(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

President Trump is the rock tumbler of political rhetoric. Give him an argument to use against his political opponents and it gets thrown into his collection, dragged out and repurposed over and over until all of the nuance is worn down and all that remains is its indestructible core. Then that core pops up, over and over.

Twitter, of course, is to nuance-free nuggets of political rhetoric what a cardboard box is to a 10-year-old’s rock collection: The perfect showcase. So where Trump once would append “Sad!” to a tweet to let you know that he thought the preceding comment was sad, he will now often tack on one of his polished rocks, which, to the casual observer may be a bit baffling.

Allow us. We’ve done our best to pick out the little rhetorical nuggets Trump likes to cite the most and built them back out to add all of the context and nuance that’s been lost since Trump got hold of them. At the same time, we’ve identified the broad themes into which Trump’s use of these nuggets play.

“33,000 emails”

Example usage: “HillaryClinton can illegally get the questions to the Debate & delete 33,000 emails but my son Don is being scorned by the Fake News Media?” (July 16)

Theme: Someone else is the real criminal.

When Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state was revealed, she explained the process by which work-related emails were turned over to the government. Her lawyers went through the messages, determining that about half needed to be turned over to comply with public records laws. The rest, over 31,000 emails, were determined to be personal in nature and not turned over. The entire server was then erased to prevent the work and non-work emails from being accessed by someone who later came across the device.

It’s not clear where Trump gets “33,000” from. Since the first time he used that particular number came the day of his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016, though, it has inspired some conspiracy theories. Trump’s usage of that figure, wherever it came from, is to suggest an illegal attempt by Clinton to hide information from the government.

There’s no indication that’s the case. The FBI recovered some emails from her server’s hard drive, including 30 that looked like they might be work-related, but it’s not clear if those were ones that were already turned over.

“acid-washed” See bleached.

“Amazon Washington Post”

Example usage: “The #AmazonWashingtonPost, sometimes referred to as the guardian of Amazon not paying internet taxes (which they should) is FAKE NEWS!” (June 28)

Theme: The media is out to get me.

Trump’s frustration with The Post’s reporting began during the campaign. In December 2015, for reasons we don’t remember at the moment, he began to attack The Post through the lens of our owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who also acts as chief executive of Amazon.com. While Bezos personally owns The Post and Amazon is a publicly traded company, and are in whole separate, Trump has implied that our coverage is meant to somehow shield Amazon from paying or collecting taxes.

Which it does.


Example usage: “Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, ‘bleached’ emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared- & they talk about obstruction?” (June 15)

Theme: Someone else is the real criminal.

In order to prevent her emails from being read on devices that she’d retired, Clinton’s technology support team both deleted the files from the machines and used a tool called BleachBit to overwrite the portions of the disk where they’d been stored.

The way data storage works is that deleting a file doesn’t actually destroy it. It’s more akin to taking the number off a house and putting a “FREE” sign out front. Most of the data are still on the disk, but the system is informed it can use that space if needed. Since Clinton’s email server was used for State Department business, her team didn’t want anyone stumbling onto that leftover data, so tear down those houses completely (to extend the analogy).

It’s not really clear that Trump understands what BleachBit is. At times he’s called it an expensive process, which it isn’t: The software is free and open source. He refers to it as “bleaching” the system or even acid-washing it, which doesn’t make much sense on multiple levels, since bleach is a base, not an acid. Presumably he understands that this process doesn’t include actual bleach.

Trump’s implication in using this term? Clinton was trying to hide something.

[law-breaking by] Comey, James

Example usage: “James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media. That is so illegal!” (July 10)

Theme: Someone else is the real criminal.

Trump has recently taken to implying that the former director of the FBI he fired broke the law by asking a friend to leak a memo to the New York Times.

That assertion is based on an erroneous report from “Fox and Friends” that the show was forced to correct. There’s no indication that Comey leaked classified information; in fact, he testified under oath that he didn’t.

“failing New York Times”

Example usage: “Really disgusting that the failing New York Times allows dishonest writers to totally fabricate stories.” (Jan. 19, 2016)

Theme: The media is out to get me.

The president’s disparagement of the Times centers on its “failing” — that is, that it’s on the brink of collapse as a company.

As we’ve noted before, the Times’ stock has outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial index since Election Day. Given how often Trump cites the Dow’s performance as proof that he’s doing well in office, one would think that he’d appreciate the Times’ recent success.

As for the example above: There’s no evidence at all that the Times has allowed any fabricated story about Trump to run, much less encouraged it.

“fake news”

Example usage: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” (Feb. 17)

Theme: The media is out to get me.

Trump’s trying to brand the news media in the same way that he did Ted “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz or Jeb “Low-Energy” Bush. Why? So that he can pretend that coverage pointing out his administration’s stumbles is all incorrect.

News critical of Trump is “fake news.” News that compliments him gets a retweet.

[destroyed with a] hammer”

Example usage: “The polls are close so Crooked Hillary is getting out of bed and will campaign tomorrow.Why did she hammer 13 devices and acid-wash e-mails?” ()

Theme: Someone else is the real criminal.

Among the details reported about Clinton’s email usage was that devices that she’d retired were destroyed physically, including by smashing them with a hammer. Again, Trump is trying to imply the unusual extent to which Clinton was trying to cover her tracks. And, again, it’s not uncommon for devices that contained private information to have that information deleted, the disk’s data fully erased and for the device to then be destroyed. (Here’s a security firm suggesting precisely that, for example.)


Example usage: “The real story turns out to be SURVEILLANCE and LEAKING! Find the leakers.” (April 2)

Theme: Someone else is the real criminal.

When Trump isn’t blasting reports as “fake news,” he’s trying to argue that the process by which those stories came to light — sometimes through leaks from government officials — are the more important question. “The leaks” is Trump’s blanket term for “an effort by D.C. staffers to undercut his administration.”

Podesta, John

Example usage: “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!” (July 7)

Theme: Someone else is the real criminal.

One of Trump’s favorite rhetorical tactics is “whattaboutism,” raising the behavior of his opponents in an attempt to deflect criticism from his own actions.

John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, is one of the frequent targets of Trump’s whattabouting, in part because so much of the criticism of Trump’s campaign and administration has focused on his interactions with Russia. So, Trump will try to say that Podesta has business ties to Russia (because he sat on the board of a company with a Russian businessman) or that a firm he ran with his brother didn’t file proper disclosures for work linked to a Ukrainian political party tied to Russia. (That latter work was on behalf of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.)

Trump’s goal is to pick out a few tenuous links between Russia and Clinton as a way of excusing his own more robust interconnections with Russian actors. Podesta is well known to Trump’s base, of course, thanks to the emails stolen from him in 2016 that were then leaked by WikiLeaks.

“Obamacare is dead.”

Example usage: “I am very supportive of the Senate #HealthcareBill. Look forward to making it really special! Remember, ObamaCare is dead.” (June 22)

Theme: Obamacare is bad.

Trump’s negative descriptions of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) have been whittled down to this: Obamacare is dead.

Obamacare is not dead and, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, is currently stable. It’s worth noting that, as president, Trump could take actions that destabilize the Obamacare marketplace — not exactly pulling the plug on it, but refusing treatment enough that it could actually be at risk.


Example usage: “Why did the DNC REFUSE to turn over its Server to the FBI, and still hasn’t? It’s all a big Dem scam and excuse for losing the election!” (June 22)

Theme: Someone else is the real criminal / The media is out to get me.

When Trump talks about server, he’s either talking about Hillary Clinton’s email server (as in earlier examples) or the server used by the Democratic National Committee (as above).

Trump’s question about the DNC not turning over its server to the FBI is a distillation of a broader argument: Maybe Russia wasn’t behind the hacking, after all. When the DNC server was accessed in the summer of 2015 and spring of 2016, intelligence agencies have determined that hackers from the Russian government were involved. In fact, that was reported even before the DNC data was released publicly, based on analysis conducted for the DNC while the hackers were still active.

By focusing on the detail that the FBI didn’t itself examine the DNC server (the DNC says it wasn’t asked; the FBI says it was denied access), Trump hopes to cast doubt on the role of Russia in accessing the data on the server. If Russia wasn’t involved in that hack, then maybe Russia didn’t meddle in the election, the thinking seems to go — and therefore there was no collusion with the Trump campaign that could have happened anyway.

“uranium deal”

Example usage: “Why doesn’t Fake News talk about Podesta ties to Russia as covered by @FoxNews or money from Russia to Clinton — sale of Uranium?” (March 28)

Theme: Someone else is the real criminal.

We’ve fact-checked this before. In short, Trump is seizing on an allegation made early in the 2016 campaign that, as secretary of state, Clinton signed off on a deal that gave uranium to Russia in exchange for money.

We gave that claim four Pinocchios. She didn’t personally approve the deal made by a big donor to the Clinton Foundation, nor was the State Department the only group responsible for approval. That donor was one of the Foundation’s biggest partners, and donated most of his money before the 2008 election.

“witch hunt”

Example usage: “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history — led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA” (June 15)

Theme: The media is out to get me.

Trump dismisses the entire investigation into Russian meddling as a witch hunt, or hoax.

Here is our timeline of the revelations that have come to light so far about that meddling and the connections with members of Trump’s family and campaign that are being scrutinized.