US President Joe Biden took pointed digs at election rival Donald Trump Friday as he awarded the country’s top civilian honour to Democratic allies, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Al Gore.

Biden said the veteran Pelosi had “defended democracy” during the January 6, 2021, assault on the US capitol by a mob of Trump supporters enraged by the Republican’s election loss a few weeks earlier.

Gore, meanwhile, was “amazing” for accepting his own disputed election loss to George W. Bush in 2000 for the sake of the country, Biden said, drawing a clear contrast to Trump’s refusal to accept defeat.

The comments came as 81-year-old Biden presented them with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House, whose political overtones were clear as the next US presidential election looms just six months away.

But the 19 winners also covered the fields of culture, activism and sport, including Oscar-winning Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh, Olympic swimming champion Katie Ledecky and, posthumously, a Black civil rights leader who was murdered in 1963.

Other prominent Democrats honored included former secretary of state John Kerry, 80, and former New York mayor and billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, 82.

Before placing the award around the neck of Pelosi, 84, Biden said that “history will remember Nancy as the greatest speaker of the House of Representatives.”

“On January 6, Nancy stood in the breach and defended democracy,” said Biden, who has repeatedly bashed Trump for what he says is the former president’s fueling of the Capitol assault.

Pelosi also led efforts to impeach Trump over the assault.

Biden then praised Gore, 76, who served as vice president to Bill Clinton and narrowly lost the 2000 election after a Supreme Court decision before going on to be a climate campaigner.

“After winning the popular vote, he accepted the outcome of a disputed presidential election for the sake of unity and trust in our institutions,” Biden said.

“That to me was amazing what you did Al — but I won’t go into that,” Biden said to laughter. He often uses a similar phrase to indicate that he is referring to Trump without naming him directly.

‘Exemplary contributions’

There was also a medal for Black Democratic congressman Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement in 2020 saved Biden’s flailing campaign by securing him the support of Black voters in the South Carolina primary.

The list wasn’t all political.

Yeoh, 61, who in 2023 became the first Asian woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “continues to shatter stereotypes and enrich American culture,” the White House said.

The medal was awarded posthumously to civil rights activist Medgar Evers, whose notorious murder six decades ago shaped the US struggle for racial equality.

Evers, 37, was gunned down in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963. A member of the Ku Klux Klan, Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted of his murder in 1994.

Evers’s widow Myrlie “continued the fight to seek justice and equality in his name” long after his death, the White House said.

Also honoured posthumously was US athlete Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal in 1912. He died in 1953.

Ledecky is already a seven-time Olympic gold medalist and is expected to contend at the Paris Games this summer.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom honours people who have made “exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavours.”

Biden himself received the Medal of Freedom days before Trump entered the White House in January 2017 — with then-president Barack Obama famously surprising his tearful vice president with the award.