Andrew Harnik, Associated Press
President Donald Trump speaks during a Medal of Freedom ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Calling him a "great friend of mine," President Donald Trump on Friday awarded retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

"He liked me right from the beginning and therefore I like him. That helps. It’s the way it is. I guess I’m not supposed to say it but that's the way life works, right?" Trump said in introducing Hatch at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

Trump patted Hatch's shoulders after he placed the ribbon and medal around his neck. They then shared a handshake and an embrace.

Hatch said after the ceremony that he's grateful and humbled to receive the award, and happy that his wife, Elaine, and six children could be there with him.

"It’s an honor to me and I think an honor to Utah," Hatch said. "I think people in Utah have realized that Hatch is not just a politician or a just political figure. He’s somebody who really represents the state and represents our culture out there, and does it with kind of a verve."

Trump described Hatch as a "true American statesman."

"His achievements are too numerous to count," the president said.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, which “may be awarded by the president to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Trump noted that Hatch, R-Utah, has sponsored more bills that have become law than any living legislator during his 42 years in the Senate. Republican Sen.-elect Mitt Romney will replace Hatch in January.

The president recognized Hatch's work rewriting the tax code and helping "hard-working Americans get through life." He also lauded Hatch's efforts on "reshaping" federal courts and protecting religious freedom.

Hatch supported Trump early on and had continued to stand behind him.

"I like this president. He's a straightforward, straight-shooting guy. He gets himself in trouble once in a while, but his heart is a good heart," Hatch said. "He's done more in these two years that he's been president than any president in history."

Hatch said Trump "hates to see me go because a lot of what he's done, has been done with me."

Hatch joined retired NFL football star and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, and humanitarian Dr. Miriam Adelson in the White House ceremony to receive the honor. Trump also awarded the medal posthumously to Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Trump called all seven "extraordinary Americans."

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Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, congratulated Hatch in a statement, saying he has played a critical role in not only shaping the future of Utah, but improving thousands of lives around the country.

"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 Sen. Hatch’s years of public service," Curtis said.

Contributing: Ladd Egan