Biden awards Medal of Freedom to Denzel Washington, Simone Biles, John McCain and others

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden presented the Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest honor – to 17 people Thursday, including actor Denzel Washington, gymnast Simone Biles and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The president also presented the award posthumously to Sen. John McCain, Apple founder Steve Jobs and Richard Trumka, who was president of the AFL-CIO.

In a ceremony in the White House East Room, Biden called the recipients "extraordinary Americans."

"This is America," he said, pointing to the recipients seated behind him on the stage.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was established under former President John F. Kennedy, is one of the highest awards a civilian can receive. 

Biden received the award in January 2017 from former President Barack Obama – one week before the two left office. He was presented the award for his public service as a U.S. senator and vice president.

More:President Biden speaks to wife of Brittney Griner, drafts letter to send WNBA star detained in Russia

The award is presented “to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors,” according to the White House.

Gymnast Simone Biles smiles as President Joe Biden places a Medal of Freedom on her during the Medal of Freedom Ceremony at The White House Thursday, July 7, 2022.

“President Biden has long said that America can be defined by one word: possibilities,” the White House said in a statement last week announcing the recipients. “These seventeen Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation – hard work, perseverance, and faith.”

Here are the recipients:

Simone Biles: Olympic gymnast

Simone Biles

Biles is the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history, winning 32 Olympic and World Championship medals. The gymnast is also an outspoken advocate on issues that are personal to her, including athletes' mental health, children in foster care and sexual assault victims.

"Everyone stops everything every time she is on camera just to watch," Biden said.

Denzel Washington

Washington is an actor, director, and producer who has won two Academy Awards, a Tony Award, two Golden Globes, and the 2016 Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, he has served as the national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for over 25 years. 

Washington, whom Biden called "one of our greatest actors in American history," has COVID and was unable to attend the ceremony. Biden said he would present the medal to Washington at a later date, "when he's able to get here."

John McCain

McCain, who died of brain cancer in 2018, served for decades in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate and was the Republican nominee for president in 2008. McCain, who spent more than five years in captivity in Vietnam while serving in the U.S. Navy, was awarded a Purple Heart with one gold star for his service. Biden has called McCain a "dear friend" and "a hero."

Cindy McCain receives a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom for her husband, former U.S. Senator from Arizona John McCain, from President Joe Biden during a ceremony at The White House.

McCain’s widow, Cindy, who accepted the medal on his behalf, wept as Biden reminisced about his long friendship and working relationship with the Arizona Republican, even though they belonged to different parties.

"We agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on," Biden said. "We both wanted to make things better for the country."

Exclusive:Email shows Biden was set to nominate anti-abortion GOP judge on day of Supreme Court Roe ruling

Steve Jobs

Jobs, who died in 2011, was the co-founder, chief executive, and chair of Apple Inc., CEO of Pixar and held a leading role at the Walt Disney Company.  

Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Steve Jobs, finds her seat before the Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony at The White House.

Gabrielle Giffords

Giffords, a former congresswoman from Arizona, is a survivor of gun violence and co-founder of Giffords, a nonprofit organization dedicated to gun violence prevention.

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona reacts alongside President Joe Biden before she is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at The White House.

Biden described Giffords as the embodiment of "a significant American trait: Never give up" and said she is proof that Americans "will not grow numb to the epidemic of gun violence in this nation."

Megan Rapinoe

Rapinoe is an Olympic gold medalist and two-time Women’s World Cup champion. She is a prominent advocate for gender pay equality, racial justice, and LGBTQI+ rights.

Professional soccer athlete Megan Rapinoe greets a loved one in the audience during the Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony at The White House.

In addition to her success on the soccer field, Biden said called Rapinoe "a champion for essential American truth" and the belief that "everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect."

Khizr Khan

Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan, is a Gold Star father and founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center. His son, who was an Army officer, was killed in Iraq. Khan gained national prominence after speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and became a target of Donald Trump's wrath.

President Joe Biden awards the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Khizr Khan at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 7, 2022.

'Who is that guy?':Joe Biden, Jen Psaki joke with James Corden during White House visit

Richard Trumka

Trumka, who died in August 2021, was president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO for more than a decade, president of the United Mine Workers, and secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Throughout his career, he was an outspoken advocate for social and economic justice.

Richard Trumka Jr. accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of his father the late Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, from U.S. President Joe Biden during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House July 7, 2022 in Washington, DC. President Biden awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to 17 recipients. The award honors individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.

Fred Gray

Fred Gray, one of the first Black members of the Alabama State legislature, is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden at The White House.

Gray was one of the first black members of the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction. He was a prominent attorney who represented Rosa Parks, the NAACP, and Martin Luther King, who called him “the chief counsel for the protest movement.”

Sandra Lindsay

President Joe Biden applauds Sandra Lindsay, a New York critical care nurse who received the first COVID-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials, during the Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony at The White House.

Lindsay, a New York critical care nurse, was the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside clinical trials. She served on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

Sister Simone Campbell

Sister Simone Campbell of the Sisters of Social Service runs her hand across her Medal of Freedom as President Joe Biden places it on her during the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at The White House.

Campbell is a member of the Sisters of Social Service and former Executive Director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization. She is also a prominent advocate for economic justice, immigration reform, and healthcare policy.

Juliet García

García is the former president of The University of Texas at Brownsville. She was the first Latina woman to serve as a college president.

Alexander Karloutsos

Karloutsos is the former Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. After over 50 years as a priest, providing counsel to several U.S. presidents, he was named by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as a Protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Father Alexander Karloutsos, former Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, reacts as President Joe Biden places his Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck at The White House.

'We need to end this horror':Vice President Harris visits site of shooting in Highland Park, Ill.

Diane Nash

Nash is a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized some of the most important civil rights campaigns of the 20th century. She worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., who described her as the “driving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation at lunch counters.”

Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients Diane Nash, left, and Julieta García speak with one another during a ceremony at The White House.

Her activism "echoes a call of freedom around the world today," Biden said.

Alan Simpson

Simpson served as a U.S. senator from Wyoming for 18 years. During his public service, he has been a prominent advocate on issues including campaign finance reform, responsible governance, and marriage equality.

President Joe Biden greets Alan Simpson, former U.S. Sen. from Wyoming, before awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at The White House.

Biden called Simpson "one of the finest men I've ever worked with" and said that, even though they didn't always agree, Simpson "has always believed in the common good and what's best for the nation."

Wilma Vaught

Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught is one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military, repeatedly breaking gender barriers as she rose through the ranks. She was one of only seven women generals in the Armed Forces when she retired in 1985.

Julieta García, left, greets Wilma Vaught after they both received the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at The White House.

Raúl Yzaguirre

Yzaguirre is a civil rights advocate who served as CEO and president of National Council of La Raza – now known as UnidosUS – for 30 years. He also served as U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic under Obama.

Civil rights advocate Raúl Yzaguirre receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden during a ceremony at The White House.

Contributing: Michael Collins, USA TODAY; Associated Press

More:Woody Williams, last World War II Medal of Honor recipient, to lie in honor at US Capitol