“I took it as a direction,” Comey said. “I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone saying, ‘I hope this.’ I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.”
Trump fired Comey last month amid an FBI probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. During Thursday’s testimony, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked Comey questions about what he assumed when Trump said to “hold back” on Flynn:
“You said [Trump] said, ‘I hope you will hold back on that.’ But 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?’ ”
King said: “I was just going to quote that in 1170 [of] Dec. 29 Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ And then the next day he was killed. Thomas A Becket. That’s exactly the same situation. We’re thinking along the same lines.”
The reference between Comey and King goes back to an outburst from King Henry II about the Archbishop of Canterbury. The story passed down through history is that Henry II, who was frustrated by Becket, cried out, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Becket was then murdered by four knights.
In his book “Medieval England 1042-1228,” historian Toby Purser of the University of Northampton writes that it’s unclear whether Henry II uttered those infamous words, but the king said something that set the knights off to Canterbury Cathedral to kill Becket.
“At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death,’ ” clerk of Cambridge Edward Grim is quoted as saying. Becket is now viewed as a saint and martyr by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.
Henry II had appointed Becket, his lord chancellor, to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking Becket would be more loyal to him than the pope. (At the time, the kingdom was still Catholic, and the archbishop was the leader of the church in England.) But the two faced off over church-state disagreements.
Becket fled into exile in France for several years before he returned to England in 1170. But he again fell out of the king’s favor, and on Dec. 29, 1170, he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. The king’s infamous lines are also in the 1964 drama “Becket,” which earned 12 Oscar nominations.
Becket’s long-standing influence continues today. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious freedom advocacy group, took its namesake from him, and several churches and schools are named after him in England. After his death, a shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became an important focus for pilgrimage, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” are based on tales pilgrims tell on the way to that cathedral.
Comey, who was a former Sunday school teacher at a United Methodist church, majored in chemistry and religion in college. His undergraduate thesis at the College of William & Mary compared two religious figures: Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of Liberty University, and 20th century Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and he reportedly created a Twitter handle named after the theologian.
During Comey’s testimony, he alluded to a saying also used by fellow Methodist Hillary Clinton: “Do that good as long as ever you can.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified which senator was involved in this exchange. It was Sen. Angus King. This piece has been updated.