Biden awards Medal of Freedom to 17 recipients

By Joe Ruiz, JiMin Lee, and Maegan Vazquez, CNN

Updated 5:00 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022
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2:56 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022

Denzel Washington absent at Medal of Freedom ceremony

From CNN's Maegan Vazquez

Actor Denzel Washington was slated to be honored with the Medal of Freedom, but he did not appear at Thursday's White House ceremony because of a positive Covid-19 result, according to a White House official.

President Biden said during the ceremony that the actor wanted to be there and will receive the award at a later date.

"There’s a man who couldn’t be here today but wanted to be: Denzel Washington, one of our greatest actors in American history. Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Tony Awards, (and) wide acclaim from audiences and peers around the world," the President said. "He couldn’t be here with us today, but I’ll be giving him this award at a later date when he’s able to get here."

2:39 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022

Biden awarding the Medal of Freedom to 17 recipients

President Joe Biden speaks before presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in the East Room of the White House on July 7.
President Joe Biden speaks before presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in the East Room of the White House on July 7. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

President Biden is awarding the Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – to 17 recipients at the White House. He opened up the ceremony by talking about the "extraordinary group of Americans up here on the stage."

On Monday, we celebrated the independence of our nation, a nation always a work in progress in creation of possibilities, the fulfillment of promises. That's the American story. It's not a simple one. It's never been a simple one, but the fourth of July week reminds us what brought us together long ago and still binds us, binds us at our best. We strive for — what we strive for, we, the people, doing what we can to ensure the idea of America, a cause of freedom shines like the sun to light up the future of the world. That's the soul of our nation. 
That's who we are as Americans. And that's what we see, an extraordinary, extraordinary group of Americans up here on this stage that I have the honor to recognize today with the presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian award. 
2:26 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022

First American to get Covid-19 vaccine to be awarded with Medal of Freedom

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Sandra Lindsay receives the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from Dr. Michelle Chester in December 2020.
Sandra Lindsay receives the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from Dr. Michelle Chester in December 2020. (Mark Lennihan/Pool/AP)

President Biden will award Sandra Lindsay, a New York nurse who the White House says was the first American to receive a Covid-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials, with the Medal of Freedom Thursday.

Lindsay, an intensive care unit nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, received the vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020.

In an interview with CNN on Thursday before the ceremony, Lindsay said she is "so excited" to be given the honor.

She missed the phone call from the White House telling her about the award, she said.

"At first I thought it was a prank call. Why would the President of the United States be calling me, Sandra Lindsay? But then I checked my email and saw that, you know, the White House had followed up with an email, and so I knew it was real," she said.

She said she is "still very hopeful" about the United States' response to the pandemic and larger mental health issues.

"We still have some ways to go with the pandemic, but we've made significant strides and I am just grateful that I have this platform, that I can also shed light on other needs of healthcare workers. When the nation needed healing, the healthcare workers stepped up. ... Now we need healing in terms of mental health resources and also addressing other factors that relate to mental health, such as student loan debt, health equity and women's rights," she said.

Lindsay said back in 2020 that she had "no fear" and she wanted to inspire other people to trust science and get vaccinated.

“I want to be a part of the solution to put an end to this pandemic once and for all,” she told CNN. “I think also as a leader in the organization that I lead by example. I don’t ask people to do anything that I would not do myself.”

One year after getting her vaccine, as the Omicron variant was leading to skyrocketing levels of Covid-19 infections, Lindsay said she had "tremendous gratitude that I was able to get vaccinated and pride in the work that I've done so far to be an activist for vaccinations."

Lindsay also spoke out in 2021 about encountering people who she said were too “far down” the tunnel of conspiracy theories. 

“I can speak on behalf of health care workers at my organization when I say that we are tired, and we're concerned, especially because we know that the public now has options,” she said. 

CNN's Eric Levenson contributed reporting to this post.

1:59 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022

Gold Star father Khizr Khan to receive Medal of Freedom

Khizr Khan speaks at an event in Collingswood, New Jersey, in 2017.
Khizr Khan speaks at an event in Collingswood, New Jersey, in 2017. (Seth Wenig/AP/FIle)

Gold Star father Khizr Khan is set to get the Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House.

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Khan said that Trump “sacrificed nothing and no one,” before raising a copy of the US Constitution, asking if Trump had ever read it. Khan’s son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, died in Baghdad in 2004.

Biden appointed Khan to serve on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom last year.

Khan endorsed Biden in 2020.

CNN's DJ Judd contributed reporting to this post.

