The medal is the highest civilian award — a companion to the better-known Medal of Honor for military valor — and Trump used the moment to lavish praise on Rivera, a Panamanian immigrant who rose to stardom in the Big Apple as, in the president’s words, “maybe the greatest pitcher of all time.” The president seemed at ease and steered clear of overt political references.
In all, the ceremony was the kind of feel-good, controversy-free photo op that is rare in the Trump era, and it represented something of a new model for this president to deal with athletes at a time when many — especially those who are racial minorities — have publicly boycotted the Trump White House and denounced his policies and rhetoric.
Rivera was the third former professional athlete to be awarded the Medal of Freedom in the past month, joining former National Basketball Association stars Bob Cousy and Jerry West. In May, Trump bestowed the honor on golfer Tiger Woods, an occasional business partner of the president.
Since Trump awarded his first batch of civilian medals in November to a group that included former National Football League greats Roger Staubach and Alan Page, seven of the 12 people who have received the award under Trump have been athletic heroes.
The president’s eagerness to honor ex-jocks was punctuated when he compared Rivera to another former Yankees star.
“This year, Mariano became the first player unanimously elected to the baseball Hall of Fame,” Trump read from his notes, before ad-libbing a question. “Out of curiosity, Babe Ruth was not unanimous?”
Trump had posthumously awarded Ruth the medal last year, presenting it to his grandson Thomas Stevens.
Trump is not the first president to recognize sports figures. Barack Obama, whose 123 awards were the most of any president, honored at least a dozen former professional athletes over eight years. But Trump is on pace to break that mark if he has a second term.
Christopher Devine, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton in Ohio who has studied the history of the Medal of Freedom, said Trump waited longer than other presidents to present his first batch of medals — more than 1½ years after taking office.
Since then, Trump has quickened his pace, Devine said, and he appears to favor feting individuals rather than groups, as Obama preferred, bestowing the honor one at a time.
The appeal for Trump, Devine suggested, is that “this is an event that he can control completely — it’s up to him to choose who to give it to. Trump is someone who has really emphasized winning, so he probably finds it empowering to stand side-by-side and honor winners.”
While the Pentagon submits nominations for the Medal of Honor, U.S. presidents have traditionally enjoyed complete discretion on the Medal of Freedom, which has taken on political overtones.
Past presidents have honored musicians, actors, politicians, scientists, authors, astronauts and even foreign leaders. Trump, like his predecessors, has honored some political allies, donors and supporters.
In that regard, Rivera, a co-chair of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, has close ties to Trump’s White House. In July, Rivera defended his support for the president after the Daily Beast published a lengthy, critical story accusing the former player of using his star power to promote Trump’s agenda.
“He was a friend of mine before he became president,” Rivera said in July during an appearance on “Fox & Friends.” “So because he’s president, I will turn my back on him? No. I respect him. I respect what he does, and I believe he’s doing the best for the United States of America.”
Like Woods, Rivera has had business ties to Trump. In 2014 and 2015, Rivera’s foundation hosted fundraiser golf tournaments at Trump’s course in Westchester County, N.Y., according to news reports and archived pages from the charity’s website. The charity said in tax filings that it spent a combined $368,375 on those tournaments but did not specify how much of that went to Trump. The tournament moved to another site in 2016.
Not all the athletes who have been honored have supported Trump’s policies. Page, who became the first black justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, had been critical of the president but said he would put politics aside to accept the honor.
Others have been more supportive. Cousy, the 91-year-old Boston Celtics legend, in his remarks at the White House called Trump “the most extraordinary president in my lifetime.” After public criticism, Cousy told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy that he had specifically used the word “extraordinary” to connote different meanings “in the mind of the beholder.”
On Monday, Trump reveled in Rivera’s exploits and highlighted his charitable foundation. But it was Rivera’s brief turn at the lectern that was more remarkable, as he brushed up, perhaps inadvertently, against politically sensitive boundaries.
Reflecting on his early days in the United States three decades ago, he spoke of feeling depressed because he did not speak English. It was only after two teammates helped him learn did his spirits improve and his career take off, Rivera said, standing next to a president who has pushed an immigration policy that would prioritize English proficiency for migrants seeking green cards.
“I’m proud to be an American,” said Rivera, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2015. The audience stood to applaud.
The president clapped, too, before departing the stage to the strains to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.