced the delay and that he did so in part to avoid President Donald Trump canceling the plan entirely.

Trump was a vocal critic of the plan to put Tubman on the $20 bill. While campaigning Trump called the move "pure political correctness." He proposed putting her portrait on the $2 bill instead.