Get the Think newsletter.
 / Updated 
By Robert Schlesinger

UPDATE: The Washington Post reported on January 31, 2019 that the Adelsons additionally gave $500,000 to a legal fund for Trump aides on October 1, 2018.

Freedom may be priceless, but the Presidential Medal of Freedom may have a price tag: $133 million. That’s how much Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, the Republican megadonors, ponied up to President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign ($20 million) and to Republican and conservative groups and candidates in the 2018 election cycle ($113 million).

The Medal of Freedom is America’s highest civilian honor and has been awarded to a who’s who list of cultural icons, athletes and elder statesmen. This year, that list includes the likes of Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth and Sen. Orrin Hatch. The fact Miriam Adelson has also made the cut, however, perfectly captures the crassly transactional nature of Donald Trump and his presidency.

Because despite whatever adulatory nonsense Trump conjures about Adelson (the White House press release notes her financial support of medical research and Jewish causes), the $133 million elephant in the room is going to make Friday’s ceremony feel very crowded indeed.

Despite whatever adulatory nonsense Trump conjures about Adelson, the $133 million dollar elephant in the room is going to make Friday’s ceremony feel very crowded.

This was of course not what President John F. Kennedy envisioned when he re-established the honor with a 1963 executive order. President Harry Truman had originally created a version of the medal in 1945 for civilians who had distinguished themselves during the war years. Kennedy revived and expanded the honor, broadening its scope to include cultural achievement.

This isn’t surprising: Kennedy had a keen sense of the importance of the arts in the life of a nation. “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts,” he wrote to the publisher of Musical America in 1960. “The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci, the age of Elizabeth also the age of Shakespeare.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Trump to invoke Pericles, de Medici or da Vinci. (Da Vinci was a loser. My code is a much, much better code.) While he might view his own ascension from reality TV entertainer as the apotheosis of the nexus between the arts and public life, he brings a meaner sensibility to the job than JFK. Kennedy sought high-mindedness; Trump races to the bottom and the bottom line.

One way Trump’s persona expresses itself is in the cynical way he exercises his presidential prerogatives, often doling them out like so much swag. “Adelson’s medal reflects a growing pattern: one of Trump awarding a large majority of such medals and even pardons to supporters, to Republicans, and to recipients who fit his political agenda,” the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reported this week. “Of the 15 pardons/commutations and Medals of Freedom that Trump has given, nine have gone to such recipients. Of the 11 such awards given to living people, eight have been politically oriented.”

The recipients lined up for Friday’s ceremony are a mixed lot: Adelson will be joined by stalwart conservative Hatch, a Republican from Utah, as well as former professional football players Roger Staubach (a longstanding GOP donor, though he doesn’t register on the Adelsonian scale) and Alan Page. Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley and Antonin Scalia (which sounds like the start of a “walk into a bar” joke) will round out the group, posthumously.

But it’s Adelson’s inclusion which has gobsmacked so many. She and her husband aren’t simply GOP donors; they’re the gold standard. The only person who gave more money to Trump’s presidential run, according to the Center for Public Integrity, was the Donald himself. And the $113 million the couple contributed to the 2018 election cycle was as much as the next 11 biggest Republican donors gave, combined, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. It pays to play: Not only is Miriam Adelson getting the medal, but Trump personally lobbied Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sheldon Adelson’s behalf for a casino license.

Of course, none of this is a surprise. Trump has taken the hoary rhetoric of bringing a businessman’s sensibility to government to extremes.

Of course, none of this is a surprise. Trump has taken the hoary rhetoric of bringing a businessman’s sensibility to government to extremes. You can hear it in his ill-informed rants about trade deficits and the derision and venom which he heaps on military alliances like NATO as being a sucker deal for the U.S.

Fear,” Bob Woodward’s recent journey behind the scenes of the Trump White House, makes this point repeatedly as well. Trump boils the U.S. commitment to protecting South Korea down to a dollar figure, which doesn’t even come close to accounting for the economic and security benefits of our presence there. Woodward paraphrases former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s astonishment at Trump thusly: “The president was speaking as if the U.S. military was a mercenary force for hire.… As if there were no American interests in forging and keeping a peaceful world order, as if the American organizing principle was money.” At another moment, in relation to Libya, Trump raged. Woodward describes Trump’s view as: “The generals aren’t sufficiently focused on getting or making . They don’t understand what our objectives should be.”

Trump’s bottom-line mentality is perhaps most visible in the way he and his family line their own pockets, whether through foreign and domestic emoluments, favors from foreign governments and his other business entanglements with foreign countries like Saudi Arabia and China, the millions he reaps from tenants (including foreign governments), and so on. David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick catalogued the Trumpian abuses in The New York Times last month: “There’s a word for this,” the paper summarized: “corruption.”

Speaking of the arts center which would come to bear his name, John F. Kennedy said in 1962: “After the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” Except for Miriam Adelson, who will be remembered for her contributions to Donald Trump.