Challenge coins are unique coins produced and issued as a means of commemorating accomplishments or indicating membership in an elite group. Historically, such coins have usually been presented to soldiers who are part of an elite force or who have outstanding accomplishments in the line of duty.
However, it is well within tradition for these coins to be offered to outstanding civilians—usually community leaders. Starting during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the presidents of the United States have produced coins that they award to exceptional individuals. In the past, these individuals have most commonly been military personnel.
Although the tradition of presidents awarding challenge coins is relatively well-established at this point, it is not governed by any formal rules. Presidents are free to design their coins however they like, and to give them to whoever they like. Although trends and traditions have emerged, presidents do sometimes change or break from custom.
Presidential coins have historically borne the motto “E pluribus unum,” are mostly awarded to exceptional military personnel, and change hands in secret. Additionally, it is not uncommon for special challenge coins to be made for presentation to foreign dignitaries.
However, anyone can purchase commercially-produced challenge coins. In fact, you can buy souvenir presidential challenge coins from the White House gift shop.
Although the tradition of challenge coins in the military long preceded the presidency of Bill Clinton, President Clinton started the custom of designing and presenting presidential coins to extraordinary individuals. The president reportedly had an impressive collection of challenge coins that had been gifted to him by members of the military. In fact, this coin collection can be seen on display in the background of his official presidential portrait.
President Bush chose to carry on the custom of producing and presenting presidential challenge coins. In fact, the tradition expanded during Bush’s presidency. Two versions of his presidential challenge coin were produced, and Vice President Dick Cheney, also created his own challenge coin.
President Bush also notably received a challenge coin. It was presented to him by a Marine combat patrol during a 2007 visit to Iraq.
Over time, the significance of presidents giving and receiving challenge coins has grown in American culture. The many recorded instances of President Obama presenting his own challenge coin are evidence of this trend. The customs surrounding the presentation of a presidential challenge coin again evolved during the Obama presidency, due to President Obama’s practice of placing his coin on the graves of fallen soldiers. The convention of vice presidents producing their own challenge coin also was solidified during this time. Interestingly, while President Obama had only one presidential challenge coin, Vice President Joe Biden had three.
A noteworthy incident occurred when President Obama attempted to present Sergeant Kristie Ness with a presidential coin. As stated, the hand-off of these coins is meant to be covert. Many coins are subtly given to the recipient through a handshake. Sergeant Ness’s coin was accidentally dropped during the president’s attempt to present it to her in this manner—an event which was captured by the press. However, both the president and Ness reportedly took this mistake in stride and laughed it off.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence each have produced one challenge coin. Trump has also made his unique mark on the presidential challenge coin tradition. In the past, the design of presidential challenge coins was simple, usually consisting of the presidential seal, the motto “E pluribus unum,” and, in some cases, the president’s name and signature on the back.
By contrast, President Trump’s challenge coin bears his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” rather than “E pluribus unum,” as well as a prominent engraving of his name (along with two other, smaller notations of his name). Additionally, this coin is bigger and heavier than those in the past. However, it is not just the appearance of the challenge coin which has been altered by President Trump. While previous presidents primarily gave their challenge coins to military personnel and foreign dignitaries, President Trump has also been reported to present his coins to campaign contributors.
The traditions surrounding not only the presidential challenge coin, but also challenge coins in general, have continuously evolved, and no doubt will continue to do so.