The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

BleachBit typifies how Trump’s false claims enter GOP rhetoric unchecked

A tip: Don’t pour bleach on your computer, despite what Trump supporters say

Bleach. (Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post)

Before we begin, I have a challenge for you. I want you to switch from reading this article over to your email application. Once there, I want you to permanently destroy one email (doesn’t matter which) using bleach. Then, when you’re done, we’ll continue.

Did you do it? Did you destroy the email with bleach?

You didn’t? Why not? Because you can’t? Because the idea doesn’t make sense? Because emails are digital and not physical and therefore impervious to chemical destruction? Yeah, exactly.

And yet there is some portion of the American public that believes maybe this can happen — that somehow emails — or maybe hard drives? — can have bleach poured over them to destroy them. They believe that this is something Hillary Clinton did, in fact — because they have internalized one of the least credible claims made by Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election and, despite the ludicrousness of the idea, have never actually examined the viability of the idea. Trump said it, they believed it, and now — in the urgent rush to “What about the search of Trump’s home in Florida?” — they’re presenting this idea of destroying emails with acid or bleach as not only possible but a matter of fact.

There are perhaps few better examples of how confidence in claims made by Trump depends on his supporters refusing to consider them in any critical way, and how even his goofiest claims simply blend into an ecosystem that is by now optimized for defending and echoing what he says.

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What happened is this. In August 2016, the investigation into the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 had evolved into an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. Republicans, wringing as much from the probe as possible to hobble the Democratic nominee for president that year, were casting a wide net in trying to escalate the public’s sense of nefariousness about the private system.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) — who served as chairman of the select House committee investigating the attacks and is now a Fox News host — announced during an interview that when shutting down her system, Clinton’s team had deleted the emails contained on the server.

“And they didn’t just push the delete button; they had them deleted where even God can’t read them,” Gowdy said. “They were using something called BleachBit. You don’t use BleachBit for yoga emails or bridesmaids emails. When you’re using BleachBit, it is something you really do not want the world to see.”

Tech experts quickly weighed in. Often, deleting files from servers still leaves remnants of the information scattered around a hard drive. A software tool such as BleachBit ensures those remnants don’t remain — a useful measure to take when talking about emails that involved a senior administration official. (Copies of emails Clinton’s attorneys said were related to her official work had already been turned over to the government.)

The name “BleachBit” is meant to evoke the idea of using bleach to clean something thoroughly — in this case: bits, electronic data. But in short order, Trump began describing this security step involving free software as a literal use of bleach.

“After her private server was revealed last March, her staff deleted all the emails and wiped it clean using a software designed to prevent any recovery,” Trump said, reading from the teleprompter at a speech in Ohio. Then he started to riff: “She bleached her emails! Nobody even heard about it before, and nobody does it because it’s a very expensive process.” (Again, the software is free.) “But why do you acid-wash or bleach the emails? Nobody even heard of it before, very expensive. Just ask yourself.”

An inaccurate line of rhetoric was born. On Fox News, there were 21 mentions of BleachBit in the context of a server from August through November 2016. There were 24 mentions of “acid” in the context of a server — and 93 mentions of “bleach.”

Part of the issue was that the BleachBit story was followed closely by one describing how phones used by Clinton had been physically destroyed after she upgraded to new ones. Destroying a phone with a hammer (an effective way of preventing its data from being accessed, certainly) got muddled with the “acid-washing” into a broad sense that Clinton’s team had taken extraordinary steps to destroy evidence.

The frequency with which Trump made this claim about Clinton using bleach (which is not an acid) or acid to destroy her emails should not be underestimated. He did it a lot. And over time, the part about software being involved faded away.

  • Sept. 7, 2016: “Clinton’s team used a technology called BleachBit, which is basically acid. And this is going to acid wash her emails.”
  • Sept. 8: “Hillary Clinton’s staff deleted and digitally bleached — which is acid cleaned — her emails.”
  • Sept. 19: “Not only did she delete him, but she bleached them, something that most people have never even heard about.”
  • Sept. 29: “She deleted and bleached 33,000 emails after a congressional subpoena was issued.” (We fact-checked this at the time.)
  • Oct. 1: “33,000 emails deleted, bleached, acid-washed and then takes her phones and they hammer the hell out of them.”

And so on.

On Monday, the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, apparently to recover material that Trump took from the White House when he left office in January 2021. Immediately, the comparison to Clinton was drawn: She could destroy emails that the government wanted, but the FBI’s going to search Trump’s house?

And, sure enough, a number of Trump defenders trotted out the bleach/acid thing.

Fox News host Jesse Watters claimed that Clinton’s team “poured acid over 30,000 emails.” In fact: nope. A Breitbart guy claimed that Clinton “acid washed 33K emails.” Glenn Beck said that Clinton “acid washed hard drives.” A well-known right-wing writer insisted that “destroying 30K classified emails with a hammer and bleach doesn’t get your home searched.”

In the abstract, the distinction between deleting emails with BleachBit and destroying them with bleach (somehow) isn’t that important. The emails were destroyed.

But there are two important points here.

The first is that Trump’s (and Gowdy’s) claims about BleachBit were offered to insinuate a certain deviousness to Clinton’s actions that helped frame how the public viewed her email server. If the story had instead been that Clinton turned over relevant documents and then ensured that the emails sent and received couldn’t be retrieved from the server by any hacker or criminal — how her team described the action, with justification — the entire episode seems less sketchy. This is why the “bleaching” nonsense is being raised today! Trump’s allies want people to think that he simply had some boxes of mementos the FBI snatched away, while by contrast Clinton was lurking around in the shadows destroying evidence like a mobster.

The other important thing is that people still say this nonsense about acid-washing. Trump made this claim six years ago, and it was obviously false then. But because his statements are taken without skepticism and because his defenders are so habituated to defending him, even egregiously false claims simply become part of the narrative.

When the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search became public, Trump released a statement confirming it.

“Hillary Clinton was allowed to delete and acid wash 33,000 E-mails AFTER the were subpoenaed by Congress,” it read at one point.

In short order, Watters was miming exactly how that worked for his viewers.