UPDATED with reaction: In a surprise move that few people saw coming during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address, conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh was awarded the United States’ highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Almost every American family knows the pain when a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness,” Trump began. “Here tonight is a special man, beloved by millions of Americans, who just received a Stage 4 advanced cancer diagnosis. This is not good news, but what is good news is that he is the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet. Rush Limbaugh, thank you for your decades of tireless devotion to our country.”
The king of conservative talk, who a day earlier announced he has advanced lung cancer, rose and acknowledged the cheers. Then POTUS highlighted Limbaugh’s charity work as he made the unprecedented announcement in the House chambers:
“Rush, in recognition for all that you have done for our nation – the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity – I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving our country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Limbaugh appeared surprised by the announcement, despite news leaking earlier Tuesday that Trump was planning to give him the medal, and looked humbled as Melania Trump put it around his neck. Just then, someone in the chamber yelled, “Love you, Rush!”
Republicans and Democrats had starkly different reactions to the moment.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) told Deadline that Limbaugh is an “icon in the United States, and I think the major point here is that Rush Limbaugh was really symbolizing every patient, every family that is struggling with lung cancer and is getting that terrible diagnosis. It really is a call to Congress to set aside our differences in finding real solutions for new medicines.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) said it was “disgusting that he awarded the Medal of Freedom to a sexist, racist, homophobe. To give the highest civilian award to someone who has spewed vile, discriminatory, horrific, disgusting rhetoric on his air? What has Rush Limbaugh done except been divisive? He represents everything that is the opposite of what the Medal of Freedom should be awarded for.”
Limbaugh, 69, has hosted his controversial radio program since the 1980s and is known for floating conspiracy theories about Democrats, particularly former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Many Democrats in the House tonight clearly were upset by Trump’s decision to honor Limbaugh and chanted “no.” Republicans cheered.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.