President Donald Trump on Friday afternoon awarded seven individuals the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor in a ceremony punctuated with humor and remembrance.
Trump’s most controversial pick was philanthropist Miriam Adelson, the wife of GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson. Trump posthumously bestowed the honor on baseball phenom Babe Ruth, rock and roll legend Elvis Presley and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The other recipients – Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, and former professional football players Justice Alan Page and Roger Staubach – attended the White House ceremony.
“The Presidential Medal of Freedom has been given to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to American life and culture. This year it is my true privilege to award this honor to seven extraordinary Americans,” Trump said.
Trump joked Scalia was “very busy” making nine children.
“Joining us for this ceremony is (Judge Scalia’s) wife, Maureen – who has become a great friend of my family, myself – and their nine children,” Trump said before listing each of the Scalia children.
“You were very busy, wow. Wow. I always knew I liked him,” Trump said, sparking some laughter from the audience.
He also paused for a moment as a few lines of a Presley song played during the ceremony, then joking he wished the whole song could play out.
Speaking about Hatch, Trump offered bluntly: “He liked me from the beginning and therefore I like him.”
“It helps. That’s the way it is. I guess I’m not supposed to say it, but that’s the way life works,” he added.
First lady Melania Trump, acting-Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and acting-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler, were in attendance, as well as several Supreme Court justices.
Trump also announced during the ceremony that he’s picked Wheeler to permanently lead the EPA.
Miriam Adelson is cited by the White House for founding research centers committed to fighting substance abuse and, with her husband, establishing the Adelson Medical Research Foundation, which supports research on life-threatening illnesses. She has also supported Jewish schools, Holocaust memorial organizations, and Israeli military personnel and veterans, the White House noted.
The Adelsons were the most prolific individual donors of the 2018 midterms, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets, with the couple giving at least $113 million during the cycle, all of it to Republican causes. That total could rise once the final round of fundraising reports are published by the Federal Election Commission, and doesn’t include potential “dark money” contributions to groups faced with less strict disclosure rules.
Past Medal of Freedom recipients during the Obama administration, including singer Barbra Streisand, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, baseball player Ernie Banks, Judge Patricia Wald, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and journalist Ben Bradlee, all made donations to Democratic and Obama-related political funds.
Honoring donors is a move that’s been criticized by both sides of the aisle.
Alyssa Farrah, Vice President Mike Pence’s current press secretary, wrote in a 2013 Mic story about the Obama-era honorees, arguing that “awarding favors to political supporters is hardly a new practice in the US, but bestowing one of the nation’s historically most prestigious honors to a roll call of presidential donors may raise eyebrows.”
CNN’s David Wright and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.