Column: How Trump cheapened one of America’s highest honors, the Medal of Freedom

President Donald Trump and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. in 2018; President Ronald Reagan with Mother Teresa in 1985.
President Trump with Presidential Medal of Honor recipient Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) and President Reagan with another recipient, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
(Carolyn Kaster | Ira Schwarz | Associated Press)

Nothing makes sense anymore.

The party of “law and order” just rampaged through the Capitol, bludgeoning a police officer to death and calling for the lynching of the vice president. The party’s leader, President Trump, has pardoned a rogues’ gallery of thieves and murderers. And now, in a last-gasp effort to prove there is nothing that Trump won’t defile, he’s been handing out Medals of Freedom like Chiclets to his unprincipled political acolytes and enablers.

For the record:

11:09 a.m. Jan. 16, 2021An earlier version of this article said Trump incited a crowd that stormed the White House. The crowd stormed the U.S. Capitol.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom, created by President Kennedy in 1963, was established to recognize individuals who have made an “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

There have been a few recipients who fell from grace after receiving the medal. Bill Cosby, for example, got one from President George W. Bush in 2002 and was later convicted of aggravated indecent assault. But presidents have generally maintained a high bar, awarding the medal to popes, astronauts, scientists, statesmen, military heroes, thinkers and artists. In 1985, President Reagan gave the award to Mother Teresa.


Then came Trump. Over the course of his tenure, Trump has awarded the medal to 24 civilians, 14 of whom are athletes. He has honored only three women, including golfer Annika Sörenstam; Miriam Adelson, the wife of his largest campaign contributor, the late Sheldon Adelson; and Olympic gold medalist Babe Didrikson Zaharias (who died in 1956).

Trump has used the country’s highest civilian honor to reward his most fervent supporters — angry, divisive partisans like Rush Limbaugh (who coined the term “feminazi”), Rep. Jim “Shouty” Jordan and, of course, his favorite cow-suing congressman, Rep. Devin Nunes.

Just as he has done with the presidency, Trump has debased the Medal of Freedom.

“Everything about Donald Trump screams narcissism, so it’s hardly a surprise he turns the highest civilian award into a tool to reflect his own interests,” said Rob Weissman, president of the government watchdog group Public Citizen. “He gave the Medal of Freedom to individuals for their service to him.”

Exactly. Nunes was cited for uncovering “the greatest scandal in American history” and helping “thwart a plot to take down a sitting United States president.”

“Congressman Nunes,” said the White House announcement, “pursued the Russia Hoax at great personal risk and never stopped standing up for the truth. He had the fortitude to take on the media, the FBI, the Intelligence Community, the Democrat Party, foreign spies, and the full power of the Deep State. Devin paid a price for his courage.”

The price? Columnists wrote mean things about him.

On Sunday, I asked Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff how he reacted to Nunes receiving the Medal of Freedom. “I feel like I am living in Alice in Wonderland,” Schiff said. “It grieves me to think about what that means to others who have received the honor.”


Now, I don’t mean to pick on Nunes. … Oh, who am I kidding? Yes, I do.

He has distinguished himself as Congress’ most thin-skinned member, suing for defamation newspapers, magazines, television networks, a fellow congressman, an organic fruit farmer and, of course, the anonymous author of a Twitter account who purports to be a cow. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote last March, “That’s a lot of litigation for a guy who co-sponsored the Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act of 2017.”

The other day, Nunes seemed to excuse Trump’s incitement of the crowd that stormed the U.S. Capitol and killed Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. “Look,” he told Sean Hannity, “the president makes a lot of mistakes. All presidents make mistakes.”

Nunes’ unhinged performance during the House’s first impeachment inquiry in 2019 should go down as one of the most bizarre political displays of all time. He showed no interest in Trump’s alleged crimes but continually tried to drag an unknown Democratic National Committee operative named Alexandra Chalupa into the proceedings by implying with absolutely no proof that she’d sabotaged Trump’s 2016 campaign.

He and his colleagues, including most notably his fellow medalist Jordan, tried to out the anonymous whistleblower who first raised concerns about Trump’s phone call with the new president of Ukraine. That was, of course, the call during which Trump asked Volodymyr Zelensky, who wanted Trump to allow the release of nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine, to “do us a favor though” and dig up dirt on Joe Biden.

Trump himself, you’ll recall, had already endangered the safety of the unnamed whistleblower by accusing him of treason. During the impeachment inquiry, Nunes repeatedly tried to get witnesses like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman to reveal the identity of the whistleblower, a CIA officer who was detailed to the White House.

“It was shocking to see Devin Nunes receiving the medal for his work in the first impeachment and [Russian election interference] investigations,” said Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst who specializes in military and intelligence community whistleblowing for the Government Accountability Project. “How did I react? With a mixture of disgust and disappointment.”


In Trump’s first impeachment, McCullough said, “Republicans just abandoned the bipartisan tradition of whistleblower protection.”

And it hasn’t gotten any better.

In December, Foreign Policy magazine reported, Nunes blocked reforms to the Whistleblower Protection Act that would have strengthened those protections. Among other things, the reforms would have imposed criminal penalties on anyone who shares a whistleblower complaint with the target of an investigation without the whistleblower’s permission (as happened with the complaint about Trump’s Ukraine call), McCullough said.

“Supporting whistleblowers is supporting the safeguards that prevent our democracy from going off the rails,” McCullough added. “Opposing strengthening protections for whistleblowers is the same as opposing oversight. From a national security standpoint, that makes us all less safe.”

I would certainly not lump Nunes in with his fellow medalist Cosby, a serial assaulter of women. But no one should get a Medal of Freedom for assaulting the Constitution, either.