Harriet Tubman — former slave, abolitionist, "conductor" on the Underground Railroad — will not become the face of the $20 bill until after President Donald Trump leaves office, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday.
Plans to unveil the Tubman bill in 2020, an Obama administration initiative, will be postponed until at least 2026, Mnuchin said, and the bill itself will not likely be in circulation until 2028. Until then, bills with former President Andrew Jackson's face will continue to pour out of ATMs and fill Americans' wallets.
Mnuchin, worried that the president might create an uproar by cancelling the new bill altogether, was eager to delay its redesign until Trump was out of office, some senior Treasury Department officials have said.
As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump criticised the Obama administration's plans for the bill.
That April, Trump called the change "pure political correctness" and suggested that Tubman, whom he praised, be added to a far less common denomination, like the $2 bill. "Andrew Jackson had a great history, and I think it's very rough when you take somebody off the bill," Trump said at the time.
Trump has frequently described Jackson, whose portrait hangs in the Oval Office, as a populist hero who reminds him of himself. Two months into his presidency, Trump stopped to lay a wreath at Jackson's tomb at the Hermitage, his plantation in Nashville, Tennessee. "It was during the Revolution that Jackson first confronted and defied an arrogant elite," Trump told a crowd gathered there. "Does that sound familiar?"
The delay comes three years after Mnuchin's predecessor, Jacob Lew, announced plans for a sweeping and symbolic redrawing of the currency that would see Tubman replace the slaveholding Jackson on the face of the note.
Treasury Department officials did not say whether Trump had a hand in the decision, and Mnuchin would not say whether he himself believes that Tubman should be on the bill's face. "I've made no decision as it relates to that," Mnuchin said Wednesday at a congressional hearing in response to a question from Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.
During the hearing, Mnuchin said that he was now focused on enhancing the anti-counterfeiting security features of the currency, focusing first on the $10 and $50 bills. Designing new imagery is on the back burner.
"It is my responsibility now to focus on what is the issue of counterfeiting and the security features," Mnuchin said. "The ultimate decision on the redesign will most likely be another secretary down the road."
Replacing Jackson with Tubman was both filled with symbolism and marred by controversy.
Tubman was born into slavery, escaped and then returned to the South where she led other slaves to freedom. She was a Union scout during the Civil War and later advocated women's voting rights. Jackson orchestrated the removal of Native Americans from lands to the east of the Mississippi River and sent them marching west on the so-called "Trail of Tears."
In 2017, speculation began that Trump might scrap Lew's plan for the $20 bill when mentions of it were scrubbed from the Treasury Department's website during a redesign. Then, that August, Mnuchin made clear that Tubman's future on the bill was in doubt.
"People have been on the bills for a long period of time," he told CNBC. "This is something we'll consider. Right now we've got a lot more important issues to focus on."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., recently introduced the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act and called on the Treasury Department to offer clarity on the status of the $20 bill. The legislation, if passed, would direct the department to place the likeness of Tubman on $20 Federal Reserve notes printed after December 31, 2020.
"There is no excuse for the administration's failure to make this redesign a priority," Shaheen said. "Sadly, this delay sends an unmistakable message to women and girls, and communities of color, who were promised they'd see Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill."
Supporters of the tribute act in the House — including Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and John Katko, R-N.Y. — also expressed frustration with the Trump administration over the delay.
"The administration's decision to drag their feet and delay the redesign of the $20 until 2028 is unacceptable," Cummings said in a statement. "Our currency must reflect the important role women, and especially women of color, have played in our nation's history."
Former Obama administration officials have been quiet about Tubman during the past two years, hopeful that Trump would forget about the plan and allow it to proceed.
Lew, through a spokeswoman, had no comment Wednesday. But Gene Sperling, the former director of President Barack Obama's National Economic Council, assailed Mnuchin on Twitter for embracing Trump's divisiveness.
"Today Mnuchin pathetically announces that Tubman on $20 will be delayed till 2028 — meaning their goal is never," he tweeted.
Women have appeared on US currency a handful of times, often on seldom-used $1 coins.
In the 19th century, Pocahontas and Martha Washington were the first women to make it onto US currency — and the last to make it onto paper.
Pocahontas appeared among a group of men on the $10 bill and the $20 bill in the late 19th century. Washington was on $1 silver certificates in 1886, 1891 and 1896.
Suffragist Susan B. Anthony was the first woman to appear on an US coin: a dollar produced from 1979 to 1981 and again, briefly, in 1999. But originally, the Treasury Department planned to depict the allegorical Lady Liberty. It was not until legislators and activists objected that the department agreed to honor a real-life woman.
In 2015, Lew started a 10-month process to develop a plan that was initially intended to honor a female historical figure on the $10 bill, replacing Alexander Hamilton. After much controversy, consternation and public debate — in part because of the popularity of the musical "Hamilton," which is based on the secretary's life — Lew changed course and instead made plans for a vignette of suffragists to be put on the back of the $10 and for Tubman to become the face of the $20 bill.
On Wednesday, activists from the group Women on 20s, which helped push Tubman to the prominence of the $20 bill, were disappointed but hopeful that the delay would avoid meddling from Trump.
"At Women On 20s we're not surprised that Secretary Mnuchin may be kicking the design reveal of the $20 bill to sometime beyond the potential interference of a Trump presidency," the group said in a statement calling on Congress to pass legislation to add Tubman to the currency. "As we've been saying for years, symbols do matter."
Written by: Alan Rappeport
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES