King Henry II (1133 – 1189) had a falling out with the man he had appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. After a long string of disputes with the king, Becket had begun excommunicating politicians and clergy who were supporting the king. In a rage, Henry blurted out, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” (sometimes expressed as “turbulent priest” or “meddlesome priest“) Knights loyal to Henry took Henry’s words as an order to confront Becket. They caught up with Becket at Canterbury Cathedral and attacked and killed him. Henry’s words, intentional or not, were interpreted by his loyalists as an order to ‘get’ Becket. Since the tragedy of Becket, there have been those who use language that is ambiguous enough to provide the speaker with plausible deniability for any violence that follows. The speaker who uses ambiguous language may deny any invidious intent or claim that the comment was a mere joke.
Maine Senator Angus King asked former F.B.I. Director James Comey, “When a President of the United States in the Oval Office says something like ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or ‘would you,’ do you take that as a directive?” Comey replied, “Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”
Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen has said, “If anyone knows how Donald Trump speaks in code, it’s me.” Cohen likened the former president’s ambiguous way of speaking to a Mafia don, never making direct statements that could have repercussions later.
During the 2020 presidential debates, Donald Trump told extremists to “stand by.”
On January 6th, his demand to “fight like hell” was heard by those same extremists as a call to violence at the Capitol. The crowd threatened to hang Vice President Pence for not supporting Trump’s bogus election fraud claims. Daniel “D.J” Rodriguez, who attacked D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Mike Fanone, said,
“Trump called us. Trump called us to D.C… If he’s the commander in chief and the leader of our country, and he’s calling for help — I thought he was calling for help, I thought he was I thought we were doing the right thing.”Daniel “D.J.” Rodriguez
Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs wrote on Facebook,
“Trump said It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!!… He wants us to make it WILD that’s what he’s saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!!”Kelly Meggs
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said of Dr. Anthony Fauci, “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”
If harm comes to Dr. Fauci, no doubt De Santis will claim that he was misunderstood or just joking.
Thanks, and a tip of the hat to Tyler Merbler from the United States – DSC09156, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98780310 for the image.