1:53 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022

Biden to bestow Medal of Freedom posthumously to John McCain and Steve Jobs

From CNN staff

Longtime US Sen. John McCain will be one of the posthumous honorees.
Longtime US Sen. John McCain will be one of the posthumous honorees. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Biden will award the Medal of Freedom to several posthumous honorees, including Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

McCain died at the age of 81 in 2018. His Washington career spanned 40 years, with him serving as a member of the Senate from 1987 until his death. He ran for president in 2000 and 2008.

The "maverick," a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, was a critic of former President Donald Trump and crossed partisan lines on occasion.

“We are not the President’s subordinates,” he said in a speech in 2017. “We are his equals.”

McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, was appointed by Biden to serve as the US Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

Jobs died in 2011 at age 56 after battling cancer for years. The visionary cofounder of Apple staged a comeback for the company, wowing audiences and consumers while donning his signature black turtleneck during keynote events to introduce iTunes, the iPhone, the App Store and the iPad.

In the summer of 2011, Apple listed more cash reserves than the US Treasury and even briefly surpassed Exxon Mobil as the world’s most valuable company.

Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of Emerson Collective and Steve Jobs’ widow, donated more than $700,000 to the Biden Victory Fund in 2020.

Trumka served as the head of the most powerful labor organization in the country and was a close ally of the Biden White House. He led the AFL-CIO from 2009-2021, known for his fiery rhetoric and his harsh attacks on corporate America.

1:38 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords and other ex-lawmakers are on the list of Medal of Freedom honorees

From CNN's Maegan Vazquez

Former US Rep. Gabby Giffords is among those receiving a Medal of Freedom today.
Former US Rep. Gabby Giffords is among those receiving a Medal of Freedom today. (Alex Brandon/AP/File)

President Biden is expected to award former lawmakers, including former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, with the Medal of Freedom on Thursday afternoon.

Giffords, who became an advocate for gun violence prevention after she was shot in an assassination attempt in 2011, said in a statement that she’s “humbled and honored” to receive the medal.

“Since I was shot more than 11 years ago, my personal recovery journey has taught me that it’s not the setback that defines us: it’s how we respond to it. There have been no shortage of setbacks as I relearned how to talk and how to walk, just as there have been no shortage of setbacks in the fight for gun safety that I’ve dedicated my life to. And yet I’ve never lost hope,” she said. “One of my reasons for hope sits inside the Oval Office today, elected to accomplish the near-impossible task of healing a divided nation.”

Giffords and the Giffords PAC endorsed Biden in 2020.

Simpson was a peer of Biden’s on the Senate Judiciary Committee, supporting the then-senator as he attempted to salvage his 1988 presidential campaign following a plagiarism scandal.

Simpson has warned of the growing partisanship in the Senate, citing "the bitterness that goes on." In an interview in June, Simpson called Trump, among other things, a “spoiled brat” and said that “this guy is so full of himself that he would overturn every kind of rule of law or Constitutional process because of his own ego, which is twisted.”

12:58 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022

Olympic athletes Simone Biles and Megan Rapinoe to receive Medal of Freedom

From CNN's Maegan Vazquez

Simone Biles, left, and Megan Rapinoe
Simone Biles, left, and Megan Rapinoe (Getty Images)

Olympic athletes Simone Biles and Megan Rapinoe are set to become the fifth and sixth female athletes to be honored for the Medal of Freedom.

Rapinoe will be the first female soccer player to receive the medal.

According to a statement from US Soccer, Rapinoe, the US Women’s National Team forward and an advocate for equal pay, found out last week when Biden called her between practice sessions in Denver. When she saw “The White House” pop up on her phone screen, she thought she was either getting a robocall or being pranked by her teammates.

“In that moment I spoke to the President, I was, and still am, totally overwhelmed,” Rapinoe said in a statement, adding that she is thinking of “all the people who I feel deserve a part of this medal.”

“I am humbled and truly honored to be chosen for this award by President Biden and feel as inspired and motivated as ever to continue this long history of fighting for the freedoms of all people. To quote Emma Lazarus, ‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free,’” she added.

Biles, a seven-time Olympic medalist, has been outspoken about mental health after disclosing her struggles during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

At the Olympics, Biles withdrew during the team final and then withdrew ahead of the all-around final and individual events of vault, uneven bars and floor exercise. She did compete in the balance beam final, winning bronze.

“To do something that I’ve done forever and just not be able to do it because of everything I’ve gone through is really crazy, because I love this sport so much. It’s hard, I’m sorry. And I don’t think people understand the magnitude of what I go through,” Biles said to NBC's "Today" show in October 2021.

She was also one of the gymnasts who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2021 regarding the FBI’s handling of sexual abuse claims against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

CNN's Mallika Kallingal contributed reporting to this post.