Washington • President Donald Trump on Friday bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor on Sen. Orrin Hatch, gushing about the Utah Republican’s contributions to America during his 42 years in office.

Trump gave Hatch the Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony, calling him a “great friend of mine.”

“He liked me right from the beginning and therefore I like him,” Trump said, going off script as the audience laughed. “That’s the way it is. I’m not supposed to say it, but that’s the way life goes.”

It was fair payback for Hatch, who has showered Trump with praise — arguing he could be the best president ever — and stood by Trump’s actions and provocative rhetoric as a candidate and president.

The truth is, however, Hatch backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and then Sen. Marco Rubio in the Republican primaries before finally supporting Trump. Since the 2016 election, the two have developed a close alliance.

Hatch was one of seven awardees to earn the medal, including posthumous honors to legendary baseball star Babe Ruth, music icon Elvis Presley and the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.

President Donald Trump shakes hands as he awards Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Trump called them all “extraordinary Americans” and saluted their service to the country in handing out the medals that presidents have awarded for some five decades to luminaries of politics, justice, arts, sports and science. Two other Utahns have been honored with the medal: movie star and philanthropist Robert Redford and the late Gordon B. Hinckley, who at the time was president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Trump touted Hatch’s long service in office — he’s the longest-serving Republican senator in history — as the Utahn finishes out his final weeks before retirement.

“For the last 42 years, Senator Hatch has proudly represented the people of Utah, sponsoring more bills that have become law than any living legislator,” Trump said. “From rewriting our tax code to helping just hardworking Americans get through life to reshaping our courts to uphold the vision of our founders to protecting the religious freedom of all Americans, his achievements are too numerous to count. Senator Hatch is a true American statesman.”

Trump later draped the medal around the senator’s neck as the crowd, which included several Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices, as well as Hatch’s family, applauded.

Hatch later took a photo with several of the justices present — John Roberts, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh. He had participated in all of their confirmation hearings.

“The Medal of Freedom is an honor to me, to my family, and hopefully to the people of Utah who have given me this opportunity to serve them all of these years," Hatch said in a written statement. "Everything I’ve accomplished in the Senate has been with them in mind, and I’m grateful to the president for this recognition.”

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said the award was well-deserved for Hatch.

“Senator Hatch has played a critical role in not only shaping the future of Utah, but also improving the lives of thousands throughout the country,” Curtis said in a statement. “Whether it be his landmark achievements to protect others in the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or his unmatched dedication to filling the federal bench with the highest-quality judges, there is no doubt that our nation is a better place because of Senator Hatch’s years of public service.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also weighed in on Twitter, praising the senator.

“So wonderful to see @senorrinhatch presented with the Medal of Freedom in recognition of his many years of diligent service to the people of Utah and Americans everywhere,” Ryan wrote.